My Challenge to Schools
Stories of schools transformed and students’ lives transformed are always inspiring and always thought-provoking. Fare on transformational teachers has infused my life from The Blackboard Jungle to Conrack to Les Choristes, but transformational schools are another matter. From Ted Sizer’s Horace books to watching a video about Central Park East Secondary School that pointed me toward Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, I have read, as a part of my own transformation as an educator, a succession of books that have made me ever more committed to some of the ideas and ideals they espouse. Just this summer I have read Dennis Littky’s The Big Picture and Transforming Schools by Bob Lenz, Justin Wells, and Sally Kingston.
Because I can be a little slow to see the obvious, it has taken me until about now to realize something that should have been as plain as the nose on my face: All these tales of transformation are about schools whose student communities are on the south side of the American socioeconomic curve. These stories matter so vitally to us because they offer the promise of reducing achievement gaps and redeeming lives failed in multiple ways by systems that have turned their back on America’s poor and underserved, their families and their children.
The inspiring narrative has common characteristics—kids at risk and often woefully below grade-level in essential skills and knowledge, families disengaged, frightened even, with expectations as low as the American Dream is stratospheric. New management, or perhaps a new school, with new ideas and new beliefs, new practices and a new culture of learning. Outcomes: graduation rates rise, proud first-in-family stories.
And this is great. It’s outstanding, and it’s wonderful for those kids and families, and it truly is inspirational.
Now, I don’t believe that my readers here represent a big swath of the demographic that these stories are about. Whether you’re a casual reader, a friend, or someone from an Independent Curriculum Group Partner trying to figure out what I’m all about, chances are pretty good you’re at an independent school that serves a population more likely to reflect The Emperor’s Club than To Sir, With Love. But these stories inspire us still—maybe they play on a certain guilt even as they give us good ideas.
And they are very good ideas. Take Transforming Schools, for example, which details the process by which Envision Schools make project-based learning the basis of a rigorous, engaging curriculum and teaching culture that seems to being out the best in kids even as it prepares them for college—and the California higher education system in particular—at rates that confound all previous expectations.
Independent schools tend to prepare kids for college at rates that absolutely conform to expectations. Whether the school is straight out of Dickens or innovative as the dickens, independent schools exist to prepare generally affluent and ambitious students from affluent and ambitious families for selective college admission, with the presumption that once admitted they have the skills—if not always the will—to succeed. The happy ending is foreordained; the eye-catching stories the media and entertainment industries tell about our schools are about our supposedly anomalous failures.
But what if—and many readers may be about to jump up and say, But we are! We are!—an independent school, a St. Basalt’s or Jolly Valley Country Day, were to wholly, fully embrace the ideas and practices, from start to finish, of one of these transformational, inspirational schools?
What if we were to admit the possibility that our own students, however accomplished and able they might be, however many generations of college attainment underlie their current success, might still have room for even greater, grander transformations? What if we gave our own students the opportunity to live, say, the culture and program that changes lives at the Envision Schools? What if our teachers, rather than happily assuming that all will be well, push all their students as hard as the Envision Schools push theirs—through real failure and authentic success?
I’d sure like to see that happen. I’d go so far as to challenge the independent school community, the ICG and beyond, to embrace and live the philosophies and practices that seem to have worked so well in schools with less privileged student bodies. What more could our best students do? How might the students on the wrong side of our own achievement gaps be inspired really to take the leaps we dream of for them?
So, is your school ready to take the challenge? To have the faculty and board read Transforming Teaching (for example) and then do it, soup to nuts?
Because here’s another thing that occurred to me, late as usual, but powerfully: The argument for these transformational practices is compelling and backed by experience, but in a small sample. But if these ideas were put into practice in other kinds of schools, if evidence could be produced that these practices will work not just for “at risk” kids but for every kid, then we would have a case for giving up this testing and accountability 2.0 madness. Along with CPESS, the Met, the Envision Schools, and all their cousins, St. Basalt’s and Jolly Valley Country Day could be a part of legitimatizing manifestly effective practice and showing the nation and the world that engaging, complex, problem- and project-based learning is not just what “poor kids” need but what every kid needs.
