Great Teaching, Not Buildings, Make Great Schools

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 1, 2008

As happens in many urban school systems, D.C. school and D.C. Council officials have been in a tiff over the repair and renovation of aging buildings. Nobody wants children to walk into schools with peeling paint, leaky roofs and windows that won't open. Many inner-city educators believe such neglect sends the dispiriting message that nobody cares about these kids.

But are fresh plaster, up-to-date wiring and fine landscaping real signs of a great school?

Take a look at the 52-year-old former church school at 421 Alabama Ave. in Anacostia. Teachers say some floors shake if you stomp on them. Weeds poke out from under the brick walls. Yet great teaching has occurred inside. Two first-rate schools, the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School and the KIPP DC: AIM Academy, have occupied that space in the past few years, and the Imagine charter network, also with a good record, is opening a school there. Or check out the School Without Walls, a D.C. public high school sought out by parents with Ivy League dreams. Its building, now being renovated, was a wreck, but inside, students embraced an A-plus curriculum.

How about the suburbs? Drive past the rust-stained, 44-year-old campus at 6560 Braddock Rd. in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County. Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer of Fairfax schools, says the place needs an electrical upgrade. A lot of windows should be replaced. He is sorry that his crews can't do the major work until 2012. It doesn't look like a place I would want to send my kids, yet the sign in front says it is the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, maybe the best public school in America.

Ten years ago, I wrote a book about high schools with golden reputations in some of the country's most expensive suburbs. They were full of Advanced Placement classes and fine teachers, but I was astonished at how bad some of the buildings were. Mamaroneck High School, in one of the most affluent parts of Westchester County, N.Y., had three 66-year-old boilers that repeatedly broke down and many clocks that didn't work. La Jolla High School, north of San Diego, full of science fair winners, was a collection of stained stucco classrooms and courtyards of dead grass.

Educators who have turned bad schools into good ones are patient with me, as they are with parents who put so much emphasis on everything looking nice. They nod when I ask about the bad impression left by a soiled restroom stall or a broken air conditioner. Then they repeat what they have said to me before: It is not the building, but the teaching, that makes a difference.

Consider, for a moment, a contrary example, a school system that did all it could to make its facilities as good as any child could want. Under a school-improvement plan in the 1980s and 1990s, Kansas City, Mo., built 15 additional schools, with such amenities as an Olympic-size swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability. It didn't work. Even with student-teacher ratios as low as 12 to 1, there was not enough of the demanding, energetic teaching that changes schools, and Kansas City's poor academic performance continued.

The same thing has happened here. D.C. workers and contractors have produced some lovely buildings, like the sweet curving front of Sousa Middle School and the soaring tower of H.D. Woodson High. Yet for the most part, those schools have been academic sinkholes. Woodson's Tower of Power was finally torn down this year.

Suburban parents have as much trouble understanding the relative unimportance of new tile and carpets as people in the District do. At Wakefield High School in Arlington County, where half of the students are from low-income families, parents protest waiting for renovation of their broken-down campus while other schools get priority. Yet the high quality of their school is ensured. The teaching and counseling staff led by Principal Doris Jackson has already produced some of the greatest gains in the area. That team could likely transform the learning environment at any failing school in no more than a year or two, if given a chance.

Some of the highest-performing schools in the District at the moment are charters. Their founders initially put up with bad facilities -- church basements, storefronts, warehouses -- because they knew their independence would let them hire teachers who knew how to motivate disadvantaged kids, which was all they needed. Great buildings don't make great schools. It might be better if we spent our money on principals and teachers who inspire, who don't take lethargy or resentment for an answer. Put educators like that in the rickety buildings we have, and stand back. We can get the money we need to fix the facilities, once everyone sees that those are schools worth repairing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company