ThinkTank prompts thoughts on education reform

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I’ve been chosen to participate in ThinkTank, a debate function on the Publicola website. Opposing editorials are posted each week on a topic selected by the editors, and then it’s off to the races as my fellow ‘Tankers and I contribute our own perspectives to the conversation.

Week three poses the question: Are Teachers Unions Blocking Education Reform in Olympia?

Here’s my post in it’s entirety. Click on the links above to read the original editorials, view the comments from my fellow writers, and provide your own reactions to what you’ve read.

I find this debate tiring. Let’s focus on what works.

Rather than jumping into Steve Mullin’s and Justin Fox-Bailey’s debate, I would like to tell a real life story about a little elementary school in Roxbury Massachusetts that is succeeding. It has come from the bottom to the top in nearly everything that matters. Kids are learning. They have a 97% attendance rate. Teachers line up to get to teach at the school. Kids take care of one another. Parents participate. The community supports the school. Kids are polite. They are loved.

This is what I would like to see in every one of our Seattle Public Schools.

Last year I toured Mason School which is located in an historically poor neighborhood of Boston. I met with the principal and with many teachers who told me why this school is different and why it is succeeding on so many fronts. I visited classrooms, I talked with Mason is in the Boston Public School District, and is a designated Pilot School. To become a Pilot School, a super majority of the school’s teachers who are unionized must commit to the decision. They vote.

If they vote affirmatively, the School District allows them to take full responsibility for five years for all decisions: Staffing. Budget. Scheduling. Governance. Curriculum and Instruction. All are under the authority of the principal and the governing board consisting of parents and teachers.

The Pilot School is reviewed by outside reviewers, and they must meet and exceed School District standards.

Here’s what I saw at Mason School. When the kids arrive first thing in the morning, they are greeted by the teachers and the principal at the front door. If someone is noticeably hurting, they are taken aside gently to find out what’s wrong. Something happen at home? Lose your lunch money? Forgot your homework? The problem is discussed respectfully and quietly.

In the classroom kids are taking care of one another. This is expected of everyone. I saw one kindergarten class where a girl with Down Syndrome was joined by two of her classmates to walk down the hall together. In a third grade class, a girl with significant vision impairment was learning Braille, as was another classmate sitting beside her so they could read together.

Outside in the playground, the kids played without slugging each other, and when it was time to go inside they lined up, being praised by the teacher for their “good lines.” They wore uniforms: khaki-colored pants and burgundy or white shirts.

The teachers are given great latitude to teach to their students’ needs. They work hard, are praised by the parents, and the teachers told me they were available after school and early morning to work with students and families – by choice.

Mason School has a great deal of support from local businesses and from surrounding universities too. Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Harvard Graduate School of Education, all are involved to provide support and information about best practices and learning opportunities.

So the results? Mason student test scores went from the bottom of the pack to around the 75% percentile in the district, a huge gain. There’s very little teacher turnover, and there’s a long waiting list of teachers who would like to transfer to Mason.

The teachers and principal told me they set the bar high for the kids and themselves, and every morning the entire school – students and teachers, repeat The Pledge.

I am a student seeking to be a scholar. The standard is excellence today and tomorrow. I am disciplined, focused, and on time. I am organized, respectful and responsible. I am on a mission to elevate myself, my community and humanity.

Rather than debating which teachers should be laid off or retained, why don’t we focus on what’s working and allow our local schools to replicate it?

I would like to see local schools – should they choose – follow the success of Mason. I would like to allow some strong experiments, where teachers have the ability to vote and where parents, teachers, and a strong principal choose their own staffing, budget, scheduling, governance, curriculum and instruction