Collaboration not Competition

thLast week, state standardized test results were released in Tennessee for districts and schools. As usual, those results were met with a lot of chest pounding and a lot of teeth gnashing. Many people quickly focused on the results for the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD, in typical fashion, was out in front trumpeting their success in math and downplaying the drop in reading. Math teacher and blogger Gary Rubenstein’s analysis painted a more dismal picture, and a follow up article by Chalkbeat TN raised some further questions.

Of course, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had his own spin. I started diving into the numbers and sharpening my knives because few things make me happier than debunking Barbic’s myths. Two things quickly became apparent, though. First, I am not a numbers guy. I know people who can look at a spreadsheet and read it like a novel. That may be Andy Spears, but that’s not me. The second thing that became apparent was that this whole exercise – pouring over standardized test data for some kind of silver bullet – is stupid and pointless. .

Just take a look at the way that Barbic has been spending his days since test results have been released. It seem like he’s never off of social media, trying to convince people that his interpretation of the test results is more legitimate then the experts. It reminds of Richard Nixon in his final days trying to convince the people that he wasn’t a crook. Thank god Nixon didn’t have a Twitter account. Note to Barbic, if you are the only one who can accurately translate your data, it’s not good data. If you are using it to show how you are “beating” traditional schools, you are not using it correctly.

I have never been a fan of the whole education-as-a-competition meme. These numbers may contain important information about student learning and potentially could guide instruction, but they most certainly shouldn’t be used like sports scores. By allowing the reform movement to control the conversation, we have been hooked into a race to nowhere that shouldn’t even exist. Hey look! Williamson County Schools beat Metro Nashville Public Schools with their 59% proficient to Nashville’s 52% proficient! Let’s have a pep rally! I’m going to be honest – I find that repugnant. We don’t hold contests for who can breathe the most air, so why are we holding learning competitions?

While we are pouring through these scores declaring winners and losers, we lose sight that these numbers are attached to very real lives and have proven to be poor indicators of actual learning . Instead of allowing these numbers to dictate perceived worth, we should be using them to ascertain why certain demographics and districts perform better or worse and what we can do to utilize resources unilaterally to benefit all. Instead of providing slogans for realtors, perhaps we should be figuring out how to make all our schools better.

That might seem like a simple concept to grasp, but try bringing it up in a re-zoning meeting. I have recently, and it wasn’t pretty. I tried to explain to a group of parents in a wealthier school zone facing re-zoning that if the district utilized the chance to re-zone as an opportunity to equalize demographics and therefore equalize the challenges, then all schools would improve as a result. They were about as receptive as if I’d showed up to their school with a can of gasoline and a Zippo. The fact that if all schools in a cluster got stronger, then all property values in that cluster would rise as a result was completely lost on them. They couldn’t see past their own school zone.

It seems to me that we might be losing the forest by focusing on the trees. Instead of fighting against charter schools and other privatization efforts, what if we doubled down on making all public schools stronger? What if we stopped focusing on artificial lines, like zones and districts, and instead focused on making all schools better? Everybody talks about collaboration, but we only do it in our established circles. We need to think about breaking out of those established circles.

Last week, I had lunch with a friend who happens to be a school superintendent, and we were discussing different aspects of public education. He brought up our strict adherence to district lines and posed some questions: Why not have the IB school from one district collaborate with the IB school from an adjoining district? What if a school in one district had an exceptional chemistry department – would it not be beneficial if the best chemistry teachers from schools in adjoining districts met regularly at that school to collaborate? Why are we not taking advantage of our regional resources and instead hoarding our district resources?

It makes perfect sense to me. One of my favorite books is Friday Night Lights. It’s about a West Texas high school and their football team in the late 1980s. The author, H.G. Bissinger, recently revisited the school and its players 25 years later. One of the players, Brian Chavez, went on to graduate from Harvard. Per Bissinger, “Going to Harvard from Odessa was the cultural equivalent of the Pluto mission.” Chavez could handle the academic work, but it was the social aspect that caused problems. “I had those social barriers,” he says. “It was just a different world. I came from a public high school where football was king. The way my Harvard classmates grew up was totally different. They were geared to rule the world. They were geared to go to Harvard when they were in kindergarten.”