How about it? Are you ready to even consider this?
Notes on the News
I often muse on the news but seldom write about it, but several of today’s stories in my part of the world are particularly compelling. The pieces that catch my eye tend to be cautionary tales of both positive and negative import relative to topics that have personal meaning for me. Only one is about education, per se, but both are sure enough about learning.
Years ago our family had a Sudanese foster son. He was a student at the school where I taught who suddenly needed a new living situation early in his junior year in high school. From knowing almost nothing about the foster care system, refugee services, and even the civil war in southern Sudan (which grinds on as a war in South Sudan decades later), we went to being at least knowledgeable. We enjoyed every moment as we saw this wonderful young man through high school, through the citizenship process, through graduation for college at the high of the recession, and into the job market. Today we root for him as he looks for a woman to be his spouse, a process which has so far involved a couple of trips back to Africa—the war zone, the refugee camps, and even to the villages where he spent his very early childhood.
Thus, we take the situation of African refugees in the U. S. rather personally, and so it was with delight that I read in the Boston Globe of the trend among Lewiston, Maine’s Somali refugee population toward returning to farming as both a food source and a “therapeutic hobby.” It’s a heartening article, especially as it chronicles the transition from rather unwelcome to increasingly engaged that the Somalis have experienced in Lewiston. Somalis aren’t Sudanese, I know, and the cultural differences are huge, but it’s just kind of nice to be shown that our nation is still capable of absorbing a population whose “differences” are apparent in many, many ways and that there are possibilities for immigrant populations to find “oases” even in small places with unfamiliar, even strange, cultures and climates. (A sidenote: Most of the Sudanese refugees from the “Lost Boys” era were from herding villages, and at least some of those who made it to college in the U. S. in later years studied dairy science; I assume but do not know for certain—and I certainly hope—that some of these young people found both employment and personal renewal in the diary industry.)
The other story has to do with “the sexual culture at an elite boarding school,” or words along those lines. There’s no need to name the school and add to its discomfort today; the story is easy enough to find.
Like so many “scandals,” this story affords the regional press all kinds of opportunities to drop words and phrases redolent of privilege and corruption and gives reporters the chance to feel as though they are unearthing the dreadful among the one percent—and after all, they are. But what the story tells me is that the conversation on sexual behavior, and perhaps particularly on the sexual expectations of males, needs to be much broader than the usual fare we read about every day where “rape culture” and fraternity-related crimes and misbehavior seem to be confined to, once again, more or less elite colleges and universities.
Our society oversexualizes all kids, not just the wealthy, and the life it tries to sell to them, and the messages sent by the entertainment and liquor industries in particular (but, oh, so many more!) and meekly accepted by the generality of our citizenry don’t include much about sexual and personal responsibility. If students at one boarding school tally their sexual conquests on a laundromat wall, kids everywhere, and their older siblings and (gasp!) even their parents are tallying theirs in other ways, or worrying themselves that they are underperforming.
The media will continue to pillory highly reputed institutions where certain kids and adults get caught doing certain things, but I wish they would also take the lead in helping our society do more to self-reflect on and unpack the deeper issues that underlie the “scandals.” What happened at the school that’s in the news today is happening all over the place, and the kids and adults whose lives are damaged or destroyed by this behavior aren’t just those who are headed to Harvard, as today’s story so gleefully reports. We could all do a lot more to ask Why? and to build cultures where kids treat one another with integrity and respect—and where adults do the same. It’s my romantic idealism showing again, but really, why won’t we?
So that’s the news for today—good and bad, with lessons to teach and lessons for us all to learn.
