Schools or Teachers: Which are More Important?

If you want to understand the last ten years of education reform in America, imagine a pendulum.

At one extreme, labeled "schools," lie all the reform ideas focused on turning bad schools around. The pendulum swung to this extreme during George W. Bush's first term, when No Child Left Behind ordered states to punish failing schools, sometimes by firing all the teachers. The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, focused on school design, pumping millions of dollars into replacing big schools with small schools.

At the other extreme, labeled "teachers," lie all the reform efforts focused on "fixing" America's teachers. This extreme is where the pendulum is now headed. Successful reformers like Michelle Rhee have made teacher quality their primary goal, even as we've seen teacher's unions demonized across the country. The Gates Foundation quietly shifted its focus from small schools to teacher quality. Race to the Top, Obama's signature education initiative, focuses largely on teacher quality.

The pendulum's path has unearthed some great ideas, but it has two major flaws. One is that it tends to focus us on problems, not solutions. First "bad schools" were the problem; now it's "bad teachers." But have the bad schools gone away?

Beyond that, the pendulum's swing blinds us to the perennial secret of education: the best schools are strong communities of excellent teachers who put their students -- and their students' learning -- first. Great schools and great teachers are both crucial to great education.

Take for example, Brockton High, a large public high school near Boston. Ten years ago, Brockton High was failing. One third of its students dropped out, and three quarters of those remaining failed the state exams.

But instead of giving up, a handful of English teachers started meeting on Saturdays to brainstorm solutions. Their efforts led to a literacy initiative that eventually spread to the entire school and involved every teacher at Brockton -- including the gym coaches. A decade later, Brockton now scores in the top 10 percent of schools in the state -- incredible for a school where 69 percent of the students are classified as poor. The teacher who started the Saturday meetings is now the principal.

Brockton succeeded, I think, because they were able to pull the best ideas from both of the pendulum's extremes. On the one hand, they radically transformed their school's culture, and they did it without firing dozens of teachers -- only a handful of were fired in the process -- or by bringing in an outside management company. On the other, they not only held teachers (and, by extension, students) to higher standards, they gave them training and resources to help them meet those raised standards. Instead of focusing on punishment and blame, they coupled accountability with support.

Now that we're headed toward the teacher side of the pendulum, the story of Brockton reminds us of two crucial facts. One is that schools, not just teachers, are important. Even the best teachers can only do so much in a vacuum. Brockton wouldn't be a success story if those English teachers had only brainstormed about their classrooms, not about the school as a whole.

The other is that the way we approach instructional reform is essential. While some teachers probably need to find other jobs, turning all teachers into the bad guys doesn't help students. Often, like at Brockton, the most transformative reform is led by the teachers, not administrators. If we want teachers to get better at teaching, we need to both empower and support them. If we want them to be professional in their approach to teaching and learning, we need to treat them like professionals, and that includes professional-level salaries.

A decade ago, the pendulum focused us on schools but blinded us to the big picture. Now that it's headed in the other direction, let's not forget about schools and community, and let's also remember that teachers must be our allies, not our enemies, in the process of making schools better.