Empowerment, Respect and Health

We've heard a lot lately about the need to revamp teaching. In short, the majority of the loudest voices have followed the line of more testing, more standardization, more accountability, and some call for more "non-education" control of education. Many have followed this with a demand for longer school days, more emphasis on standardized testing, less autonomy for school-based staff, and in general, less respect for teachers and the teaching profession.

What has been the end goal? To raise academic test scores. Well, forgive me for not jumping on the bandwagon of viewing schooling as only a glorified bubble test.

However, for those who do view education only through the myopic lens of the standardized test, here's another piece of evidence to show that -- even if you were only interested in raising test scores -- what is being proposed in disenfranchising schools and dis-empowering teachers may do more harm than good.

Manzanita SEED, a small, Spanish-English immersion elementary school in Oakland, was one of two schools in California to win the 2010 National Title I Distinguished School Award for raising test scores. Even though 85 percent of the school's students come from low-income families, and half enter kindergarten as English language learners, the school has been able to raise their academic results markedly since 2008 and are now well above the state's average.

As reported in the Oakland Tribune:

[Principal Katherine] Carter attributes the trend largely to an increasingly stable staff that works together closely. The teachers write their own curriculum, a flexibility granted by the school district when the school was designed.

Let's re-read this:

  • Stable staff
  • Working closely together
  • Writing their own curriculum
  • School flexibility

No mention of longer school days, no mention of teaching to the test, no mention of reduction of content down to only language arts and math, and no mention of mandated scripted-curriculum or district wide lesson plans. Why? Because they don't do it.

So what do they do? Reading their Approach to Learning gives us a clue:

Expeditionary Learning
Expeditionary learning emphasizes learning by doing, with a particular focus on character growth, teamwork, reflection, and literacy. Students study in-depth, rich topics, such as water quality or civil rights. These learning expeditions link academic content areas. Transformative learning occurs because skills and understandings are immediately needed and applied. As students become more invested in their work, the quality improves, their test scores rise, and disciplinary problems decease.

Family, School, and Community Integration
It takes a whole community to raise a child. SEED values this shared responsibly by including the whole community in our programs and being guided by the opinions and desires of the families we serve. In addition, our goal through local service-based activities is for students to become integrated and active members of their communities.

Language and Culture Focus
At SEED, we value and validate all of our students' home languages and cultures -- we are very diverse with more than eight languages spoken. Our dual language immersion program in Spanish and English is based on nationally recognized models and research. Schools in which students study academic content areas in two languages have been proven to increase academic achievement across content areas, as well as develop bilingualism and bi-literacy.

Manzanita SEED also has a strong focus on the health and well-being of their students (and families).

SEED provides a healthy, nourishing environment for every child to grow and develop strong roots in the major languages and cultures of our community. At SEED, children gain an understanding and respect of themselves, their community and the world.

They are also one of the few campuses in Oakland piloting a healthy eating and wellness program. This includes breakfast and lunch programs, a parent education group called Champions for Change, Harvest of the Month lesson plans, fresh fruits and veggies for the students during class and an on-site produce market.

As Zoe Mathews, the school's administrative assistant, states,

School is a place to learn, we want to teach our children healthy eating habits. The policy has been hard to get used to but, with the rising diabetes rates and newer health problems. I am committed to keeping junk food off our campus.

They have not improved test scores by disenfranchising staff ownership of the school. They have not adopted scripted-curriculum. They have not partaken in the reduction-method of educational content, focusing only on what would be tested. They have focused on empowerment, their community engagement and their students.

Maybe this story won't fit into the current shout-fest attacking teachers, their unions and the education profession in general, but it does continue to support what educators know and have continued to say for years -- teaching is an art, a skill. A true education is more than rote learning. A successful school is one that is embedded in the local community. Effective teaching is being able to adjust to suit students' needs. And, students need to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged in order to learn.