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Organizing Schools Around Learning


People who haven’t hung around schools much might be puzzled by the essential argument that I am making in my new book, Schools That Succeed(opens in a new window), which is that schools should be organized in ways to ensure that all students learn a great deal. They might think: “They’re schools! What else would they be organized around?”

Yet many pressures pull schools away from a coherent set of organizational practices that enable high achievement. The most significant one is the traditional way schools have been organized around isolated, individual, and autonomous practice. To overcome the institutional inertia that accompanies autonomous practice requires a deep belief that all students are capable of achievement and an equally deep belief that it is the responsibility of adults in a school to ensure that they do.

This question of belief is key. I don’t think it is too much of a leap to say that teachers and other educators are more likely to think about how they need to change the way they work if they believe their students are capable of achieving. If they don’t believe it, they are more likely to simply keep going with what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that they’re not working hard. Most educators work hard. But if they don’t believe their students are capable of developing their abilities, they will be reluctant to go that extra distance to learn what more can be done and change what they are doing — and then keep changing in response to new students, new colleagues, new standards, new assessments, new content, new research, and new technologies in light of research and knowledge that has been developed by expert educators.

I am not saying that educators should jump on every bandwagon or “innovate” simply for the sake of innovation. But they need to keep the end result — student achievement — in mind and continually think about what else can help to reach it, setting up systems, monitoring, and adjusting.

This type of innovation is what I have seen in “unexpected schools,” which is what I call high-performing and rapidly improving schools that have large populations of students of color and students from low-income families.

I suspect that if educators can make schools work for children from low-income families and children of color, then they can make them work for all children. After all, unexpected schools have all kinds of strikes against them: They often have shamefully scarce resources and the low prestige that comes from serving the students they serve. And yet they have marshaled the collective power of schools as institutions in ways that make them enormously successful.

Educating all children is difficult work, and most schools don’t yet have the knowledge and expertise necessary. But that doesn’t mean the knowledge and expertise don’t exist. As Sergio Garcia says, “This isn’t rocket science. It’s doable.” He should know: He led Artesia High School — where most of the students come from low-income families and are Hispanic or African American — from being very low-performing 10 years ago to out-performing the state today. Just about all of his students graduate and go on to two- or four-year college. Garcia proves its doable. But it’s doable only if we pay great attention to what it takes to create and sustain these schools.

And it’s doable only if educators believe their students are capable of achievement and are willing to do the systematic, thoughtful, creative, and occasionally tedious work necessary to provide it.

To read more about how Artesia High School and other successful schools organize themselves around teaching and learning, see the just-published Schools That Succeed(opens in a new window) or any of the previous posts(opens in a new window) on unexpected schools.