We recently held a meeting in Bridgeport, Conn., to look at some emerging work on teacher collaboration and support. There are no results yet, just anecdotes from teachers and students about what is working and what isn’t. No hard data to show on changes in student achievement. The work looks messy and not everything has been successful. But I think it’s way too early to judge whether or not Bridgeport will fail. I would rather talk about why Bridgeport must succeed.
Bridgeport is not an outlier. It’s like any other urban district with low proficiency rates in math and literacy. And like other struggling districts, it’s got teachers—highly capable teachers—who are trying their best to turn their schools around. But as Joe Murphy, a professor of education atVanderbilt University says, “Teachers can’t out teach their context.” In other words, even the best teachers will struggle if they are not supported by the system. The work in Bridgeport is about taking on this context that hardwires failure in both students and teachers.
Bridgeport Public Schools is trying to innovate in a sector that has very few incentives to innovate. Some may talk about our work as trying to build “proof points” but I’ve stopped using this term all together. Sometimes I think it leads supporters and critics alike to think that these efforts we fund are perfect in every way or complete failures if they can’t produce hard evidence quickly. Districts like Bridgeport are not trying to prove anything right now; they are trying to innovate. In her book “Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation”, Kim Erwin quotes Michael Winnick, formerly of Apple and now the CEO of Dscout, a web and mobile service organizations use to gather feedback from their audiences. He says it best:
“In innovation-orientated work, it’s not so much about proving or disproving. It is about getting people to believe things. And belief is different than proof. Belief is about taking leaps or developing a sense of intuition about what’s next or asking, ‘Why should I do something bold when there are an enormous number of really valid reasons not to do anything at all?’ ”
What we are seeing teachers struggle with in Bridgeport is how to create their very own “plan, do, study, act” cycle and integrate it into their teaching practice and their schools. Creating time to think about how to do this was the first step. One high school teacher said about the work: “We get to meet as professionals each week. We get to talk about our students. We get to forward plan. We’ve been asking for this forever. Now we finally get to do it.”
Quite frankly, with or without Foundation funding, if Bridgeport fails, we all fail. We fail all of the students who need our help now more than ever. In a recent podcast I did for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning project, the interviewer asked me if I was an optimist. We have a blog at the Gates Foundation called Impatient Optimists and that really expresses my sentiment well. I have a sense of urgency about the work we do. Someone once told me, you have to be an optimist if you work in education. How else can you survive?