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Teachers, not robots, create safe schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

During my career as an elementary school principal, I have met with many parents. By far the most frequent topic of discussion during these meetings has been the parents’ concern for the safety of their children during the course of the school day. I have always made it a point to quickly address the concerns of these parents. I understand that it is their right to expect that their children will be well taken care of when they are entrusted to our care.

As a principal, it was my responsibility to ensure that the overall environment of the school was calm and secure. To accomplish this, I established expectations, routines, and procedures for school safety including how children should:

  • enter and exit the school building,
  • move through the hallways,
  • use the restrooms,
  • eat in the lunchroom, and
  • play in the schoolyard.

I learned early on that doing this was only the beginning step in creating an excellent school climate. A much more important factor in creating a safe school was the establishment of a developmentally appropriate, purposeful, and engaging instructional environment for all students.

In the world of school, the real work of keeping students safe is the responsibility of the classroom teacher.

When every child is in a great classroom where his/her intellectual and emotional needs are met, the likelihood increases that all of the students in a school will feel productive and emotionally secure. Good teachers listen to what students communicate regarding their academic strengths and needs. Teachers then plan and implement a variety of diverse instructional activities that will serve every child in the classroom. In doing so, they create a safe learning environment, which reduces the likelihood that students will act out to mask possible feelings of embarrassment and frustration. It is the principal’s job to guide, mentor, and support teachers as they do this work.

One basic resource essential to this task is a well-thought-out and appropriately paced curriculum supported by a wide variety of high-quality instructional materials.

A good curriculum guide provides a road map for teachers regarding developmentally appropriate skills and concepts on which to focus throughout the school year. The School District of Philadelphia currently has in place a core curriculum and pacing guide that has proven to be a valuable resource. It has certainly contributed to the District’s continuing success at improving test scores over the last eight years.

For the upcoming 2010-2011 school year, the Empowerment Schools will not be able to use this proven resource. Superintendent Ackerman intends to change the core literacy instructional program in these schools.

McGraw Hill recently announced through a press release that the School District of Philadelphia has adopted two of its core literacy programs, Imagine It! and Glencoe Literature, “for use by thousands of K-8 students in the city’s Empowerment Schools.” My understanding is that teachers who will be implementing these new programs will be required to read word-for-word everything they say to their students from a scripted teacher’s manual. They will not be expected to deviate from the program even when they see it is not addressing the needs of their students.

During this past school year, more than half of the literacy instructional block in Empowerment Schools was slated for the mandated use of the SRA Corrective Reading Program. Like Imagine It! and Glencoe Literature, Corrective Reading is a scripted and managed reading program. Now in addition to using the Corrective Reading program, the Empowerment Schools will be required to use these new core literacy programs. Ackerman was quoted in the press release, issued by McGraw-Hill as saying:

“We’ve found that our students in these (empowerment) schools respond best to a highly structured curriculum that provides explicit direction and sets clear expectations. By introducing McGraw-Hill’s core literacy programs, we will build on our recent success and continue to enhance student achievement."

Ackerman offers no proof to support her assertion that rising test scores are evidence that the children in Empowerment Schools best respond to the types of scripted programs that she proposes for them. In fact, the data available concerning the performance of students in Empowerment Schools indicates that there is a wide range of differing needs and strengths among the students who attend these schools.

Perhaps a more prudent course of action would be to continue using programs and materials that enhance our teachers’ ability to effectively and strategically implement our current core instructional programs.

A tremendous amount of professional development time has been devoted to supporting teachers in the use of these materials to differentiate instruction. Their utilization is heavily woven into the School District’s curriculum planning and pacing guidelines. The extensive investment of money on these materials and the large amount of teacher time spent on learning how to use them should not be so quickly disregarded. Considering the consistent and steady rise in District test scores over the last eight years, it only makes sense to continue to use those programs that are apparently working well, particularly in Empowerment Schools.

When you disempower teachers by taking away their ability to make strategic instructional decisions, you disregard the needs of children they are charged to teach.

Children need to be surrounded by strong, intelligent, and courageous adults in order to feel safe. A teacher who is reduced to being a robotic script reader will not fulfill this need. This is not an approach to school reform that will support student learning, nor will it help to create safe school environments.

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