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The Case of the Silent Loudspeaker

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007 12:42 PM

If D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and other big city leaders want to know what is missing from their plans to remake their schools, they might ask Colleen Dippel why she popped open a ceiling tile and cut the wires to her classroom loudspeaker while trying to teach low-income Houston fifth-graders 10 years ago.

She didn't tell anyone what she had done. When asked why she had not responded to some broadcast instruction, she looked puzzled and said her loudspeaker seemed to be broken. It was an urban school, so no one bothered to fix it. She used the extra bits of uninterrupted learning time to focus on math word problems and reading novels and several other techniques that captured her students' interest, and raised their achievement levels significantly.

That, of course, is just classroom stuff, mostly ignored in the high-level politicking over Fenty's plan to transfer power over schools from the D.C. school board to the mayor's office. Teachers like Dippel, now 35, and a growing number of other rule-breaking but effective young educators are used to being ignored by the big-time policymakers.

But the mayor and his advisers might stop to think a moment about that irritating loudspeaker in Dippel's classroom. There are squawk boxes like that in schools throughout the District, one of many devices that D.C. schools -- and other big-city systems -- have because they are favored by, and convenient for, administrators, but despised by the best teachers.

The amount of time taken up by loudspeaker announcements each day is small, but it adds up. It also reinforces the notion that classroom time is not so important that it can't be interrupted for trivialities and sugary entertainment.

Consider school assemblies. Jason Kamras, the 2005 national teacher of the year, did not like sending his seventh-graders at Sousa Middle School in southeast Washington to assemblies that had no useful purpose. He worked hard with colleagues to reduce the time spent in the auditorium listening to sports or musical stars tell kids to stay in school, since he thought those hours were better spent understanding fractions.

Faculty meetings, a visible sign of administrator power, are similarly troublesome. Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math teacher who was portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver," noticed the meetings he attended rarely had anything to do with improving classroom teaching, so he stopped going. He thought his time was better spent in the classroom, giving students extra help at lunch and after school.

All this is changing in the best big-city schools. Educators in the most successful charter schools, contract schools and pilot schools consider these old-school habits a colossal waste of time. Even some regular schools are making changes. Loudspeakers are avoided, assemblies are rare and faculty meetings focus on teaching.

A new study by Elena Silva of the D.C.-based think tank Education Sector says although the movement to increase the length of the school day may help raise student achievement, particularly in urban districts like D.C., it is at least as important to focus on how we use each minute of the current standard school day -- six and a half precious hours. This is the view of people like Dippel, who as an educational consultant has told her loudspeaker story many times. Thousands of teachers across the country like Dippel are gathering the courage to say "I needed that time to teach" when scolded for disabling or ignoring the most irritating administrative distractions.

Mayor Fenty, I suspect, knows this. He has been talking to some of the teachers who are taking a stand against wasting time. But there is little about this in any of his public statements or published plans. It is very possible that in the flush of their political victories, the mayor's new team will inadvertently reinforce the old idea that flowcharts and spread sheets are what is important, and that classroom brilliance will naturally follow if they just make sure the RIGHT people use those loudspeakers.

It would be nice to hear these important people say that the best administrators are the ones we never hear about, the ones who do most of their work in classrooms rather than at press conferences, and who might actually help their teachers remove those loudspeakers so their students would have more time for Harper Lee and quadratic equations and the life of Martin Luther King Jr..

At Scott Montgomery Elementary School on P Street Northwest recently, the 28-year-old principal of KIPP DC: WILL Academy, a new charter school sharing space at Montgomery, winced as the loudspeaker in her building bleated scratchy announcements. Her name is Jessica Cunningham. She explained that the regular school could not cut off the speakers in her part of the building.

But she and the Montgomery principal, Melissa Martin, are both impatient women in their 20s. It is quite likely, with some help from Mayor Fenty, they together can find a solution, even if it requires a stepladder and a look behind some of those ceiling tiles.

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