Across the country, education reform is drawing big ideas and big bucks from some big names.
Software maker-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates has invested $100 million into Hillsborough County schools through his foundation. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is helping Newark pay teachers for student performance. And Florida’s own former governor, Jeb Bush, is exporting policy pioneered here to other states.
But in a living room in Southwest Miami, teachers are coming up with their own ideas to fix schools in a low-key, low-cost way: a monthly book club, filled with nuanced discussion and passion. The members are retired instructors, current teachers, educators in administration, private school, charters, preschool and nonprofits. (Like many book clubs, the members rotate in and out, though a core cluster keeps showing up, book in hand.)
Since the summer, they have been reading one of the latest books on education reform. The book includes Miami-Dade as a case of how reform can fail despite a plan and good intentions. And they’re taking its title to heart: Renewal: Remaking America’s Schools for the Twenty-First Century.
Stephanie King, Florida’s teacher of the year in 2000, started the group with Chris Kirchner, who teaches English in a Miami-Dade mega-magnet. Both have worked in inner-city schools. They wanted to start the club when thinking about how to implement his work.
The club guidelines are simple: try to read the assigned chapter each month; review discussion prompts (yes, there’s homework); share ideas; and leave room for disagreement. Their goal: to discuss what needs to be fixed, what are the roadblocks and how to overcome them.
“We’re hoping to grow critical mass and by the end of this year of reflection, we will have some next steps,” King said at its December meeting.
They’re using Renewal as a starting point, but bring their own experiences to the talk, where they nosh on cookies and cheese and sip coffee. The group’s name has evolved — In My Living Room, Meeting of the Minds and the straight-forward Educators Book Talk.
In researching Renewal, author Harold Kwalwasser visited 40 schools in the country. In Miami-Dade, he held a focus group with several local teachers, some of whom started the book club. They call him “Hal” and plan to host him at a book talk in the new year.
The book offers Miami-Dade’s strategy for struggling schools under former schools chief Rudy Crew as a cautionary lesson for others. Crew put 39 poor-performing schools into what was called the “Zone.” The experiment had the looks of a winner: new Harvard-trained principals; bonuses to recruit new teachers; longer school days; lots of assessments for students and interventions for them.
But according to Kwalwasser, there was a lack of trust between administrators and teachers that led to a top-down implementation and ultimately doomed the experiment. Crew was later fired, the “Zone” was canceled and the final report showed test scores were no better in the “Zone” schools than at other campuses.
“The ultimate lesson learned is to remember you are dealing with people. It is not just what you want to do, but how you do it, that counts,” he wrote.
(Crew’s successor, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, has reorganized struggling schools under the Education Transformation Office, where they get data-driven reviews and support from groups like City Year and Teach for America. This year, Miami-Dade won the prestigious Broad Prize, in part because of that work.)
But in the book club — like in many South Florida classrooms — teachers know not all is rosy. At the December meeting, frustration bubbled up among the eight educators, who together had more than 200 years of experience, as they discussed Part IV about customers in the school system.
But they have more passion than frustration, and some themes for fixing schools have already emerged.
One: Change must be local.
King revisited the November discussion about how restaurants, like the Cheesecake Factory, replicate success —- the same menu and same service — at different locations. If eateries can do it, why not schools?
But she dug deeper into the comparison of food and schools and why U.S. agriculture is so productive.
“We do pay a lot of attention to all good science about husbandry — and what grows where — but I don’t try to replicate at a farm in Homestead what they’re doing in Seattle,” she noted. Others chimed in agreement — no apples in Homestead.
King continued: “I need to be local. I need to know what my soil is, what my weather is, what are the unique qualities of the living things I’m dealing with and I think school is the same way. And when I grow a really good crop one year, I don’t expect the same crop next year if the weather is different.”
“What she’s saying is there’s no one size fits all,” said Brad Sultz, a teacher at iPrep Academy, where online classes are mixed with traditional teaching.
Another theme for change from the bottom-up — not top-down — emerged in a tangent conversation. During the meeting, veteran instructors advised a younger member how to solve a problem at her school.
“Get subversive,” Kirchner said.
“Go bottom up,” added King. “You get a cadre of colleagues, you get together, you figure out what you want to do and you start doing it.”
To start, steal a page from a university professors’ playbook and find outside funding, like grants. “Once you get a grant, then what happens?” King asked.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” replied Ellen Kempler, the host of the meeting, a retired teacher now involved in a micro-lending group and whose curiosity is displayed in Mexican masks on her walls and books packed on shelves.
That may not solve all the problems at her school. But it helps, and is part of the book club’s goal.
“Part of this is to empower educators to stop waiting for others to solve their problems,” King said. “How we can do this ourselves and support each other.”