One of my pet projects for the past few years has been to find ways to increase the real, teacher-level discourse among educators from the private and public sectors, in all their manifold incarnations. The metaphor I and my colleagues in this endeavor has been that of a bridge—our lip-popping Twitter hashtag, #PubPriBridge, and our related website say it all. Who doesn’t like bridges?
Earlier this week I took my quest over the physical Sagamore Bridge to EdCamp Cape Cod, my second time at this event held at Sandwich High School and organized by a team so efficient that it made my head spin. They had shaken the sponsor money tree so hard that one of the longest sessions was the prize giveaway at the end. And there was even fresh bread left over.
My usual session, in the case titled “What Do Private And Public School Educators Have To Say To Each Other?” drew a pretty paltry crowd—four of us in a room, representing (as teachers, former teachers, former students, and parents) every sector from parochial to charter to mainstream public to independent to home-school. The conversation was spirited, and it uncovered something that needed to be uncovered, I guess.
To put it bluntly, Cape Cod is a region of shrinking demographics for school-age children, a significant level of underemployment, and a surfeit of schools. While several public school systems have joined to regionalize, the highest-profile charter school is seeking to open a third campus, and the smallish independent schools are in a justified panic about where their new students might come from. The uppermost tiers of the socioeconomic bleachers even tend to send their kids to boarding school or even to commute—something probably unthinkable before an old rail line reopened as a commuter line—to independent schools in Boston.
Two years ago at EdCamp Cape Cod the grumpy lunchtime banter among the public school teachers was about the big charter, which seemed to be drawing off the best students with its IB program and low cost. This year there was doomsday talk about the independent schools and even some of the smaller public districts. Everyone agreed that the culprit is demographics, and just this afternoon the Boston Globe confirmed this with a chilling feature piece titled, “Why are so many young professionals fleeing the Cape?”
Monday’s conversation at EdCamp, however, took even more turns. Were the charters and some of the private schools trading on a kind of elitism? Was something referred to as “white flight”—something we know way too much about in metro Boston—in play? Were the increasingly diverse immigrant communities scaring families with the savvy to go charter or the funds to pay for private away from the mainstream public schools? Was income inequality driving these trends faster and harder than ever? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, was the consensus, and this among educators who happened to be or to have been stakeholders in every sector. It wasn’t a pretty picture being painted.
For the #PubPriBridge-building idealist in me, this was a sad conversation, as much as I wound up learning. I knew a bit about this all from my previous EdCamp Cape Cod and from living in the region, but the hardest part was witnessing a conversation among educators that never really got to “the good stuff” about education. Wariness and fear of competition leached the teacher-talk right out of the room, even among a tiny handful of people who had come in predisposed to share and learn.
Here’s what I learned, though: I “learned” what as a teacher and a citizen I already knew, that when people and interests are pitted against one another, whether by design or by overwhelming social and economic forces, what suffers is the advancement of education. Teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and ultimately children who are forced into places of suspicion and fear aren’t going to be doing as much as they could to promote or deliver or support or experience authentic, whole-child, democratic learning.
Short of an economic miracle, not much seems likely to change on the Cape in the next few years, and in the great scale of things I suppose things aren’t as bad as they might be, say, in inner-city Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri, or in the hundreds of U. S. counties where “rural poverty” dominates the landscape. In all these places, just as on picturesque Olde Cape Cod, the educational conversation is derailed and twisted by economics and ill-considered policies that turn the possibilities of erecting bridges into something more like digging bunkers.
I have no cure, no solution, but if indeed “you learn something new every day,” this part of my learning that day was kind of dreary. It’s a good thing the rest of EdCamp Cape Cod was terrific—including the sponsor-supplied food and refreshments (Coke and Pepsi!)—and I came home as much energized as disheartened.
But as I recrossed the Sagamore Bridge and headed back toward Boston, all I could think of was that the #PubPriBridge is sometimes a lot harder to build than I think it should be, for reasons that don’t have very much to do at all with teaching and learning.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)