The roots of simmering conflict between teachers and administrators at the Bronx High School of Science are in pedagogy, not personnel, according to a new article in New York Magazine.
The article offers a case study in the pitfalls of principal autonomy without teacher support — and of increasing scrutiny on teachers at schools where almost all students are high-performing.
For years, teachers at Bronx Science, one of the city’s most selective high schools, have accused Principal Valerie Reidy of micromanagement and vindictiveness. They have filed mass union complaints, resigned in droves, and gone public with stories of unsatisfactory ratings they said were not justified.
Now, Reidy is telling her side of the story, and she says she just wanted to impose a pedagogical approach called “guided discovery,” in which teachers ask students a series of questions to help them arrive at answers themselves, to help Bronx Science’s high-performing students to do even better.
Guided discovery is used to some degree at many city schools, but Reidy wanted teachers to adopt it wholesale, and right away. From the article:
Reidy lights up when she talks about guided discovery; she believes it links back to the laboratory or “inquiry”-based learning encouraged by Bronx Science’s founders. But the method is highly scripted and can make teachers used to lecturing feel more like robots than educators. “What I find is when you have teachers with a lot of alphabet soup after their name, they take the college approach: ‘I’m going to come in and expose you to my brilliance,’ ” she says. “But real teaching is tight. This is not, ‘We’re going to have a loose conversation about the information, and then you can go home and teach yourself.’ You’re Socrates. You have to steer them to the solution.”
She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). She promoted new assistant principals she felt would embrace her approach and be a model for others. She even handed out copies of her old biology lesson plans and suggested teachers take a pointer or two from them. “I’ve learned this over time, I’m good at this,” Reidy says. “The sequence of the questions has to be well thought out—because they’re building to a conclusion. The wording is important. I’ll often say to teachers, ‘Change this word. You noticed no hands went up? Change this word.’”
Read the entire story, by Robert Kolker, for a detailed accounting of Reidy’s efforts to shake up a teaching staff that she said had grown complacent and the “seismic upheaval” that has followed them.