It’s All Chinese to Me (In a Good Way)

For how long have Americans tried to get education right?  From before Horace Mann was a sparkle in his proud parents’ eyes, more than 200 years ago.  At the heart of that pursuit has been a focus on the ways in which schools have come up short rather than drawing on how they’ve stood tall and done well.

But about 40 years ago, there emerged a new school of thought in determining what makes for great schools.  Instead of dwelling on ways in which they fail, which wasn’t leading to nearly enough progress, especially for low-income children, the new idea was to stress how schools succeed.  And more importantly, why they succeed.

Known as “effective schools research,” the terminolgy isn’t used as often these days.  But what I best remember about the approach when academics and journalists began popularizing it in the early 1980s was its utter obviousness.  This is not meant to diminish the scholarship undergirding it; quite the opposite.  It’s meant, instead, to lament how educators, politicians, and the public still don’t adequately appreciate its manifest common sense, or build on its straightforward findings, of which there are a core seven.

  1. A clear and effective school mission.
  2. A safe and orderly environment.
  3. High expectations.
  4. Opportunity to learn and time on task.
  5. Frequent monitoring of student progress.
  6. Positive home-school relations.
  7. Instructional leadership.

Please note there is no inherent reason why public schools can’t be as good at the seven as private schools.  Also note that Number 7 isn’t usually listed last, though I do so here, not to underplay but accentuate it, as I visited a public school in St. Paul last week with perhaps the most impressive instructional leader of a principal I’ve ever seen in action.

The school is the Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy in Highland Park.  All teachers there are native Chinese speakers, as is Principal Bobbie Johnson, though admittedly her name may confuse.  I had been invited to take a tour of the K-5 school along with Sen. Carla Nelson, chair of the state Senate’s E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, and a few others.  Admittedly, also, we weren’t there long but the place affirmatively checked every one of the seven boxes – starting emphatically with instructional leadership.

A number of teachers at Jie Ming have Ph.D.’s in the hard sciences rather than B.A.s or M.A.s in teaching.  This is an extra reason Johnson is as constantly hands-on when it comes to the art of teaching little kids.  But it’s far from the only reason, as she appears perpetually engaged with everyone, starting with the school’s nearly 400 students, who she tries to connect with, individually, every day.  Where does anyone find such passion and energy, from early morning until far later, I wondered in exhaustion?

One thought I had after about an hour, naturally, was how Jie Ming is an exceptional school precisely because of Johnson.  But at the risk of sounding circular, a follow-up thought was how schools that are special in origin and mission are more likely to be special in practice and fact as well.

Jie Ming is not a charter school, but for illustration, consider charters.  Their frequently distinctive stories invite a coherence and collaboration less likely to be found elsewhere.  The same holds with schools of choice more broadly, be they public or private.  When parents consciously choose where their girls and boys go to school, they’re more likely to conscientiously demand high standards, from both kids and educators.

Completing one more circle, the dynamic adds measurably to how terrific, already-superb principals like Bobbie Johnson can be.

Mitch Pearlstein’s newest book about education is Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.