Inspired by Bill Honig’s post titled Improving teaching and learning must drive efforts of reform, I penned the post below, my first for March since I have been swamped with student teaching, and ed school for the first two weeks of March. Mr. Honig, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, published his post on John Festerwald’s Thoughts on Public Education (TOPEd) blog site.
The suggestions proffered by Mr. Honig, as well as by many other learned educational experts, have significant merit and could go a long ways to improve this country’s educational systems, especially once implemented widely in preschools and primary schools. However, for secondary schools, and even many primary schools, the suggestions focus too much on the teaching side of the equation and not the learning side. They seem to assume that students show up ready, capable, and willing to learn, which is not the case in all too many school districts across our nation. Hence, the suggested efforts, which become significant once a student is ready to learn, may not yield the desired results in schools that need help the most; those with low academic performance year after year.
Many suggestions to improve teaching and learning push on the wrong set of levers in a highly complex educational system ignoring the fact that the system extends into each student’s community, and home, intimately involving the student, his/her siblings and friends, and importantly, his/her parent(s) or legal guardian(s). Apparently because the in-school process levers are more accessible, we concentrate our efforts on them. Yet, as much as we push them or pull them, fast or slow, we end up with the same persistent dilemma facing us as illustrated by the achievement gap.
Most of the research, policy, and practice I have read, or heard of, that focuses on closing the achievement gap seems to dismiss as unimportant any reason outside of the classroom. I posit that in-school factors are critical if, and only if, a student is receptive to learning. A student must show up ready to learn, or minimally be open to a teacher’s efforts, otherwise, no level of investment in the classroom (teacher, curricula, standards, assessments, etc.) will succeed. A student must be willing to be engaged in learning to learn. It is as simple as that. Those who chide teachers with statements like “if the lesson is not interesting enough to engage a student, it is the teacher’s fault” must have never taught in a classroom, or if so, were fortunate enough to have an impressionable set of students every day.
What impedes students from showing up ready to learn? Several factors predispose students against learning, some of which are related to teacher quality. If a student who once was open to learning is exposed to ineffective teaching, they may lose interest and check out from learning. Mr. Honig’s and many others’ suggestions address this quite effectively. However, students that show up predisposed not to learn, or conduct themselves in such a fashion to prevent learning from occurring, are unlikely to be swayed by comprehensive curricula, standards, assessments, or even highly qualified, highly effective teachers. Their negative predisposition is to learning like kryptonite is to Superman; yes, that super educator the Michelle Rhee’s, Davis Guggenheim’s, Bill Gates’, and others believe can magically make students succeed academically regardless of their current skill level, socioeconomic status, or home life. Oh, and let us not forget that they must follow Superman’s rules or else they must fend for themselves without his protection for they will be banished to another school.
What hardens these students to such a predisposition? The school system can disenfranchise a student who once wanted to learn, so improvements to in-school factors are truly important, as much research shows, and Mr. Honig offers. However, many students show up not wanting to learn since they have fallen sway to the darker forces in their lives that have more appeal to them than any teacher ever could. Sadly, these debilitating forces entrap students under the guise of friendship, acceptance, comfort, and a sense of caring which many have not felt in their home or school life. I know of what I write. I lost a brother nineteen years ago who responded to the sirens call of friendship from those who rejected school, and roamed the streets for their learning. The lessons are hard, and unforgiving, on the streets.
Today, I find myself working with a large population of students who are susceptible to the same hardships my brother lived, which ultimately cost him his life. My efforts to connect with them through the content I teach fall on deaf ears. Not surprised, I try other efforts, often to no avail. And again, I am not surprised. Overcoming a perspective that developed over many years is not easy, and often fails; yet I must persist in hopes that someday I will break through the wall that separates them from me, if not for all, then for the few that I do reach. And while there could be some magical combination of pedagogy, curriculum, or content, which captivates unmotivated students, like my brother, dissuaded from learning, it is highly unlikely, and more importantly, unrealistic to think those efforts alone will turn the tide.
What do we do? That is the $64 billion question. We definitely do not continue repeating the archaic methods and practices in place today, which were first implemented nearly a hundred years ago. Efforts to pile standards and policies on a system ill-equipped to address the inequities of socioeconomic status, and the psychosocial challenges ever-present in human society, are simply asking for failure. The entire system needs an overhaul. It needs to be redesigned to take into account all the factors that influence student academic success both inside, and outside, of school. The late Albert Shanker realized this over two decades ago, and many others well ahead of him. Unfortunately, the charter schools Shanker saw as sandboxes where effective practices could develop and find their way back into the traditional school system never fulfilled their mission, not for lack of trying. All parties, charter school and traditional school, were responsible for making the experiment a success, and it seems vested interests, a lack of trust, and poor communications undermined progress from finding its way back into traditional schools.
In spite of these failures and setbacks, communities and parents need to wake up and to recognize that their long-term health and survival requires their children to succeed. One begets the other. Until parents and communities are directly involved in the educational system, provided resources, training and support, while being held accountable themselves, along with schools, principals, teachers and students, we are fooling ourselves with all of our educational research, policies and practices that simply focus on a limited part of our highly complex educational system. These communities need a Cesar Chavez, Dr. King, and other similar leader to rally around to make this change happen. They are out there and just need to step up and be supported by their community.
Furthermore, we have all the ability and insight we need to redesign our school systems. The many community members, parents, principals, teachers and others in locales across this country know what is most necessary in their schools. They simply need the flexibility and support from local, state and federal governments and agencies so they have enough hope that their efforts will not be in vain which will enable them to get to work. Forget all the bureaucratic policies that attempt to codify everything. Common sense will prevail if sufficient oversight exists to keep everyone honest. Take Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s $4.3B Race to the Top funds, whatever is left, and make them available to each community so they can improve their schools. Empower communities to improve their schools and watch success story after success story occur as the virtuous cycle lifts our nation out of the educational doldrums we have experienced for far too long. Just as the spirit of freedom is sweeping the Middle East today, the spirit of educational freedom can sweep across our nation if we embrace those who have felt treated as pariahs by the educational system and let them reclaim their honor, dignity, and a belief that they have a future to look forward to, for themselves, and their children. Then and only then will the achievement gap begin to close.