Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rebel Education Reform-An Inner City Perspective

Ron Suskind, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gave a name to the current education reform dialogue. He discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t”, or “we won’t”, or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen. (Suskind, 1998).” In his book, A Hope in the Unseen, Suskind retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).” It’s this hope in something unseen that frames my current thinking about education reform.

Tom Whitby has called for posts about positive educational reform today. I wish I could sit down and craft an answer. I wish I could combat all the negative voices on either side of the debate in regular blog posts. I’d like to speak to all constituents in the debate in my regular writing. I wish I had a clearly articulated position that addressed what I agreed with and disagreed with in everyone’s arguments. But I don’t. I am in awe of all of the bloggers participating in this event today. Many of you are such prolific writers, and I am the mayor of procrastinator city. I just haven’t been able to make blogging part of my daily or weekly routine…yet. Part of my struggle is procrastination, but another component is I struggle to find myself, the teachers I work with, or the students I know in anything I’m reading or seeing. The true experience of education reform in the inner city isn’t in the newspaper, or on the nightly news. It’s not in the education nation discussion, or on twitter. What I read each day in the media is so negative, and what’s in many blogs is so positive. My experiences as an inner city educator cannot be summed up with positive blogs or negative press. Inner city education is about living in a shade of grey, and my thoughts on reform are influenced by these experiences.

I know that education reform in action in city schools is like trying to move a mountain. So many factors are stacked against us. It’s difficult to step back from the mountain and provide statements of fact about what I know to be true. So here are two offerings. First, what I experience as it relates to the reform discussion, and second, a set of belief statements that I think are applicable to the reform dialogue. Hopefully the readers will interpret these words as a positive contribution to the discussion.

Education reform is about ignoring perception and beliefs. I love working in city schools. I am passionate about the work I do and the choices I’ve made. But when I meet new people, many assume I’m in city schools because I must not be able to get a job in a better school system. I work in a district where the local newspaper thinks we’re terrible, the school committee says the principals and district leadership are all awful, and the surrounding communities think we are a haven for illegal immigrants. On the days that I get to school ninety minutes before school starts, I feel like I’m one of the last people to arrive. Education reform is about putting in the time to make the changes we expect to see in our schools. Our teachers and administrators are at school before the sun comes up, and they leave long after dark. We know positive change and reform starts with showing up.

Education reform has to be about great instruction and I work with some master teachers. I know a Science teacher who makes inquiry an art. He gets kids to ask questions and think and wonder as they have never before. I know an English teacher who makes words come alive for students. She encourages students to find their voice as writers. She gets students who have never been proud of a sentence they’ve written to publish their work and present before a room full of teachers, writers, and parents. I see teachers who are the eye of the storm for our kids each and everyday.

Despite the negativity associated with the statement, education reform also needs to be about getting bad teachers out of the classroom. What we do in city schools every day is about life and death for kids. When I went to public school it never occurred to me not to go to college. Most of the kids in my district will be the first person in their family to graduate from high school and virtually all will be the first person to attend college. So we can’t afford to have anything but master teachers. But I know plenty of teachers who aren’t. I work with teachers who are bad for kids. I know teachers who don’t believe that our students can be successful. I know a teacher who picks a student to intimidate each year to keep everyone in line. I know teachers who have hit kids, who curse at them, who have decided that the best way to teach English is to yell English louder. I know too many teachers who are immersed in a culture of low expectations and a component of education reform must be about moving these teachers out of the profession.

Education reform has to have room in the dialogue to expect more from your principal, your superintendent, your teachers, your students and your parents. Yesterday, Patrick Larkin asked on the Connected Principals blog if administrators are proud of their schools. Sometimes I am, but I’m not everyday. What a blasphemous thing to say as an educational leader in the blogosphere! But I’ve had parents and students arrested far too many times to always feel proud of what we do and don’t do. I’ve come home from school with blood on my clothing from fights and wondered how this could happen in a place called school. I’ve watched students throw their potential away by dropping out and I’ve felt totally incapable of solving the myriad problems our students bring to us daily. 

There are also days that I’ve felt unimaginable pride for students and my school. I’ve watched students I taught graduate from high school and move on, against all odds to some of the best schools in the country. I’ve known students who made me hope that my son would grow up to be like them. I’ve watched with admiration and pride as teenagers work long hours outside of school to help pay the rent and put food on the table and still find the time to write a history paper or do their math homework. I’ve known our school community to come together to help families in need and rally around teachers and principals who need support. I feel pride for the students who find a way to get to school no matter what is happening in their lives. I feel proud of the knowledge that we offer a safe place for kids each and everyday.

Education reform has to be about more than test scores. Whether your perspective is in an urban or suburban school district, as a teacher or principal, or working with Kindergarteners or twelfth graders, we must be united around refusing to accept that test scores are the result we desire. Education reform must be about changing the dialogue. In my own job, I allow myself to engage in these conversations about whether or not teachers or principals or poverty or standardized tests are the problem. The problem is all and none of these issues.

I attended my son’s preschool open house this week. The director offered these “What We Believe” statements about my son’s school. I’d like the Director to come and give the same talk to the principals and teachers I work with to help us frame what we believe. Here’s part of what she said:

“We believe that all children are interesting, capable beings with much to contribute.”

“We believe children thrive when they are given abundant opportunities to play [and learn] in an aesthetically beautiful environment.”

“We believe each child’s learning is unique and important.”

“We believe children’s work and experiences should be document and valued.”

“We believe that emotional competency is an important factor in school success and overall contentment.”

“We believe play is the work of children and that children thrive when play and creative expression is not only permitted but encouraged.”

“We believe that learning about reading, writing, and math should be enthusiastically facilitated within the context of children’s projects and natural interests rather than as separate academic areas.”

“We believe in building positive relationships between educators and parents.”

“We know that educators are the single most important influence in a child’s experience in our [school].”

(What We Believe, October 2010, JCC Early Learning Centers)

These belief statements begin to give shape to that “hope in the unseen” for me. My experiences as a city educator have taught me that rarely is there a problem with one clear right answer. I just can’t buy the paradigm that either this or that is the problem we have to fix. In my experience, education has very few absolutes and a whole lot of grey. For me, positive education reform begins with elevating the dialogue and redefining our expectations beyond test scores. My son’s preschool director offered up one example of belief statements to elevate this discussion. I have no doubt that I will read more in many of the posts today.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thinking.

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