Making Accountability Work


Last month I spent a morning shadowing a principal of an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia. On most days the principal visits each classroom for 5 to 10 minutes, and as we traveled through the school I was struck by the amount of writing taking place, the engagement of students in their assignments and the intensity of instruction in most classrooms. Repeatedly I saw first grade students working in pairs, with coaching from teachers, to revise stories they had written.

In 1995, the year I first began spending time at McClure School, it was rare to see students this young writing. That year parents began working with the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (where I was employed as a community organizer) to improve security at the school. Relatively quickly they moved on to reading and won a commitment to have all students tested for reading levels. When parents began sharing test results with other parents, many grew angry that their children were reading below grade level despite receiving good grades. Teachers objected after parents began coming to their classrooms to ask why grade levels and grades did not match, and for a time the parent group was prohibited from meeting in the school. Ultimately, these tensions led to parents helping select a new principal who has focused intensely on reading instruction for the past seven years. Today, across from the main office a large poster board lists the number of books read by each class in the school, a parent group demand that was originally resisted as potentially pitting teachers against one another, but has ultimately helped focus the school more intensely on reading.

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