The Creative Classroom: Why America Depends on Schools That Think Differently

04/23/2015 03:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Education reform is one of the most troubled areas of U.S. domestic policy. As politicians on both sides debate the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, they should keep in mind that some of the most vexing problems they struggle to solve are caused by the very strategies for reform they are now reviewing. For more than 20 years, governments have been yanking firmly on the reins of public education, telling schools what to teach, imposing systems of testing to hold them accountable, and levying penalties if they don't make the grade. It hasn't worked.

In spite of the billions of dollars spent, the standards movement has been at best a partial success and coveted test scores have hardly improved. Meanwhile, it is having catastrophic consequences on student engagement and teacher morale. Politicians often scratch their heads over these problems. Sometimes, they punish schools for not making the grade. Sometimes, they fund remedial programs to get them back on track. But the problems persist and in many ways they're getting worse.

In 1970, the U.S. had the highest rate of high school graduation in the world: now it has one of the lowest. According to the OECD, the overall U.S.-graduation rate is now around 75 percent, which ranks the United States 23rd out of the 28 countries surveyed. In some states and districts, the graduation rate is much lower. About 7,000 young people drop out of the nation's high schools every day -- close to one and a half million a year. I dislike the term "dropouts." It implies that these young people have failed the system. It's often more accurate to say that the system has failed them. If you were running a business and every year you lost a quarter or more of your customers, you might start to wonder if the real problem was them or your business.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of a million teachers leave the profession every year, and more than 40 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years. This scenario is especially bleak in high-poverty schools, where turnover is approximately 20 percent every year.

My new book "Creative Schools" shows how impassioned, innovative teachers and principals schools around the country are now pushing back against the standards agenda to create spaces in which young people really can learn and grow. For example, on her first day as principal of Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Georgia, Dr. Laurie Barron would have forgiven her students and staff if they'd fitted her office with a revolving door. The school had only been open for five years and had already had other principals. Located about 35 miles from Atlanta, nearly 20 percent of Newnan's population lives below the poverty line, and more than 60 percent of Smokey Road's students qualify as economically disadvantaged.

When Laurie arrived there in 2004, the school had the lowest academic achievement of the five middle schools in its district. It also had the highest number of absences, of discipline referrals, of charges filed with the juvenile-justice system, and the highest number of students in alternative-education systems because of discipline problems.

"I spent that first year jumping over tables breaking up fights," she says. "People would ask me what kind of data I had, and I would tell them that I jump over tables; I don't know anything about data. I'm very organized and data driven, but when I look back over my notebooks for my nine years there, I don't have any from that first year. The only thing I did that first year was to try to establish safety."

By the end of that first year, she'd put enough ground rules in place for the students to understand what kind of behavior was expected. Most important of all, she came back for a second year and that allowed the school to work on a long-term plan to break the habits that were ingrained in the school's culture. "That second year was when we really started to think about what we wanted to be. It was a long process that involved teachers, students, business partners and community members."

Laurie realized that the school had not created a culture where kids felt that it mattered that they were there. Next, she and her team needed to make the students feel safe at school. Then they needed to deal with every student based on their individual needs and interests. "We realized that whatever is important to the student is the most important thing: football, band, math, English. When kids started seeing that we valued what they valued, they started giving back to us what we valued. Then the teachers could finally teach, instead of writing discipline referrals."

One student was a good athlete, but failed sixth grade, largely because he'd received 33 discipline referrals. "He was black, special education, free and reduced-cost lunch -- he was a statistic waiting to happen." When Laurie got him to see that she agreed that athletics were the most important thing in his life, the discipline problems abated. "He had two referrals total in seventh and eighth grades. And he passed every standardized test. We told him that football could be more important than anything else he did, but we would have to help him get through that."

She gave another example. "We had a girl in chorus: white female, special education, economically disadvantaged. Her father died when she was in fourth grade. She shut down, didn't want to do anything. My chorus teacher saw something in her and gave her a solo. She sang the solo in November and made all A's the rest of the year. She would have never made it, but the teacher said that all she wanted to do was sing. You've got to listen to what's important to the child."

The change in Smokey Road was dramatic. Achievement went up in every subgroup: there was a huge increase in attendance and a significant drop in discipline referrals. What Laurie Barron saw at Smokey Road was a school in desperate need of reform -- not the kind of reform that comes from state mandates or federal standards, but the kind that comes from the ground up when you truly understand your students and your educators and can innovate accordingly.

The strategies of No Child Left Behind were based on the opposite principles of standardization, conformity and compliance. They have also hampered the creativity and discretion of schools to address local needs and individual talents. In doing so, they have compounded the very problems they claim to be solving.

The challenge is not to repair this system but to change it; not reform it but transform it. Education is really improved only when we understand that people and schools succeed and thrive in certain conditions and not in others.

Education is a national issue, but it is a local, grassroots process. The changes that are needed cannot be imposed from above. They must be cultivated and encouraged from the ground up. That means unleashing the creative energies of educators and students alike. Understanding how to make that happen should be the real focus of the political debate.