A Different Way to Run a School
It’s the end of the first semester of my work at Fancy International School (FIS). Aside from having a major creative project occupying all of my energy until just now, I’ve also been deliberately holding myself back from holding forth on how FIS compares to the educational system where I spent the first 15 years of my working life until I had gathered enough time and perspective to get some real sense of it. I think I have a bit of that now. Here’s what I’ve learned:
The main difference between my new school and the old one is how they are run.
Before I get accused of biting the hand that fed me (quite well!) for the first major section of my life as an educator, I want to be very clear that this is not a critique of the former place. Deer Park was a great place to teach kids science for a dozen years, and then administer 3/4’s of secondary STEM concerns for another two. I love that school system with genuine affection, and that hasn’t changed at all since I’ve come to FIS. The work that is done in the public schools of Deer Park, NY is useful, valuable, work, and it’s not my intent to rag on anyone who is engaged in it.
And all of that mentioned, the fact remains that any NYS public school district runs in a fundamentally different way than an international independent private school. This is not a function of anything at the district level except the obvious difference in the level of funding. Even in the still-highly-functioning Long Island suburban school systems, the amount of money available to fund schools is not what it is at a place like FIS (Somehow, I highly doubt that there’s a large number of Long Island taxpayers looking to double their school taxes to bring that funding into parity). But it’s too simplistic to say that the issue is solely one of means or even mostly of means. It’s much more one of freedom.
In retrospect, it is shocking how much of an effect the various NYS mandates have on the ability of educators to educate students and how those mandates are almost entirely negative in their impact on well-functioning schools. When you’re working in the system, you have some notion of this (particularly if you’re an administrator). But for me, at least, it wasn’t until I got outside of it that I really could understand the size of the impact that these things had on how education works. So much of what happens in an NY public school (again— systems that are among the most functional public schools in the entire USA), happens because various state-level authorities say that it has to. The genesis of these mandates, which are primarily to fix big problems in a small number of dysfunctional schools actually wind up causing problems when applied to the much larger number of functioning ones.
If you’re looking for examples, consider the amount of time and effort that a district like Deer Park spends on evaluating staff and administering state tests. I never did a rigorous calculation, but I am sure that when it’s all said and done, these two projects are among the most substantial ongoing, mandated concerns of the place. The cost in dollars is easily in the millions, the cost in labor is equally sizeable. And none of it really serves to do anything but allow the district to check various compliance boxes, and externally demonstrate something that is obvious to anyone who spends even a moment inside one of its schools: The staff is doing their best work for the kids in their charge. It’s a remarkable amount of work done for no particular educational benefit. And it’s done because it has to be.
Now contrast that with how these things are handled in the new place. Let’s start with observations. In my first semester, I’ve had four classroom “observations”: Two from my department chair, and two from instructional coaches. None of them were evaluative in nature. The Principal keeps telling me that he’ll pop in to see me whenever he has a moment. I know from talking to him that his observation will go into some sort of formalized record, but I also know that record is much less formal than even the state-mandated “informal” observation format that was used on (and later by) me during my time in Deer Park. Why are things so different? I think it’s mostly because the observation practices at FIS come from a stance of trust in the caliber of instruction being offered by teachers. They don’t come from a place of verifying that mandates are met. This is a difference, and it’s one that can exist because of how the place is run.
The difference is even more striking when testing is considered. FIS does administer AP Exams, and all subjects give common summative assessments for end-of-unit and end-of-semester exams, but these are as close as we come to standardized testing. Which means that there is a tremendous amount of freedom in testing practices. Is an assessment item crappy? Toss it. Who’s going to proctor and grade your exams? You are. Did a kid have a bad day and perform below their capability on an assessment? Discount it when determining the student’s grade. This is a level of freedom that teachers do not have when giving or grading an NYS Regents Exam. And it’s a level of freedom that makes all the difference for the quality and humanity of the education that a school can offer.
This is what I mean when I say that the main difference is in how the school runs. Freedom and its effects are potent tools in education. To be able to use them so much more in the new situation has allowed me to understand just how profoundly their absence was driving what school looked like in the old one. And once you see something like that, you really can’t unsee it. I think about how much fun my colleagues in the old job would have working in a system like FIS, and how awesome they would do in a place like this. It makes me smile, but it also makes me wonder what has happened in US public education that keeps it from being something like what I get to do here? Maybe, more than money, and societal shifts, and “kids these days,” and all of the other things that people point to when discussing the ills of American public schools, it’s the attitude of the system that keeps things in the state they are in. And if so, what prevents the system from changing its attitude?