So the first season of Blackboard Wars has ended and, as I expected, it reached the conclusion it was created to. Yes, ‘reform’ isn’t easy. The community resists radical change, even when it is what is best for it. The early ‘success’ of this school and its teachers validates the idea that all you need to accomplish a ‘turnaround’ is a $1.5 million dollar SIG grant to use, in part, on a charismatic leader and some new teachers who, despite their inexperience, have high expectations for all kids.
In the last episode, we get our first inklings of ‘early success’ at this school. At one of the board meetings, open to the community, Dr. T says that 63% of their 9th graders have scored above basic on the Read 180 test. Read 180 is a program which may very well be a good one. Students take three tests throughout the year and as this is only four months into the school year, we’re not sure if this was how they did on the first or second test. This is not an ‘official’ state test, but a diagnostic, and since we don’t know what those incoming students’ levels were, it is hard to interpret whether this is good or not.
I don’t see how a school can take much credit for students they have only known for four months, though. I know that this school has a somewhat unusual demographic because when they started the turnaround, they did not give the school any new 9th graders last year. So the current 9th graders are generally all first time 9th graders. As the years progress, however, that won’t be the case in this school and it will be interesting to see how those 9th grade numbers change when they have to deal with the often large numbers of repeating 9th graders. It is true that they may have some third time ninth graders, but probably not very many.
The second claim we hear from principal Dr. T at the board meeting at the end of the episode. He says:
Right now our focus at John McDonogh is improving our daily attendance. Attendance here at John Mac is, um, roughly between 75 and 80 percent. Last year’s attendance was 34% (Barr chimes in with “pretty close”) so we’ve already more than doubled attendance.
Finally we get a number and if this were true, it would be quite an accomplishment. I found the numbers for 2007-2008, 2008-2009, and 2009-2010 on the SIG grant proposal and the attendance rates were 73%, 76%, and 78% respectively. Whether or not the 2011-2012 number was truly 34% (which I doubt), it really doesn’t matter. That would be a major outlier caused by the instability caused by the takeover. The fact is pretty clear that pre-turnaround the attendance was around the same as it is now. Incidentally, this school now has around 350 kids compared to the 567 it had pre-turnaround according to their SIG application.
The third, and apparently most important, factor is that the kids seem to like the changes. Though we only hear from two kids, both upperclassmen, it is implied that they speak for all the kids at the school. I don’t doubt that for some kids the new management has made changes that work for those kids. Whether this was the only way to improve the school, by getting rid of 75% of the teachers, is something I’m not sure about. And whether or not this will result in 90% of the students going to college five years from now, as Steve Barr tells a parent is the goal in an earlier episode, well, that remains to be seen.
As far as the message that all a school needs is a competent charismatic leader and a group of young teachers, this is supported by what the show chose to focus on. We see the rookie teacher, Ms. Cobb, a lot and often her young friends too. What is not made clear, however, is that the school has mostly veteran teachers at it. There are just four TFAers there, three first years and one second year. So if this school does succeed, it will not prove that young inexperienced teachers can do better than old experienced ones.
As far as a competent charismatic leader, yes, I would say that Dr. T is charismatic and can make quite a speech. But teachers know that those speeches lose their impact after the first few. In episode 5 he makes a speech to the students about how he wants them to promise that no more of them are going to get shot. What would be better would be if he had actual strategies for helping these students avoid danger.
I also really question Dr. T’s judgement throughout the show. In episode 6 there is a learning disabled student who lives in a shelter and who Dr. T has a talk with about his future. The kid doesn’t have a real sense of how much it might cost to one day get his own apartment and Dr. T makes a big speech about net vs. gross pay and how he’s going to have to pay 20% taxes. The kid completely zones out on this talk and the kid later is contemplating suicide. Dr. T’s speech certainly did not help by adding extra pressure to this kid’s life now thinking about paying income tax.
In episode 5 Dr. T kicks a kid out of school because that kid is likely to be a target for a retaliation for him shooting, and possibly killing, someone who did a ‘drive by’ on his friends house. In talking to that kid, Dr. T gets ‘real’ cursing in every other sentence.
Later in episode 5 Dr. T makes a speech explaining that he has booted a lot of kids from the school, and why.
I have gotten rid of all the people that I think have created as many problems as I’m going to put up with. I’m not keeping kids here in this school that are taking learning time away from any of you. I’m not keeping kids in this school who create a threat of safety to any of you. We’re investing in you. I want you guys to step it up. I need you to start holding each other accountable for what a John Mac Trojan student should be. I do not go to school with a bunch of thugs. I do not have idiots in my school. We can do better. This is time to get this right. It’s time to get a different swag on. I want a John Mac swag, and I’m not talking about being cool. I’m taking about taking those beasts that don’t belong to me, don’t belong in your classroom, take them out of this school. Take them out of your lives.
The most amusing example of Dr. T’s obliviousness is at the end of episode 5 when a new student comes to register for the school. Each episode ends with some kind of hopeful moment and as Dr. T has just lost a student, getting a new one who had dropped out and now wants to get a diploma seems like a fitting end. But the funny part is that this student, in his conference where he is asking Dr. T if he can enroll, is wearing headphones for the entire conversation. This really shows how inexperienced Dr. T is. The first thing you say to a kid like that is “You want to be serious about returning to school. Take off your headphones.” But Dr. T really doesn’t seem to notice as he is too preoccupied with making a big inspirational speech. I know that Dr. T was once a superintendent in Virginia. Maybe he was a good superintendent but when it comes to day to day principal stuff, he doesn’t seem to have a clue. I suppose someone might say about me pointing this out “Anybody can make a mistake. Why hold that under a microscope.” And, yes, people do make mistakes, but considering all the other mistakes he’s making and considering how bizarre of a mistake this is. It would be like a baseball player hitting the ball and running from home across the pitcher’s mound to second base. If you don’t notice that a kid is wearing headphones while trying to re-enroll in school after dropping out, well your instincts are completely off and I don’t trust you to make the right decision on much more important things.
In episode six Dr. T really puts another student and a teacher at risk when he leaves a suicidal student alone with a teacher. A real principal would make sure that there were several security guards in the room with the kid. Of course it did lead to a dramatic moment when Dr. T, himself, wrestled the kid to the ground to neutralize him. Like Dr. T’s speeches this makes for good T.V., but bad leadership.