Alchemy was the process studied during the Middle-Ages that combined chemistry, magic, and philosophy in an attempt to convert cheaper metals into gold or silver.
What does this have to do with school improvement?
Many schools have unsuccessfully attempted similar transformations on an educational level. Follow this Blog and find out how to improve schools, as I share 40 years worth of school leadership experience.
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Too many of our public
schools resemble cells, bells and cockle shells. Classrooms have generally
remained as organized and restrictive as cells in a prison, with a single guard
and two dozen inmates in each cell or enlarged cubicle. Bells determine movement
from room to room and/or subject to subject with uniform intervals of time
separating the segments. These class periods are usually the same length of
time that they were forty or fifty years ago, no matter the growth within the
knowledge of a discipline And the culture of schools are as tightly closed as
cockle shell clams, those small edible saltwater clams that live in sandy,
sheltered beaches, similar to the preferred environment of public schools.
How coincidental can it be
- That the size and shape of most classrooms are identical to those that were
built a hundred years ago? That the lessons are governed by the same 40-50
minute time frames as decades ago? (block scheduling produces the same number
of total minutes over the course of a semester/year) That the organizational
culture is altered only slightly from earlier constructs? All of this despite
the introduction of advanced technology, the growth of neuroscience research
findings, and the countless opportunities to re-design learning environments.
Some degree of the
stagnation or lack of creativity may be attributed to the firm grip of a
nostalgic population comprised of people (including legislators) who apply
their thirteen years of personal experience in public schools (thus qualifying
too many of them as “experts”) to shape and confine their vision of what a
public school is and can be. During a time of accelerated change in society and
many institutions, public schools offer a safe harbor to people who are
overwhelmed and threatened by change. It’s a lingering vestige to the “good old
days” that elude reality.
However, perhaps the most
significant culprit in the current state of public schools are those who govern
schooling at the federal and state levels. The mountain of accountability
measures introduced and mandated through legislation over the last dozen years
(albeit in the form of reform – No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top) have
promoted assessments that have borne a dependence on paper and paper,
fill-in-the-bubble answers. These types of tests diminish the importance of writing
and the creative process because such responses cannot be evaluated through
electronic scanning or cost too much in time and money for human analysis.
The emphasis on assessment
outcomes has unfortunately prompted schools to eliminate recess periods at the
elementary level and electives at the secondary level in an effort to increase “instructional
time” in the face of an economic climate that prevents districts from negotiating
longer school days. These responses are likely a “cut their nose off to spite
their face” reply to the pressure of increasing performance on high stakes
tests. Recess periods provide a potentially healthy opportunity for children as
well as a chance to engage in socialization. Both of these benefits are
important, but shouldn’t we consider the need for a respite in the day for
children subjected to the stress of heightened expectations? The decrease in
electives at the secondary level rob learners of creative outlets and exposure
to subjects that are often associated with increasing creativity and
expression. Together, these changes to the instructional landscape result in a
prioritization process that reduces classes to be categorized as either core or
The economic constraints
over the last several years have compelled districts to reduce staff and
programs, so this toxic combination often makes the decisions easier when
budgets must be decreased. What does such a ranking convey to those teachers
and learners involved in the “non-core” classes?
Elementary teachers are
faced with a crucial decision, especially when tests results are directly
related to teacher evaluation, in allocating time for subjects. Do I shave some
minutes off of those subjects that are not tested by the state (in New York, creative
writing, social studies and science) and devote that time to the pursuit of
improved performance in those subjects that are tested by the state?
What are the long term
That’s the lingering question
that begs a response from those imposing these mandates:
What are the long term outcomes?
Most of us recall the word
cockle shells from the children’s poem, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. Here’s an updated
version of another famous rhyme involving a different Mary. Mary had a Little Lamb. This poem is entitled, Mary the First Year Teacher.
Mary Had a Little
Mary was a First Year Teacher
Mary had a little lamb, Mary
was a first year teacher,
his fleece was white as snow,
her teaching was a show
And everywhere that Mary went, And
every day the kids in class
the lamb was sure to go.
were sure to learn
He followed her to school one day,
Her supervisor said one day,
which was against the rule,
she taught against the rule.
It made the children laugh and play The
children couldn’t laugh or play,
to see a lamb at school.
mattered in school
And so the teacher turned it out,
Despite Mary being much in doubt,
but still it lingered near,
losing her job was a fear.
And waited patiently about,
But, she wanted to shout about,
till Mary did appear.
the loss of what was dear.
"Why does the lamb love Mary so?"
“Why does teacher hate teaching so?”
the eager children cry.
the sad children did cry.
"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know."
“I hate the new mandates, you know”