Friday, May 25, 2012

On Miracle Schools: An Alternative View

Posted By on Fri, May 25, 2012 at 11:26 AM

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We know how to send 100 percent or nearly 100 percent of high school graduates to college.

For starters, put them in private schools, charter schools, or public magnet schools with requirements to get in and stay in. That's how MUS and Nashville's top two public high schools do it. Small classes and a team of carefully selected motivated teachers and staff help. A savvy college guidance counselor or two helps a lot. Parent involvement is essential. A new building and corporate support help, but it can be done in an old building. A unique cultural or historical tie-in is a good building block, too.

I take NOTHING away from the work done by the students, staff and parents at any successful school. They have to execute and put in the time. I am glad such schools exist. But many of their positives cannot be replicated on a system wide scale or even on a smaller scale as easily as some would have us believe. It is naive and simplistic to suggest otherwise. The problem that no one in big urban school systems from Washington D.C. to Memphis to Los Angeles has an answer to is how to educate the masses.

We know how to educate a minority of the students in MCS with involved parents and stable homes whether they are at White Station or Central or John P. Freeman or Grahamwood or Snowden or Kingsbury or a charter school. It's the tens of thousands of others that are the problem.

Obviously, schools and individuals can learn from best practices and innovations. Morale matters. But the idea that a record of 100 percent of graduates going to college could be transposed to every city high school, or any Memphis public high school under the current structure, is naive. It implies that there is a "solution" that others are too dense or self serving or timid or influenced by unions to emulate it.

Some say "Why isn't this the role model for Memphis? Why not learn from something that clearly works?"

That is insulting to the teachers and administrators in the real world of non-selective schools.

The "solution" in the Nashville magnet school model applies a strict academic admissions test to everyone. Memphis, for various reasons, chose optional schools within schools except for John P. Freeman elementary. We can have this debate if the community is up for it.

The idea that teachers happily work longer hours without consequences is questionable at best. Last week I talked to one of my children's former high school science teachers, a veteran of MCS. He had six classes a day this year, up from five, with 180 students. He just shook his head when I asked how it went in lab. Imagine, he said, how much more difficult it is for his colleagues in English who have to read 150 or so compositions.

I am intimately aware of idealistic young teachers who have been driven to depression, guilt, and despair by the "no excuses" demands placed on them and the impossible difficulty of working under a microscope — make that many microscopes — in something that may well be broken beyond repair. The burnout rate is high. Some would tell them they just are not trying hard enough, or just don't have the vision.

And some would tell the members of the media who have covered education on a regular basis for years (and the current crisis for the last two years) but failed to see the light that they are naysayers or have no vision.

Maybe they're right. I think I will parachute into FedEx Forum and, without having to deal with the prickly personalities on the coaching staff and the team, prescribe that the Grizz simply "learn from" the Spurs. Then I will "fix" the Tiger football program by suggesting that it imitate Alabama's. What's so hard about this?

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