Becoming a Great High School: Six Strategies and One Attitude that Make a Difference
By Tim R. Westerberg
Reviewed by Mary Tedrow, NBCT
High School English/journalism (N. Va.)
Becoming a Great High School: Six Strategies and One Attitude that Make a Difference is full of familiar information since, as a classroom teacher, I have been on the receiving end of many of the innovations cited by Tim Westerberg as means to move a high school from “good to great.”
Westerberg’s thin text (i.e., “a quick read for busy administrators”) outlines methods to change the attitude of the professionals in the building to a we-can-do-it mindset as the professional team moves schools from okay to wowser. Westerberg leans heavily on the business management text Good to Great that was making the rounds in my system in 2000. Westerberg’s text is essentially a roadmap for where to drive the building-level bus of reform, in Jim Collins' Good to Great terminology.
Citing Robert Marzano as the wellspring of his ideas, Westerberg employs another education buzz-term, the writing standards mnemonic 6+1, to outline what a school can and should do to move a high school to greatness: Follow the six strategies and couple them with a can-do attitude, the plus-one aspect of the formula.
Many of Marzano’s points are incorporated here: Too many standards are taught. Focus on the Power Standards. Administer frequent common formative assessments to assess student learning. Encourage collaborative work among the professionals to create standards of teaching and learning. Define rigorous teaching to encourage a culture of success and foster the mood that “what we do here is important” to the student body at large.
What about the elephant?
There is little to argue with in this text as it sets clear guidelines for professional improvement in a building where the success of each child is paramount — also my classroom goal. I agree we need alignment from top to bottom.
The book outlines the role of administrators in this framework. Rather than just read it, I can imagine an administrator referring to it from time to time to check in on where and how the strategizing is going.
I’ve no beef with the content.
I do have a beef with the elephant in the room.
Westerberg gives only a nod to the need for the professionalization of teachers in his afterward, where he references the work of the Center for Teaching Quality and its 2008 TeacherSolutions report about the teachers’ role in improving the nation’s schools (Measuring what Matters: The effects of National Board Certification on advancing 21st Century teaching and learning) on page 112 of 114 pages. He acknowledges that teacher leadership is the next step in reform.
It should be the first.
The outline for effective teaching and learning ignores two essentials that would make such a plan truly great: empowerment of both students and teachers through ownership of goal setting and self-evaluation and assessment, along with the time to do so.
A bulleted list on pages 57-58 outlines eight ways to find time for teachers to do the essential work of collaboration. Many items on the list have been promised to those of us who yearn for collaboration with peers (but never considered in my working experience is bullet #1, a huge insult to professionalism: eliminate duty periods). Only one suggestion has been acted upon in my workplace: provide substitutes so teachers can work together.
This has happened twice in the past year.
Meanwhile, directives based on Marzano have added a burden to already burdened teachers who must delay their “own work,” in the form of lesson planning and assessment, to do the work of the building. This creates a resentment that places any improvement program at risk.
Unwillingness to comply with change is often dealt with in high school reform books in a chapter titled “Dealing with Difficult Teachers.” (Though, thankfully, Westerberg has not included that chapter.) Yet, as each new directive comes from above, teachers are tasked with building the plane while flying it, and recently this has been occurring in shorter and shorter time frames.
It is exhausting.
Veterans get good at fending off the change-du-jour. Teachers learn to shrug, shut the door, or risk getting worked to death over every new initiative.
Great schools will be a fact of life when great working conditions are standard and teachers are provided with time and resources to enact deep and lasting reform. Piling more work on already over-worked teachers continues to thwart the best intentions.
Westerberg’s plus-one attitude adjustment at the building level comes from celebrating success. But whose success is being celebrated? No matter how noble, celebrating your goals is not the same as setting and reaching my own. Neither is it the same as the sense of pride and self-satisfaction when the self-identified work achieves measurable change.
Thus does corporate partying make cynics of us all.
Both Marzano and Westerberg would do much for the education field if they first wrote the book on acknowledging and providing space and time for teacher knowledge and growth, rather than on how to manage change in a non-conducive environment.
That would be revolutionary.