Transforming Schools in the Images of Children’s Potential: CTL 20th Anniversary Blog Series

This is one of a series of posts leading up to CTL’s 20th Anniversary forum and celebration, September 9th at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY.

By Dr. Patrick Michel, Superintendent of Salem City School District, New Jersey

Michel1Although many of the issues that cause and sustain achievement gaps are outside the scope of schools to attend to alone, (e.g., poverty, sexism, racism, income inequality, lack of upward social mobility), school administrators can still have a profound influence on the transformation of schools to better meet the needs of children. I respectfully submit to you, by its very definition, that the current crop of education reformations are not the same thing as transformation in schools, and that the factors that cause achievement gaps need transformational solutions, not reform (see link to AERA article: Transforming Schools). Webster’s Dictionary defines these two terms as such:

  1. Ref·or·ma·tion noun \ˌre-fər-ˈmā-shən\ The act or process of improving something or someone by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc. 
  1. Trans·for·ma·tion noun \ˌtran(t)s-fər-ˈmā-shən, -fȯr-\ A complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.

The former (reformation) suggests a simplistic and linear approach toward a prefabricated end.  The latter (transformation), while not exhaustive in its definition, suggests the organic development of something new and all together different.  School leadership that leads to the transformation of a school is much more difficult, messier, requires a great deal of skill, and is inherently more evolutionary and time consuming in its approach (Ronald Heifetz –Leadership without Easy Answers, 1998).

Perhaps that’s why some self-proclaimed education reformers, bureaucrats, and policy makers primarily utilize the notion of reforming education vs. transforming education.  Transformation requires a number of actions to occur simultaneously: improved teaching and learning, job-embedded professional development, hiring of staff with a shared philosophy, coordination of social service and/or child welfare agencies to improve the lives of children, an establishment and deepening of core beliefs around social justice, the development of mental models and images of effective educational practice, and the essential but delicate nature of building trust between and among stakeholders.

Notwithstanding, access to customized curricula and learning experiences for the unique groups of  students each school serves, remains at the heart of transformation of schools and improved learning outcomes.  One of the aspects of the transformational work occurring in Salem High School and throughout our district to bring about greater learning outcomes for students is creating more access to ‘high end’ rigorous programs and/or curriculum.  Through Michel2the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, along with increasing AP course offerings starting in the junior year, we have increased access and opportunities for Salem parents and students to take advantage of academic programming that is normally reserved for students who live in much more advantaged communities

To that end, on behalf of our communities, we are particularly proud of our IB program.  As the results from a recent longitudinal research study conducted by The University of Chicago titled, Working to My Potential concludes, students who completed the IB Diploma Programme in Chicago public schools experienced numerous benefits, including but not limited to: increased college readiness, higher GPA, and persistence in post-secondary pursuits.  In the case of Salem City High School, we removed all the prerequisite requirements generally associated with the IB program and allowed open enrollment to give our students maximum opportunity to access and experience high quality curricula.

As a society, it is no accident that we have students who live in communities of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.  The achievement profiles of schools in those towns follow a predictable pattern. For example, within my home state of New Jersey, we have a perfect 1 to 1 correlation between the wealth of the community and student achievement on mandated state tests at all grade levels. The fraudulent argument and supposition of many reformers is that the schools located in wealthier communities are simply “better schools” with “better teachers and better administrators” working in them.

I think we all know better than that (at least we should)! The toxic effects of poverty on learning have been known for decades. For some reformers, bureaucrats, and policy makers to ignore these effects is social injustice. Reformation allows important aspects to be ignored, but authentic transformation requires that all factors be addressed.  While we can mediate the impact of poverty and lack of access within our schools, our efforts to increase equity could be extended by having policymakers develop parallel initiatives in the larger community.  One example is making homeownership more accessible to a larger number of families currently living in poverty. The recent 2012 report, Social Benefits of Homeownership and Stable Housing published by the National Association of Realtors (Social Benefits of Homeownership) makes clear that the important areas of a student’s life; i.e., academic achievement,civic mindedness, overall health, lower crime rates, etc… all improve when parents or guardians are able to own their place of residence when compared to students whose parent(s) are only able to rent.  Working together at the micro and macro levels, in schools and in the larger society, we can make a difference for our students in their educational preparation for college, career and quality of life.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.-Albert Einstein

Visit our 20th Anniversary event page for other related blogs and information.

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