What’s A Magnet Montessori Got To Do With NCLB? Dunno.

There’s much to like about this recent NPR story (Forcing Schools To Hit The ‘Reset’ Button) as a piece of narrative journalism.

It tells the story of a North Carolina school that was one low-performing and is now doing much better — albeit with a much-changed student demographic.

There’s some great tape — Lyndon Johnson talking about the goals of federal education policy, an interview with a now-retired principal.

But two days later I don’t have much if any idea why it’s so closely tied to NCLB’s school restructuring requirements — and a few of my Facebook friends are asking the same kinds of questions.

Over the last decade, we’re told, George Watts Montessori Magnet has turned itself around so much so that it’s a National Magnet School of Distinction “and it is outperforming other schools nearby.”

This is attributed to various things — the enactment of NCLB in 2002, the arrival of a new principal, and — perhaps most of all — the creation of a very popular magnet Montessori program.

But so much of what we’re told — the timely retirement of the previous principal, the district’s decision to try a Montessori magnet approach — doesn’t seem closely tied to NCLB’s ratings and requirements — and isn’t (to my knowledge) at all typical of the sequence of actions and responses that most schools not making AYP took.  Or, if it is, we’re not told.

There is some acknowledgement in the piece of this disconnect between what happened in Durham and what the law: “Technically, the law didn’t tell Durham to turn Watts into a magnet or a Montessori. It simply said: Fix this school or else.”

And there’s some reference to the fact that the outcome might or might not match what happened in other schools going through the same process.” “It’s also not fair to use one case study — the story of one school — to judge a law as big as No Child Left Behind.”

But still, Turner’s piece claims that the school’s progress “is instructive.”

Instructive of what? That some schools have improved dramatically. That few if any of the legacy teachers might be around to see it. That changes in student demographics can have as much or more impact than curriculum or teaching changes.  I’m not so sure.

The segment seems like it’s trying to do too many things at once — the story of the school, the story of NCLB, and the story of school restructuring efforts and demographic impacts.

As a result, the overall result is a bit of a hot mess, and I fear suggests misleadingly that converting low-performing schools into magnet Montessori exemplars with an influx of white kids is something that’s happened in many places, under NCLB or on its own. 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.