I asked readers how to fix Coolidge High. They quickly filled my e-mail basket with suggestions. Interestingly, this varied group of people agreed on so many points I can summarize their recipe for turning around Coolidge — and schools like it — in just seven steps:
1. Train teachers better. Greg Prudich, president of the Mercer County (W.Va.) Board of Education, said training must be “intense, disciplined, research-based, and result-directed. Require it, and a lot of it. We do a lot of teacher training, and it does benefit everyone.” But it has to fit with whatever the individual school is doing, and include follow-up sessions by the trainer and the principal. Too many school districts schedule big training sessions that are little more than the fad of the month, delivered by a high-priced speaker. Susan Sandler, president of the Justice Matters Institute in San Francisco, notes her group and others have just produced a study, “High Schools for Equity,” focusing on five urban public high schools that are having success. The study was conducted by Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University and recommends more investment in teacher preparation and development.
2. Let principals hire and fire staff. One math teacher at another D.C. high school said, “Principals need the ability to clean house and hire teachers that will continually strive for progress and not give up hope on our children.” Barry Fitzpatrick, principal of Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, said, “It seems to me this would allow for the creation of a motivated core of teachers.” I have examined closely some charter high schools that are raising student achievement in low-income neighborhoods. Their ability to recruit the best teachers they can find, and dismiss those who are not productive, is among their greatest advantages over schools like Coolidge.
3. Remove disruptive students. This seems obvious to many readers. One reader who favors giving good, serious students their own classes acknowledged the idea has a significant flaw. This reader, with 34 years of experience in urban public education, said: “The most common argument against my proposal was always, ‘Would YOU want to work in the place where the OTHER students were grouped?’ ” The reader said: “I would be willing to work in both. Both groups of students are important and valuable, but they cannot be approached in the same manner.” A Montgomery County teacher who specializes in helping disruptive and at-risk youth had three practical solutions for dealing with such students: Get them into more extracurricular activities, upgrade cafeteria food and require school uniforms. Several readers said that was fine, but if troubled students interfered with the learning of conscientious kids, they had to be put somewhere else.