Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

Cambridgeside-GalleriaBy Tom White

There’s a large shopping mall near my school that functions the way many schools do. Although the stores all share the same parking lot, utility service, and roof, they all operate independently. They employ workers on their own, set their own prices and treat their customers as they see fit.

Likewise, many schools have classrooms that share the same general space, serve the same community and teach to the same standards, but have little else in common. The students have different routines, use different books, and do different projects and assignments.

I also teach near a department store. It operates somewhat like the larger mall, with separate departments that focus on specific products with separate workers who understand those products, yet the entire department store is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Department store schools have separate classrooms that focus on specific grade levels or subjects, with teachers trained to teach in those specific classrooms, yet the entire school is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

My school is definitely a shopping-mall school.

We get along fine with each other, although we largely do our own thing. Within reason. We administer the same major assessments, but there is no lock-step progression through the curriculum. There is some team planning and grade-level scoring sessions, but it’s not wide-spread. Homework policies vary greatly, as do classroom management systems. And although we have district curriculum adoptions, the use of which is “strongly encouraged,” not everyone is completely onboard.

We are nowhere close to being a department store school.

But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure department store schools are better than shopping mall schools.

They’re different, that’s for sure. For one thing, it takes a lot more work to get everyone completely aligned across the curriculum. It takes a lot of time (and patience) to plan units and score assessments as a team. Time and patience that could be used elsewhere.

And even after you’ve achieved cohesion and an overall sense of uniformity within a school, is it really a better school than a loose confederacy of teachers running their own show, engaged in what Mark refers to as “parallel play?” It might be. Or it might not.

Because the nice thing about individual teacher autonomy is that it lets teachers be nimble and experimental. If I were to go to a conference, for example, and consequently decide to revamp my approach to teaching reading, I could go right ahead, without touching base with my grade level team. And if that approach was successful I would share it and let them decide whether or not to employ it. And if it wasn’t successful, I could quietly sweep it under the rug and go back to Plan A.

That’s actually a good thing.

The best way to look at this, of course, is from the students’ perspective. Do they learn more and have a better experience in a department store school where things are generally constant from room to room? Or do they do better when things vary greatly from room to room and teacher to teacher?

I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

  1. Pingback: Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  2. Jan Kragen

    Oh, I’m definitely a mall school. If the district curriculum isn’t working for my students, I go find something that will. I’ve been doing that since the first year I started teaching. I figure as long as my kids’ test scores rock, no one should complain. For the most part, no one argues with me, parents or administrators.

  3. Mark Gardner

    There’s this idea of “bounded autonomy” that I think fits here. Even at the shopping mall, there are certain consistencies and predictabilities, while the wares (and music and lighting and whether its the kind of store you’d be mortified to encounter one of your students in) might vary. I like the nimbleness you talk about…mainly because my favorite thing about teaching both kids and adults is the flexibility to be creative. I do think there should be certain bounds…the standards, the agreed-upon outcomes, whatever…but all else ought to be like that shopping mall.

    The belief that sameness saves is one thing I think is eroding public education.

Comments are closed.