If you had the power to make one change in public education right now, what would it be? I’m not talking about some sort of magic wand fantasy, so suggestions like “End Poverty” are not appropriate. What I am looking for are changes that could be made.
When Michele Norris of NPR asked that question this week, it got me thinking, and I hope it will stimulate your thinking as well. I left the panel discussion, posted the question on Twitter, asked a few friends, gathered my own thoughts, and then put together this short piece.
The panel that Michele was moderating was titled ‘How All Children Succeed.’ It was organized by TurnAround and JPMorgan/Chase and featured Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” TurnAround CEO Pamela Cantor, Scott Palmer of Education Counsel, and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.
Dave Levin had the simplest — and perhaps the most profound — suggestion. “Change the sign,” he said. He reminded us that virtually every school has signs trumpeting a familiar slogan, “All Children Can Learn.” That should come down, Dave said, and be replaced by signs reading “All Will Learn.” Not ‘can’ but ‘will,’ reflecting a new determination and responsibility. And ‘all’ means ‘all,’ he said, including the adults! Changing the sign was, for Dave, an important first step toward changing the way adults in schools approach their jobs.
My change is similar to Dave’s. I would have adults change their fundamental question. Stop asking “How intelligent are you?” and ask instead, “How are you intelligent?” Changing that mindset would (could) lead to vastly different schools. School could become places where children are encouraged to find and follow their passion. An end to ‘one size fits all’ education.
Along that line another necessary change — the importance of connecting — emerged in the discussion. Kids growing up in low income environments face stresses that well-off children can’t begin to imagine, and we know that children who are severely stressed simply cannot focus on learning. We also know that all children need the love and support of some adults. “It doesn’t have to be the parent,” Pam Cantor said, “But it has to come from someone.” I was reminded of E.M. Forster’s cry from the heart, “Only Connect.”
For her ‘one change right now,’ Pam Cantor suggested that all teachers reach out to parents with positive comments. That resonated with me because I saw my daughter Elise doing it a dozen or more years ago when she was teaching in a middle school in Harlem. Nearly all of her kids were Hispanic, and she made a point of calling their parents early in the year and praising their children — in fluent Spanish — for something they had done in class. With a few kids, she admitted, it was a stretch to find something worth cheering about, but she felt that it was absolutely critical that the parents’ first contact with their child’s teacher be a positive one. That’s also what Pam stressed. She pointed out that school was rarely a positive experience, suggesting that schools failed them, not the other way around. “We need to break that pattern, teacher by teacher.”
Paul Tough encouraged home visits by teachers when kids are older but recommended earlier connections (I noticed that he didn’t say ‘interventions’) of the type done by Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. The earlier the better, he seemed to be saying, a view echoed by Scott Palmer. That’s not ‘government meddling’ but help that most families are hungry for. Dave Levin echoed that: “We can’t let a vocal minority scare us away from helping the majority, when we know they want help.”
One Twitter follower focused on teaching: “Ease 1st year teachers into the classroom with reduced teaching load combined with support, prof development, peer observations.”
Another didn’t need anywhere near her 140 characters: “End High Stakes Testing!” was all she wrote. Aristotle, who wrote “We are what we repeatedly do,” might well agree.
Paul Tough spoke thoughtfully about the challenge of helping children learn to manage adversity and failure. Too often, he said, well-off parents want to keep their kids from ever falling down, even though it is only by falling down that one learns to get up and try again. Conversely, poor kids have so much adversity in their lives that what they need is more protection, more encouragement. (You ought to read his book, if you haven’t done so).
The conversation naturally expanded to cover other ways schools could be changed so that all children can succeed. On one significant point there was complete agreement: this country needs to make a long-term commitment to children, meaning a serious effort to help parents of infants and toddlers. “We need to make a 20-year commitment,” Dave Levin said.
One prominent American couple actually has the power to make one change that would reshape public education. I am referring to Edy and Eli Broad. Earlier this week I attended the annual Broad Prize festivities honoring the nation’s most outstanding urban school system. After being a runner-up for four years, Miami-Dade finally won, based on its remarkable accomplishments in raising achievement scores among Latino and Black students. That’s certainly notable, of course. But suppose that the Mr. and Mrs. Broad decided to emphasize — big time — two additional criteria: the vibrancy of the arts programs and the effectiveness of the social/emotional programs? Suppose school systems, eager to win the national acclaim and the $1,000,000 in college scholarship money, knew that they had to get serious about attending to the needs of the whole child if they wanted the judges to view them as contenders for the Broad Prize? Suppose systems knew that, if they weren’t providing opportunities in the arts, the judges would turn their backs?
You know darn well what would happen: The arts would come back to life. Counseling, mentoring and supporting would be center-stage, where they belong. And schools would be happier places for young people.
So here’s the burning question: If you could make one change right now, what would it be? Perhaps if enough of us put forth ideas, we may end up with a workable list of 10 or 20 changes that could be made now. Then we’d be on to something.
I look forward to your responses.