Across the country, in cities and towns large and small, the debate about the state of our nation’s schools and what to do about it rages on. Failing schools, dwindling school resources and teacher burnout point to what many call a national crisis. As a whole movement looks to test scores and student outcomes as the primary indicators of a school’s health, education professors Bob Welker and Lowell Monke, together with a small group of graduate students, have developed a brand new theory that boldly challenges the way we look at schools and how we measure their effectiveness on a national scale.
The scene is a classroom in Blair Hall, spring 2009. Graduate students and two professors are discussing the crisis in education. As practicing teachers, the graduate students bring their real-world experiences to the table, and as the end of the semester nears, the core ideas behind a new and innovative school concept reveal themselves.
Called “restorative schools,” the concept literally turns school change theory on its head as it focuses on the quality of the workplace rather than looking exclusively at measures such as student test scores. At its center is the idea that teachers, students, administrators and support staff do their best work when they come to their daily tasks with enthusiasm, purpose and joy. A restorative school then is such a place – a place that teachers want to come to, a place where all members of the school are energized and supported, and a place that, in turn, helps everyone deliver his/her very best self.
What sets the restorative school theory apart is its assertion that healthy school environments are important ends in themselves. A school is a workplace and thus it should be healthy, supportive and yes, productive – as that is a likely by-product of a beneficial work environment. But schools should be healthy places for people because teachers, staff and especially children deserve to work in good environments. It is that simple.
“We want to change the dynamics of the conversation about schools and how we evaluate their effectiveness,” said Associate Professor of Education Lowell Monke. “Can we judge what is valuable about a school by criteria other than test scores?”
That means examining schools through a different lens. It demands that we put a value on our teachers and staff by considering and improving the environments in which they work. And, in the end, the benefits of a positive and healthy working environment will surely extend well beyond the personal well-being of individuals, leading the broader school community to blossom.
“The business world has recognized the importance of a positive work environment,” said Professor of Education Bob Welker. “It is stunning that we don’t look at schools that way.”
This is especially surprising given that in urban America, schools and hospitals are the primary employers in a community, making schools one of the most important work environments in the country. Welker and Monke, with their students, are one of the first to systematically examine the school environment and how it affects teacher performance and overall school operations.
Too often, they say, school environments drain teachers, resulting in turnover or burnout – nationally, 40-50 percent of new teachers leave the field after five years. The demands placed on teachers by parents, administrators and the rigors of constant testing are making schools places of conflict and stress. Restorative schools would seek to change that by creating healthy environments that invigorate teachers and the entire school community.
Welker and Monke will continue to refine the concept and develop tools to assess schools with their students in a series of classes that began last spring. The initial class was born out of Monke’s and Welker’s belief that if anyone was to make meaningful progress in solving the problems of schools, they needed to listen to the teachers themselves and figure out what serves their needs best. Their graduate students – practicing teachers from the Springfield area – were so excited by the results of their investigation that they demanded a second class to continue their research and expand the restorative schools concept.
Where the first class developed the concept, students in the second class worked over the summer to actually develop instruments to examine existing schools and where they stand. Now, perhaps not surprisingly, the students want more. Welker is teaching a third iteration of the class this fall in which students will take the concept out into the real world and apply their framework to evaluate the schools where they work. The students’ enthusiasm for this class thrills Welker and Monke not only because it has produced a new concept, but also because it represents the kind of learning and professional development that they hope to implement across the department. For example, the whole point of the class Welker and Monke taught was to create information and tools that are helpful to actual teachers in the real world. And that is what they did and continue to do.
“This class is a model of what we hope our master’s program can evolve into – where students are doing real, on-the-ground work that makes a difference in schools even as they are learning to enrich their own work,” Monke said. “The work these students are doing has consequences.”
In this case, by developing the concept of restorative schools, they actually look to help schools improve working conditions for students and teachers. This kind of experiential learning – where students share knowledge, examine a real problem and propose real solutions – prepares students to think about best practices and gives them tools to face the challenges they will surely tackle in their career.
That is the premise behind a pilot program launched this fall in the department’s graduate studies program. The new program will bring together teachers from across districts in the area into “cohorts” organized around specific subjects. The subject of this fall’s pilot cohort is diverse learners, and it will allow participating students to engage in more focused inquiry on that topic.
“The purpose of the cohorts is to encourage focused study within the graduate program to lead to more unique and developed work,” said Sally Brannan, associate professor of education and director of graduate studies. “We hope the cohorts will bring more attention to things that teachers can use out in the field in their classrooms.”
It is an important innovation for the department – one that encourages heightened collaboration among teachers within schools or regions. After evaluating the success of the pilot cohort this semester, they will explore the idea of new cohorts for math, science or literacy.
“Talking together with each other, examining schools in practice – these are powerful learning events for teachers,” Welker said. “What’s more, teachers have told us that courage to create real change comes when people come together.”
And it is real change that Welker and Monke hope to see as they apply the restorative schools concept in the broader school community. As they examine existing schools this fall and in the future, they will pay particular attention to four specific areas: workplace conditions, community/parent involvement, staffing quality and discipline (defined as the practice of teachers learning from each other). Though these are areas that have been well studied in existing school change literature, Welker and Monke are challenging their students to reconsider the meanings of these terms with the restorative idea at the center.
So far, it has been no easy task to find examples of an existing school that the researchers deem “restorative.” If they are unable to find any, they will study effective schools to discover the features that are interfering with making the school a healthy place to work.
“It may be,” Monke explained, “that the whole idea, or portions of the idea need to be re-thought because of the conditions that exist out there in the world.”
And so it seems greater discoveries still await as professors and students move into another year and test their theory. For now, they are ready to be challenged and excited about further exploring a concept that promises to invigorate and enrich the national debate about our schools.