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The Battle for Room 314

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The Battle for Room 314

Ed Boland left a cushy job to teach in an urban school—Room 314 is an honest account of his, and the system’s, failures.

By Chris Borris

After spending 20 years at an education nonprofit, Ed Boland decided he wanted to be part of the ground force in New York City’s public schools. He took a job at one of the small, alternative schools that arose after the breakup of the city’s large, failing institutions. Boland wasn’t naïve, but neither did he expect the level of chaos and grinding lack of academic progress he came up against.

Q: What were some of the problems with the smaller schools?

A: Faculty knew students well and our grade team was well bonded. Yet my school had no real library, no AP classes, limited extracurriculars, and less-than-robust services for ELL and special ed students. By most measures, my small school was no more successful than the old-fashioned “failure factories.” Ultimately, schools are failing because there are high concentrations of deeply disadvantaged students. 

Q: Did “Union Street” in particular lack the discipline to help students succeed?

A: There was a culture of rigor among the teachers, but there wasn’t a highly unified or enforced discipline policy in place—and that really hurt us. There were other small schools that were far more successful in classroom management, and some that were even worse.

Q: Is part of the solution still to be found in smaller schools?

A: The higher graduation rate is promising, and research shows these settings are particularly helpful for African-American and Latino boys, but graduation rates don’t tell the whole story. I’m not convinced college readiness has improved dramatically, and that’s the far more important measure.

Q: Many urban schools are segregated. What’s the solution?

A: The key is to create more integrated and high-performing schools, instead of having families competing for the same few seats at desirable schools. It’s easier said than done, but there are some great models to follow. Hartford, Connecticut, is doing an excellent job of expanding the number of very integrated and sought-after schools. The Century Foundation just released a report this month profiling nearly 100 districts and charters in 32 states that are having success in diversifying schools along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Q: What can administrators do to stop good teachers from leaving high-needs schools?

A: Sixty-eight percent of new teachers leave New York City’s high-poverty schools within five years. We should support and better compensate teachers in these schools, and improve access to social services and supports for families. But ultimately we must create policies and programs that will result in fewer poor kids.

Q: Do teachers need a lot more classroom management training before leading a class?

A: Without a doubt! New teachers need a whole host of supports before, during, and after placement in schools, particularly at struggling, high-poverty schools. In my graduate education program, there was about one hour devoted to classroom management. Yet it is the one skill that every first-year teacher needs the most. Also, there was no quality control or guidance about finding great teachers to observe. Yes, there was mentoring in my school for first-year teachers, but it wasn’t well structured.

Q: You recount incidents when you really lose it with unruly kids. Is this helpful for an aspiring teacher to read? 

A: I can’t tell you the number of teachers who have reached out to me and said, “Thank you for being so honest about this because it happens to all of us.” My book is not a normative guide to teaching but an honest account of my rookie year. 

Q: What’s a fair way to evaluate teachers and schools?

A: The key is having multiple inputs. The idea that you would rely on standardized testing or just two formal evaluations by a principal is far too limited. That should be part of the equation, but let’s add assessments of students’ work, outside and peer evaluators, and parent and student surveys.

Q: What kinds of schools are most effective at addressing very high-needs kids?

A: I have been really impressed by many of the “second-chance” schools, with very small classes, social workers assigned to every student in small caseloads, and robust in-school social services.

Q: What is the most important thing government or the private sector could do to address failing schools?

A: Implementing a living wage would help stabilize families economically and reduce child poverty. But let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we should do any less within the four walls of the classroom. It is not an “either/or” proposition. We must do “both/and” to solve this problem.

Book Review

In his smart and darkly humorous new book, Ed Boland is disarmingly honest—even when it makes him look bad. While he’s been characterized by some as an unprepared dilettante dipping his toe into the troubled urban school waters only to quickly pull out (and with a book deal, no less), one never doubts his commitment to change things—he just can’t figure out how. This is less an indictment of individual schools or administrators as a critique of how we train and support teachers (or don’t) in failing schools. While arguing for more training and mentoring, he also rightly concludes that educators alone can’t solve the problems—it’s also an issue of poverty and government and the will of the citizenry.

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