I can’t help but believe that this is not an isolated issue. But what if, through inter-district collaboration, Chavez had gotten to spend time with his potential future classmates while still in high school? To relate it to Middle Tennessee, what if advanced engineering students from culturally-diverse Overton High School in Davidson County met weekly with advanced engineering students from Centennial High School in Williamson County, which has a wealthier but less diverse demographic. The benefits, both academically and culturally, for the two schools could be huge. Such a collaboration could better prepare students from both schools for success in college and careers.

Maury County is currently implementing a plan to show the overall economic value to a community when it commits to a focus on education. This is a laudable idea, and they should be celebrated for undertaking it. However, what if you branched that out to include five surrounding counties? What if all those surrounding counties worked together to demonstrate their commitment to improving education through increased funding and increased promotion for not just one district but the entire region?  How attractive would the whole region become to potential employers versus just one county? Imagine the impact that would have on the quality of life in those communities. That’s just one example of how we need to think bigger.

These are the kinds of questions we must challenge ourselves to ask. Instead of falling into the lure of competing against each other, we need to utilize the data to seize the opportunity to augment each others weaknesses and strengthen all our public schools. To challenge ourselves to find ways to break artificial barriers for the betterment of all kids – not just the ones who are geographically central to us. This is just one more area where community schools could provide the vehicle for this work. Take for example the work of the Dallas ISD and Southern Methodist University. By pulling together the local community, local non-profits, and a local university the Dallas Independent School District is trying to take the best qualities of all stakeholders and mold a better out come for all. It’s a collaboration that includes 16 public schools, a charter school, and a private school, and definitely bears watching.

This week I’ve been closely following a conference in New Orleans on the perils of education reform. New Orleans was supposed to be the method for breaking the existing model and bringing all stakeholders together to push the envelope for educational outcomes. Unfortunately, all it’s done is pit schools against each other and create another box that needs to be broken out of. In New Orleans parents and communities are isolated from their children’s schools. There is no elected board that is capable of holding individual schools accountable to the communities they serve. Instead a private board oversees each school, only regulated by the state. It is not an environment that fosters collaboration and in fact, does just the opposite, while failing to deliver dramatic improvement.

I think we need to define collaboration here as well. Despite what some may think, collaboration is not me telling you what I think are best practices and then expecting you to adopt them, whether they are borne out by research or not. It is, fostering an environment were all parties feel comfortable bringing their best ideas and their best research forth so that both parties can benefit. In true collaboration both parties ultimately make adjustments. We all say we love collaboration, but very few of us want to actually practice it.

Charter schools were supposed to be the key to improving schools through collaboration. They were supposed to be labs where strategies could be tested and then spread back to public schools. The truth, is our public schools are doing every bit as much innovation as any charter school. It’s time to seize on that and succeed where charters have failed by spreading that innovation. Take, for example, the commitment to project-based learning (PBL) and the Nashville Zoo partnership at Croft Middle School. How is Rocketship’s “flexible classroom” possibly more innovative? What if we took what Croft is doing and paired them with a Wilson County school that had an agriculture program? I firmly believe that the results for students would be much greater than those generated by longer school days, intensive test prep, and zero tolerance discipline policies. Kentucky certainly believes so, they are now recognizing project based learning as a legitimate turnaround strategy and investing in it.

Technology has erased so many physical and geographical borders, but mentally we still keep them propped up. I think it’s high time we challenge each other to tear them down. We need to stop competing against each other, but rather work together to the benefit of all. By improving Public Education for everyone, we make privatization look a whole lot less attractive for anyone.

Take the test scores for what they are and leave the reducing of children to data points to the so-called reformers who have evolved into the status quo. Let others others engage in spin while we try to find even more ways to open even more doors and expand even more minds. It’s time to stop thinking about neighboring zones and districts as competitors and realize that they are potential allies. That’s the other thing that New Orleans demonstrates – we need as many allies as possible.

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