Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

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Glass Ceilings

I’ve mentioned before: Glass Ceilings is my favourite education read so far this year. And that’s not because I agree with every page, because I don’t. The book is inspiring and thought-provoking in equal measure.

When I started teaching, a film came out called Waiting for Superman. Again, I don’t agree with everything in it – but I still think it is a superb documentary. Both that film and this book showcase American charter schools, fighting against unthinkable odds to send children from the poorest backgrounds to the best universities. In 2013, I got to visit Chicago and see some of these charter schools in action, and it profoundly changed what I believed was possible in education. I had always said: ‘all children can go to university,’ but I would never have had the gumption to say, as a classroom teacher, leader, or (I hope eventually) headteacher, ‘all these children in front of me now will go to university.’

The charter schools forge the path for us: they are beacons of hope, and reminders that we could and should do better. I’m not aware of a UK school serving a deprived community that has yet managed to admit 100% of its pupils to a university, and yet schools like this do exist stateside. Statistically speaking, they are vanishingly rare, and yet their very existence should shock us into believing that we can do better.

What Hall’s book does so beautifully is to look at what those schools are doing, and what we can learn from them. An interesting early thread for Hall is how traditional the teaching was when he visited the charter schools: he reports being shocked by the ‘didactic’ focus, along with the ‘amazing gains in outcomes.’ Interesting, when I visited charter schools – though I was fully mired in progressive practices myself – the classrooms simply seemed normal to me. I think the length of my teaching experience (then just 2 years) was outweighed by my own fortunate experience as a student in a traditional private school.

Hall’s take-aways from these visits, and his application of these to his own British context, makes for helpful reading: he saw relationships forming the cornerstone of strong behaviour systems, a whole-school insistence on ‘whole sentence answers’ supporting literacy, and, after meeting Rafe Esquith, a belief that what all children need is a ‘content-rich knowledge based curriculum.’ Hall’s personal story is told in a compelling narrative, oozing humility as it inspires.

But what this book really made me think of was that education is, in the end, about our values. After I finished this book, I revisited and edited some of the things I had written when I first became a senior leader in a school. They were my core mantras for children, and core mantras for staff. These are my values, and the values I would love the people I work with and work for to share.

For children:

  1. Education changes your destiny.
  2. Discipline now means freedom later in life.
  3. The more effort you put in, the more you will get.
  4. Politeness gets you where you want to go.

And for teachers:

  1. Children rise (or fall) to our expectations.
  2. Powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. All children are essentially good – it’s their behaviour that sometimes is not.
  4. Tough standards for kids are loving.
  5. Success motivates.
  6. All kids can do all things.

And number six is really the core of it all. I couldn’t count the number of times Hall referred to the belief in all children to do all things. And that really made me think: do I still believe this? And does every teacher in my school believe this?

Because over time, this driving belief that all children can achieve academically is being gradually eroded. The more time I spend with the ‘edge-case’ children, the more children I see being excluded from schools, or simply refusing to attend school at all, the more children aged fifteen and sixteen I see who can barely write even one coherent sentence, the more I start to think: is it possible?

And yet we have to believe. Perhaps the key is wilful belief, against the evidence. Meeting up with a colleague recently, we argued about the extent to which a child’s genes determined their ability. When it came down to it, I said, it didn’t matter what evidence my colleague had – I just could not believe it and still do a good job. Perhaps we have to believe against all evidence to the contrary that it is possible.

Then what do we do? Working it out – that’s the hard part. But it has to start with belief.