What Happens When Curriculum Drives Education Reform?

The Times has a great article this morning about the turnaround of Brockton High School, south of Boston. My boyfriend grew up in a neighboring town and we've visited Brockton, which is where his dad works as a lawyer. (Brockton is the county seat and home to the county courts.) It's an economically depressed post-industrial town with some grand old homes, but demographics more like a struggling urban neighborhood than like a suburb. There's a large Cape Verdean immigrant community and a growing African American population. About 20 percent of children are living below the poverty line. Two-thirds are elgibile for reduced-price or free lunch.

In other words, Brockton is like a lot of multi-ethnic towns on the East Coast that have seen brighter days economically. In Westchester, where I grew up, Yonkers and Mt. Vernon are good examples. And as in many of these places, Brockton's massive 4,000-student high school was a mess. Until a few years ago.

Sam Dillon reports on how Brockton High School went from a school where only a quarter of students passed state exams to one that ourperforms 90 percent of Massachussetts public schools in the language arts. Brockton could be termed a "turnaround school," yet its turnaround doesn't conform to the neat strategies encouraged by Arne Duncan's Department of Education. Brockton didn't become a charter school. A new principal didn't sweep in to enact reform. It wasn't split into several smaller "academies." There were no mass layoffs of teachers and the union was not considered an impediment to change. There were no changes in the way teachers are paid. The school wasn't shutdown and reopened.

Instead, motivated by tough new state graduation requirements, a committee of teachers came together to restructure Brockton's curriculum around reading and writing. Every course at the school–including gym, math, and science–was rejiggered to include writing, with intensive training for all teachers in how to teach and evaluate it. Student tracking was mostly eliminated; instead, all students were expected to perform at higher levels.

The reforms at Brockton High School were focused on curriculum and instruction, not management. The school now has to play catch up to raise its math scores to where its English scores are. But the good news is that Brockton has identified a reform model–teacher-led, focused on student learning–that really works for their community.

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