Between my years as a classroom aide, a quasi-teacher, and at my prior school that went from dysfunctional to moderately operational, and now into a black hole I feel I have seen, experienced, and can pontificate on what makes school's functional, and what makes them dysfunctional. I've been pondering many of the root causes of failing schools and have come up with a list of basics, which if in place, can get a school into mediocrity. I will expound on these in greater detail in the future, but here is the short and sweet.
1. Teacher morale
The number one affect on a teacher's ability to perform their job with zeal and passion, is morale. As with all careers, happy employees equal productive employees. The number one effector of teacher morale is whether a teacher feels successful, and supported by administration, instead of on an island, persecuted or under siege. There is a reason most people leave the profession within 5 years (Teach For America included). We are professionals, respect our judgement.
2. Behavioral consequences
When a student is chronically tardy, habitually disruptive, disrespectful, breaks teacher's noses, or any other behavior within the student's ability to control, there is a clear due process based, non-confrontational consequence. When there is no structure, students exploit, and the teachers end up being put in the role of mentor, and enforcer, two that do not go together. Often, the enforcement is nonexistent and empty due to no support or system.
3. Academic consequences
If a student cannot complete grade level work, do not pressure teachers to pass on students to the next grade level. When teachers are partially evaluated on their fail rate, it sends the wrong message. Some teachers fail students because they expect grade level work, not last minute assignments. Standards based grading does precisely this. When students are graded on their ability to fulfill vague "standards" of education, they no longer have to be productive, except on a test. Other gimmicks like "No Ds" cause grade inflation and contribute to the growing problem of college remediation courses.
4. Community support
Do neighborhood kids go to neighborhood schools? School "choice" is leading to wage based segregation. Schools for poor kids, and those for the lucky. When communities quit disparaging their public education, and instead play a role in it, rising tides float all boats.
5. Administrative support
Career administrators, with strong classroom backgrounds who want to move from teacher to administrator in the same school should be courted, compensated, and rewarded. Recruit the best and brightest. When a district sets up a system of yes men/women, who expect an advancement every two or three years up the ladder, their is no commitment, investment, or relationship with staff, community, or school. Or better yet, eliminate most administrative positions and let the teachers run the show!
6. Parental support and accountability
We are not your babysitter. Give your contact info to the school. Feed them! Ask about their day, even if you work the night shift and just got home. Ask about their homework. Come in and meet their teachers. We often see them more than you, and a completely different side of them that you should be aware of. Oh yeah, when they don't have passing grades, send them to summer school.
7. K-8 preparation
8. High expectations
It never ceases to amaze me how low the expectations of rigor, effort, and skill the students are held to. Every year the students seem lower and lower. Systems should be put in place to correctly place teachers in their position of strength on a vertical alignment, so that freshman to senior teachers can communicate clearly, and share lessons and ideas, so that students are ready for each grade.
9. Teacher's contracts are honored
I am yet to work at a school where teacher contracts are honored, and the principal actively seeks counsel from teachers. When districts break our contract it tells us we don't matter, and that decision making will be top down, not with those who actually teach.
10. Monetary support
It took all semester to get the textbooks for my AP class. Enough said.
11. District interventions
This incorporates all that have been said above. Community and administrative support, accountability, summer schools, money, contracts, and ensuring students are prepared when entering a new level of K-12 education. If a student enters college and needs remediation, the school has not done an adequate job.
Although not perfect, this list does allow a school to move from dysfunctional to mediocrity. I plan to address each point in their own post. For the time being, it will allow my "disillusionment" stage to take more focus, and perhaps, some "rejuvenation."