Good school design, good teachers

Better teaching requires better school design, writes Education Sector’s Elena Silva in Teachers at Work.

Today, most teachers’ work is isolated and fragmented, with no defined pathways for career development, few mechanisms for feedback, and a schedule that is disconnected from the reality of what teachers actually do and what students actually need.

Furman Brown’s Generation Schools model starts with recruiting good teachers, but that’s just the first step.

Instead of isolating teachers, the Generation Schools model organizes them into grade- and subject-based teams, designed to blend different types of expertise and levels of experience. The daily schedule and calendar are designed with time for regular and ongoing teacher collaboration and planning, giving teachers “time to learn from each other and to learn from their work,” Brown says. In the mornings, all teachers teach 90-minute academic classes that average 14 students; afternoons are divided into shorter, larger elective courses and two hours of daily planning. Twice a year, grade-based teaching teams get a four-week break—three weeks to rest and one week to meet, plan, and observe colleagues. The breaks are staggered throughout the year, and while one group of teachers is on break, another team of their colleagues steps in to teach their students “intensive” monthlong literacy courses focused on career and college planning. The result is a school year that is extended to 200 days for students—20 more than the national average—without having to extend work time (and pay) for teachers.

The model doesn’t cost any more than a regular school.

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  1. Andrew Bell says:


  2. It’s nice to read something that recognises that effective education is about all of what happens at a school, not just the individual teacher. (I’ve read plenty of descriptions from teachers of situations where the school appears to be actively interfering with their teaching, for example one teacher who worked out that during class time one day there was a school-admin-caused interruption for one reason or another on average every ten minutes).

  3. You know, I could live with that model of an extended school year. That might actually do some good.

  4. There is so much about design that is overlooked or given short shrift. The physical environment we place kids into can’t help but affect their mood and their attitude–but it goes far beyond painting the walls a pastel color or having fresh flowers. The physical design of the school and the classroom also influences how students relate to each other, and to the teacher. An environment where students sit in rows, all facing forward, where the Adult Authority Figure stands–separate from them in every possible way–is going to produce a very particular set of relationships. An environment where students are told what to think about at different points of the day, and have a deafening bell ring in their ears to tell them to stop thinking about it and move on to the next thing, is also going to create certain relationships–between student and school, student and teacher, student and student. Good schools and good teachers often fight against this environment and create more human and collaborative relationships—but it IS a fight. And it’s a fight that requires constant vigilance, because the environment will always work to pull thins back to where they were before. As Kurt Vonnegut said, that bottom row of cannonballs on the courthouse lawn dictates how all the other rows are going to lay out. If you want to change the shape of the design, you have to go right down to the bottom and change that first layer.

  5. This is the most promising idea I’ve heard in a long time. Sounds innovative and effective.

  6. ponderosa says:

    Any evidence this works?

    Looks to me like a lot of other complicated, plausible-looking, fatally-flawed schemes to reform schools. Another rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The month-long literacy course on college and career planning sounds particularly crap-tastic.

    Our school changes its bell schedule every year. Changes groupings of English and history (some years they’re separate, some years they’re combined). Middle school itself is the product of this belief that if we only rearrange the deck chairs, the ship will not sink.

    When will we stop these haphazard stabs at reform? When will we start building a school system on solid principles and tiny incremental changes like Japan’s? Toyota does not radically overhaul its car designs from year to year. It assiduously conserves what works and makes minor tweaks each year. We seem to wipe the slate clean, build a shoddy little contraption and, when –surprise! –it doesn’t run that well, wreck it and start from scratch again. No wonder the quality of American schools remains so poor.

    To Andrew: Japanese schools are Spartan cinder-block shells. What counts is the intellectual endowment and orientation of its teachers and students. All we talk about is our kids’ emotional needs, as if we were all primarily counselors or foster parents. Our schools are rich in gadgets, colorful posters, and “caring” adults, poor in intellectual capital.

  7. Andrew Bell says:

    Does the post say anything about the physical setup of the school? What am I missing?

  8. I’m curious – when teachers cover classes for colleagues who are on break, what happens to those teachers’ classes?? Or are they doing this during their planning periods? or…?

  9. Andrew Bell says:

    I read the “Model” on the Generation Schools site and I couldn’t figure out how they could do what they say they are doing – reducing class size and keeping teacher hours constant while providing more contact and planning time at no additional cost. I wish they would post some detailed information.


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