Before I started this blog, I wrote a column for the EWA newsletter, one of which suggested that you have to visit elementary schools to see how high schools got so bad—but that in the earlier grades, the dysfunction is harder to discern. Here is how I described the high school:
It was 9:30 in the morning, yet of the school’s 900 students, we saw no more than 15 in class. For every student in a classroom, we saw 10 in the hallway (and it was not passing time). In three of the four rooms with students in them, the kids sat at their desks—filling in worksheets, doing art projects, texting on contraband cell phones—and the teachers sat at their. No interaction.
In the fourth room, though, a teacher taught!
“What are the people in the picture wearing?” “Why do you think they were wearing their dress clothes?” “Where are they going?”
Granted, the conversation was at about a third-grade level. But such is the state of the school that that bit of instruction, complete with students’ eyes in textbooks, seemed like a minor miracle to us.
If that was a minor miracle, today I saw a major one. I toured Anacostia High School again, a year after the D.C. school system turned it over to outside management, which replaced most of the staff and has begun to build an entirely new culture (including a new name, Academies at Anacostia, if that matters). Yes, I saw two contraband cellphones. I saw two teachers clearly in over their heads, and some obnoxious sassing. But you know what else I saw? Hallways populated not by idle teenagers but by an awful lot of men in suits. Lots of teaching, and some of what looked to me like learning.
Students at desks! Teachers asking questions, and students answering them! You may criticize the methods, you may want to reserve judgment until you see data, and I understand that. But even the briefest of visits would show you that something important in that building has already been turned around. If you are a reporter in a district with schools on the block for turnaround, you’d better get in there fast before anything changes—so that you will be able to explain compellingly what happens when things do.