Today’s blog comes from Ron Towns, a 9th grade math teacher at Oakland Charter High School and GO Teacher Policy Fellow. Ron’s experience as an educator includes working in a Chicago Public School through four years of a district-supervised turnaround process. He reflects here on his observation of the process becoming corrupted and shares his hope that Oakland will do better.
When I applied for a job at a Chicago turnaround school, I thought, “wow, finally a district that is committed to reforming public schools”. In a political climate where too many urban districts turn to charter schools to “take over” district, public schools, I was very excited to find a district that was committed to improving its public schools.
I started the job in Chicago after my first year of teaching, which I had completed in Madrid, Spain. When I first arrived to Chicago, I was floored by the excitement and commitment of my colleagues. Not only had the district hired a top-notch principal, trained through the nationally-recognized New Leaders program, but had recruited over 100 staff members, including 80 teachers, a full counseling and student support staff, social workers, school psychologist, 3 attendance clerks, 3 deans, and close to 20 security guards as well. While we were great in number, more importantly, we had a huge amount of commitment to and love for our students and improving their educational experience.
And we did just that. From the first to second year of turnaround, school culture changed drastically. During our first year, students were oftentimes roaming the hallways during class and fights in classrooms were not uncommon. Indeed, I felt more like a classroom manager than an educator during my first year. On the first day of Year 2, however, things had changed. In fact, from my second to fourth year at the school, I was able to use my instruction to move students from being five to six grade levels behind a lot closer to grade level. As a math team, the team I led, we were able to: (a) vertically align our curriculum in accordance with Common Core; (b) dive into professional readings that discussed how to increase rigor in our classrooms; and (c) use lesson study and peer observation protocols in order to observe one another implement the instructional practices we had studied during professional development.
Despite our good work as a school, the district made it so difficult for us to continue it. After Year 1, the amount of funding that we received each year steadily declined. Unfortunately, the school is now in a position where they must choose between the reading intervention program and the extra school counselor. In addition to reductions in funding, more recent district mandates have pressured educators to teaching to the state test, a very low-level test that does not show whether or not students are college and/or career-ready. The district now micro-manages the school by requiring that all teachers do regular classroom assessments aligned to the state test. Unfortunately, this has moved instruction (and teachers) away from a focus on how to teach rigorously to how to teach skills in isolation so that students can improve on a high-stakes test. The result: after only six years of the turnaround effort, the majority of the staff has left. Next year, the majority of the administration and staff will most likely be in their first to third year at the school.
As Oakland seeks to “turnaround” 5 of its public schools, I encourage the district to think about how support for the educators in that building can be sustained over time. If Oakland is truly committed to its students and educators, then there will be no other option.