Brockton High becomes education success story

A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.

Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.

Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.

What makes Brockton High’s story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better…

The liberal side of the political spectrum – in America – is as guilty as the conservative side of accepting a maxim which has value within a single issue and trying to make it a magic bullet capable of resolving every question.

Small historical note. Brockton HS grew large for 2 reasons – 1 good, 1 bad. By accepting a large single district, it was easiest to inhibit tendencies of schools to form around racial and ethnic real estate boundaries. That’s the good part. By having an enormous pool of students to draw from, Brockton managed to dominate Massachusetts high school football the way it’s done in the Permian Basin in Texas. A truly crap accomplishment.

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students…

“Let me help you,” was a response committee members said they often offered to reluctant colleagues who argued that some requests were too difficult…

Brockton never fired large numbers of teachers, in contrast with current federal policy, which encourages failing schools to consider replacing at least half of all teachers to reinvigorate instruction…

Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract…

The school had an elaborate tracking system, for instance, that channeled students into one of five academic paths. It was largely eliminated because the “basic” courses set low expectations for poor-performing students.

The committee worked to boost the aspirations of students, 69 percent of whom qualify for free lunches because of their families’ low incomes. Teachers were urged to make sure students heard the phrase, “When you go to college …” in every class, every day…

Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions…

Dr. Ferguson…has visited Brockton intermittently and invited some of its faculty to the Harvard campus for interviews. The report he wrote with four other Harvard researchers includes an analysis of exemplary performance not only at Brockton, but also at 14 other schools in five states.

The report noted one characteristic shared by all: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

Brockton was by far the largest, but only five of the exemplary schools had fewer than 1,000 students, while six had more than 1,700 and two in Illinois had more than 3,000.

RTFA. A number of anecdotal examples of how this turnaround was accomplished.

I wish there was some examination of interrelationships between teachers and parents. The urban elementary school I attended was in a low-income neighborhood dominated by the few factories that provided most employment – like the rest of that city. The teachers came out on their own to found a parent-teachers association that met regularly to provide leadership to the community on education.

The city’s dropout rate was around 2% or less. Back then.

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