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Posted at 3:26 PM ET, 10/ 4/2010

What public school teachers really need

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Dan Brown, a teacher at SEED Public Charter School in Washington D.C., which was featured in the movie “Waiting for Superman.” He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network and this appeared on his blog, “Get in the Fracas.”

By Dan Brown
Waiting for Superman [is now in theaters and] moviegoers everywhere will be transfixed by the emotional journeys of five families seeking a great education for their vulnerable kids. I saw the film twice this summer— opportunities I received because I teach at the SEED Public Charter School, one of the schools celebrated in the film.

The five students followed by Waiting for Superman all hope to get into charter schools, which admit by lottery. Not every kid gets what he or she wants; it’s heartbreaking.

When the lights come up, I think a lot of people will be flooded with feeling, but not sure how to take action. The end credits encourage viewers to sign up for a text message feed. The film also strongly insinuates that the public education system is utterly broken and the solutions are found in bolting the system to privately run, publicly funded, non-unionized charter schools.

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, holds up my school, SEED, as an exemplar of opportunity and success for educating at-risk youth, but really only portrays it through the admissions process. Teachers and classrooms aren’t spotlighted.

SEED, a tuition-free college-prep, five-day-a-week boarding school, located in Southeast Washington D.C., is an outstanding example of what charter schools are meant for; it’s an innovative alternative to a traditional public school and a place for responsibly experimenting with new models of wrap-around services. It currently serves around 325 students in Washington, D.C. and there’s a new SEED School in Baltimore that is several years away from growing to its full scale.

I love my job teaching English at SEED, and I receive the space and support to excel at it. So what makes it work? Many of the most important parts are replicable en masse in the public system:

Teachers are accountable without feeling terrorized.
My principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach observe my class, both formally and informally, multiple times throughout the year. They read my lesson plans every week. They monitor trends on my interim assessment data. They talk to my students and my students’ families. They are engaging, highly competent people with high expectations and backgrounds in the classroom. No SEED teacher ever feels that there is one test or one data point that could potentially destroy our careers.

Teachers feel ownership over our teaching.
If I can justify what the standards-based educational value of what I’m planning, my principal trusts me to do it. No scripted lesson plans. Order class sets of contemporary novels for literature units? Done. Help me set up partnerships with external organizations? Done with enthusiasm. (Through the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program, visiting authors come to my classes. Through the Shakespeare Theatre Company, my students study and perform a Shakespeare play under the tutelage of pros.) The opportunity to conceive and then actually follow through on bringing exciting ideas to life energizes me throughout the long haul of the school year.

The school helps us to become better teachers each year.
Last year, SEED— in partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality— offered the Take One! program for free to any interested teacher. Take One! is a warm-up for applying for National Board Certification, a truly rigorous and craft-elevating endeavor. I’m currently working towards full certification (which costs $2,500) and the school is happily paying for it.

They view it as an investment.

Two summers ago I attended a weeklong professional development workshop for new AP Literature teachers at Goucher College. It helped my practice tremendously—my students’ AP exam scores increased 36% the year after I took the workshop. It also cost about $1,100 dollars, which the school covered. Most SEED teachers have similar stories about transformational professional development, almost always subsidized by SEED.

My supervisors, colleagues and I are on the same team, and we need each other to succeed.

There’s a lot that many in the public system can learn from how SEED operates— but that doesn’t mean that SEED or other charters ought to supplant the entire system serving 50 million students.

Public schools badly need improvement. But to me, that doesn’t mean damning them to oblivion or running for the hills of privatization, away from the possibility of improving the existing infrastructure. Some charter schools — not all, many are disasters — can offer useful practices to share.

Waiting for Superman says that SEED has answers. I’ve listed here several on-the-ground good ones that policy makers and public school administrators ought to heed.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 4, 2010; 3:26 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  center for teaching quality, certified teachers, charter schools, dan brown, davis guggenheim, guest bloggers, school reform, seed charter, seed public charter school, seed school, superman, superman film, waiting for superman  
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Comments

I used to teach in a KIPP school and now I teach in a regular public school. Not everything from KIPP would work in a non-charter school, but I really wish my new school would adopt these 3 items!

Posted by: landerk1 | October 4, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

"political blogger Keli Goff penned a Huffington Post piece this week comparing American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten to Osama bin Laden. In "What Teachers' Unions, the Pope and Osama Bin Laden Have in Common," Goff wrote, "American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is about to join Osama bin Laden on the list of Most Despised People in America. And if even one tenth of Guggenheim's film is to be believed, then this distinction is well earned and well deserved.""

Posted by: edlharris | October 4, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

"Public schools badly need improvement."
Really?
Funny that public school test scores have been going up over the last 40 years.
Funny that charter schools are only better than public schools 17% of the time and over 30% of cases they are worse!
Quit repeating the conventional wisdom pimped out by your corporate overlords!
On another note:
How would your school do if you had to accept and keep everybody that could be pushed, pulled or dragged to school (by the county police no less)?
Get real.
You do not deal with reality at your charter...Yes, I know the kids are poor. But they and their parents choose to be there. And those that cannot, or will not cut it leave (back to the public schools).

Posted by: countbio | October 4, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Brown,

I enjoyed reading this and am quite happy to hear your school is so well run.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 4, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for telling it like it is. Most public school teachers in inner-city schools don't have enough books, chairs, tables, chalk, paper, etc. They are expected to turn straw into gold day after day. Why doesn't the media ever look into the role of administrators, many of whom are highly paid for doing next to nothing but waiting out the time until they can start receiving their bloated pension checks. You show me a troubled school with lousy teachers, and I'll show you a bad administrator. The principal sets the tone, hires the staff, and manages the budget. Let's start talking about administration, why don't we!

Posted by: Jennifer88 | October 4, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse


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Posted by: shankartripathi85 | October 5, 2010 5:06 AM | Report abuse

None of Dan Brown's suggestions work for a public school system that sees TFA recruits as the ultimate in "effective" teachers. The "reform" movement has no use for advanced certification, professional development or even adequate teacher training. Of course there are inner-city public school systems that value and promote professional teachers, even using teacher committees to develop curricula and standards. That is the formula in Richmond, Va., which outperforms Fairfax on the state SOLs. But no one is making a movie about that, and the media ignores the Richmond story. Is it because there the professional educators are successful, thus contradicting their biased perspective? Why not look at an entire urban school system that has been successful, rather than trying to draw ideas from tiny, non-replicable experiments.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 5, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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