Turns out our new superintendent was a troublemaker when he was in school. In a recent interview with Nancy Udell of Santa Fe Stories, Joel Boyd describes how he frequented the principal's office until his high school wrestling coach, of all people, helped him get on track. "He became engaged with my family," Boyd recalls. He took the time "to know each wrestler…to connect and make wrestling relevant for them." I was encouraged to hear this story, which seemed to indicate that Boyd would work to give our teachers and students the time and tools to build meaningful relationships.
Then I read his Transition Advisory Team's report. The bulk of the team's recommendations seem unlikely to foster positive student-teacher relationships. Some of them seem unlikely to foster any learning at all. Instead, the recommendations deal mostly with reorganizing the central office, and modifying and measuring student performance in math and reading.
An example: The team recommends that principals be trained to conduct "instructional rounds" to better "monitor" and observe their teachers at work. The basis of these observations, the team adds, is that "task predicts performance."
Yes, task can predict performance, especially among mice and pigeons, but post-Skinnerian researchers like Howard Gardner have made it clear that performance (read: performance on tests) does not predict understanding. It does not predict critical thinking or creativity or the desire to learn. And it certainly does not predict if our city's young people will enjoy learning relationships of the type that changed young Joel Boyd's life.
Boyd's team must be aware that research like this—which demonstrates the complexity of the learning process, the importance of relationship and the limitations of testing—flies in the face of most of their recommendations. But judging by their report, the team's more interested in results than research. They urge us to adopt the "aggressive and transparent accountability system" that they claim has improved student performance in districts across the nation—but neglect to mention that those "improvements" have, in too many cases, turned out to be the product not of hard-hitting reforms, but of data manipulation, adult cheating scandals, deflated standards and low-performing students being told to drop out.
Santa Fe's schools need to change, but we don't need a results-obsessed plan that has failed elsewhere. We need a plan based in researched success and tailored to the unique strengths and values of our community.
Boyd has asked for feedback, so here's mine: Get a second opinion. Convene a new advisory team, one that includes outside experts but also involves teachers, administrators and students; dropouts and graduates; local leaders, early childhood educators and teacher educators. This team should not ask how to improve student performance on exams, but explore simpler, more immediate questions: How do we get kids and teachers excited about learning? How do we get them to stay in school?
Such a team would undoubtedly offer very different recommendations. It might propose ideas like mentorship, student advisories and interest-based learning, which have driven graduation rates to 96 percent in Big Picture Learning schools nationwide. Ideas like the expansion of successful homegrown programs in arts and dance, in mariachi and traditional New Mexico crafts. Enhancement of counseling and support services, like the Harlem's Children's Zone, Inc. Quality early childhood education for all, à la Reggio Emilia. And following the Finnish model: more time and autonomy for teachers, and testing that's limited to a random, anonymous sample group, one day a year.
Ideas like these would engage students and teachers in deep learning, distinguish our district and create opportunities for meaningful relationships to flourish. Likely, they'd also help students improve academic performance—or at least get them interested enough to try.
Boyd strikes me as a sharp, energetic guy, willing to listen. The wrestling coach story shows his heart's in the right place. If a critical mass of us has reservations about his team's recommendations, we need to let him and our school board know. Forward them this column, and ask them to seek a second opinion on how to move our schools toward a brighter, more imaginative mañana.
A SFPS graduate and former local educator, Seth Biderman works with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what "school" could someday be.