In a front-page story today, the New York Times singles out Brockton High School as a model of academic achievement in a diverse, urban setting. Plus, with its 4100 students, Brockton cuts against the prevailing wisdom in the field of education that smaller is better. It also shows how public schools are capable of significantly raising the performance of their students without any magical formulas or prescriptions – but through good old fashioned hard work and cooperation.
The story begins in 1993 with advent of education reform in Massachusetts. With passing scores on the MCAS test looming as a future graduation requirement, teachers – not administrators – at Brockton High sensed the looming disaster as up to one-third of the school’s students would fail to graduate. A small group of teachers began meeting voluntarily on Saturdays to chart out a turnaround strategy. They settled on emphasizing the basics: reading, writing and reasoning; and got the school’s administration and most of the faculty to buy-in to an approach that required every staff member – from English teachers to gym teachers to guidance counselors – to integrate instruction in those areas into the daily lives of the students. The results have been remarkable.
Here are a couple of key passages from the article:
Brockton never fired large numbers of teachers, in contrast with current federal policy, which encourages failing schools to consider replacing at least half of all teachers to reinvigorate instruction . . .
Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts in many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
And the school’s diversity and size, which many on the outside would automatically consider detriments, are seen by those at the school as part of its strengths:
Many students consider the school’s size — as big as many small colleges — and its diverse student body (mostly minority), to be points in its favor, rather than problems.
“You meet a new person every day,” said Johanne Alexandre, a senior whose mother is Haitian. “Somebody with a new story, a new culture. I have Pakistani friends, Brazilians, Haitians, Asians, Cape Verdeans. There are Africans, Guatemalans.”
“There’s a couple of Americans, too!” Tercia Mota, a senior born in Brazil, offered. “But there aren’t cliques. Take a look at the lunch table.”
“You can’t say, those are the jocks, those are the preppy cheerleaders, those are the geeks,” Ms. Mota said. “Everything is blended, everybody’s friends with everyone.”
It’s all pretty compelling evidence that charter schools, vouchers, wholesale firing of staff aren’t solutions to the problem of lagging academic achievement. The solution lies in a unified vision for the school that is implemented by a fully engaged group of teachers, administrators and parents.