Five Great Educators Who Make a Difference
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Mon Dec 8 15:14:43 UTC 2008
Five Great Educators Who Make a Difference
By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 17, 2008; 6:39 AM
Columbia University's Teachers College Press comes out next month with
a book about five important reformers: James P. Comer, John I.
Goodlad, Henry M. Levin, Deborah Meier and Theodore R. Sizer. If you
were assembling the leading American thinkers and writers about
education, you would have to include these five. They tell the stories
of how they became so obsessed with education and what they learned
about improving schools in the book "Those Who Dared: Five Visionaries
Who Changed American Education."
It occurred to me that a review of the book by an intellectual midget
like myself would not do their lives justice. I don't always agree
with them, but many readers will say that is my problem, not theirs.
So I asked the book's editor, Carl Glickman, co-convener of the Forum
for Education and Democracy, if he could persuade each of them to send
me a short essay on the best way to help impoverished children learn.
Sizer, a legendary high school reformer, was ill and could not
participate, but the other four have sent me the pieces below, plus a
bonus essay from Glickman. I am taking a risk, showing how interesting
this column would be if written by any of these visionaries, but I
think it is worth it:
Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East Secondary School and a
leader of the small school movement in urban areas:
To my question, "What do our kids who are the most at risk need?" the
answer, in one, short sentence, is: exactly what our most advantaged
kids need, and then some.
We learn best and most efficiently in the company of those who are
demonstrably good at doing what we'd like to do and those whom we can
imagine becoming. That's the history of the human species -- and
that's precisely what formal schooling has eschewed for most kids.
What do I mean by "and then some"? I mean that we need to widen the
possibilities of the type of person these children imagine themselves
becoming. Schools must provide interesting adults who demonstrate
their talents in the company of students in ways that make those
talents seem accessible and worthwhile to the young. Once we have that
right, other things will follow.
The only absolute necessity -- the bottom line that makes public
education a civil right --is that we must be sure that, during the 12
years they spend in school, our students have lots of opportunities to
see how power is exercised. We must provide them with a passion for
democratic forms of power, which are not natural and involve complex
trade-offs, balancing acts, and tensions. Neither a few experiences
with public service nor a few courses in civics will give them this
passion. Nothing less than immersion in a culture that values
democracy and grapples with its contradictions, limitations, and
compromises can prepare students for citizenship.
Also, we need to help our students get in the habit of seeing
themselves as potentially powerful beings -- as being full members of
the larger public world, not merely an outsider or a passive observer
of it. One of the advantages that come with being a member of a
powerful family is that one already takes the latter for granted.
However, the best schools for the rich make a big point of training
for power. One of the disadvantages of being on the edges of society
is that one tends to take one's irrelevance in the larger public arena
for granted. And the "boot camp" schools we usually design for the
poor reinforce that sense of powerlessness.
Of course, our less advantaged children also need to have equal access
to high-quality health care and all the other goodies that money buys
their more advantaged peers. It takes a powerful school culture
working in collaboration with family and community to turn the habits
of powerlessness into the aptitudes of powerfulness. This won't happen
by imitating traditional schooling -- even the traditional preparatory
schooling of the ruling class. The power of the latter comes precisely
from its exclusivity; we can't replicate it on a mass scale.
If we want that for everyone, we need to invent new forms of community
for adults and students, forms that create laboratories for exploring
-- among many subjects -- the nature of democracy.
James P. Comer, the child psychiatrist who pioneered research on
raising student achievement among poor minorities via collaborating
with parents and community services.
To educate the lowest achieving students (who are most often poor, in
rural isolation, or from marginalized minorities), it will be
necessary to turn traditional schooling on its conceptual head. The
current, mechanical, input-output model that pervades our schooling
system and focuses immediately on curriculum, instruction, and
assessment must be changed to a model that focuses primarily on
relationships, creating a positive culture, and student development.
What reads like a slight difference is a huge and profound change in
practice. Development and learning are inextricably linked and take
place through a critical dynamic: From birth caretakers interact with
the young in ways that make emotional attachment and bonding possible.
Through this arrangement, as the young act on their environment to
build their own survival and expressive capacities, they can imitate,
identify with, and internalize the attitudes, values, and life
management styles of their meaningful caretakers.
Also, through this arrangement, caretakers can mediate the physical
(including brain construction), psycho-emotional, moral-ethical,
linguistic, cognitive-academic learning growth and development of
children and students. Most students from mainstream backgrounds --
regardless of their socioeconomic, racial, or regional backgrounds --
experience this dynamic. Children who do not come from mainstream
backgrounds, or who have a non-mainstream experience, are more likely
to be underdeveloped, or differently developed, and are less likely to
be successful in school and in life.
Such children often lack the competencies, confidence, and sense of
belonging needed to perform well in school. They often withhold or
withdraw, or act in inappropriate ways as they sense failure in the
school setting. Nonetheless, many of these students are from vibrant
and meaningful subcultures. Their emotional attachment to kin,
friends, and the cultural organizations to which they feel they belong
is very powerful. Many of these students, even when making academic
progress in school, may eventually be highly conflicted about or
reject the mainstream school and life culture if there are no positive
sanctions and there is no collaboration between home, school, and
Most teachers and administrators -- through no fault of their own --
are not prepared to create school cultures that create a sense of
belonging, support student development, and positively sanction
activities and behaviors that make success possible in school and in
the mainstream of the society. Student underdevelopment and staff
under-preparation is the major reason that capable students are
The way to change this is simple to state, but difficult to bring
about. The entire 3 to 4 million-person education workforce needs to
be able to create the kind of school culture that supports
development, teaching, academic success and life preparation. There is
evidence that this can be done. But leadership within each element of
the education enterprise -- parents, teachers, school administrators,
policymakers at every level and school staff preparatory programs --
must work collaboratively and synchronously to make it possible.
With a focus on the underlying problem, commitment to and an
appropriate framework for change, it will be possible to educate all
Henry M. Levin, the economist who has taken education research to new
heights in creating the idea of accelerated education, rather than
remedial education, for low-achieving students :
What poor children need is what all children need: a nurturing, safe,
and stimulating environment that will build on their strengths.
Instead, we ignore the nurturance and safety and leave the stimulation
to happenstance on the street.
What is clear is that educational policy must support changes in
families, neighborhoods, and communities, and not just schools, since
only about 10 percent of our children's waking hours are spent in
school. But powerful changes need to be pressed upon schools. The
types of schools that work for poor children -- and, indeed, all
children -- are those that create the richest learning environment and
that respond to students' natural wonder and curiosity.
All children are curious. Schools need to be prepared, through a rich
curriculum and good instruction, to show all children that their
curiosity is an important path for skill development and learning. All
children are motivated to learn about the things that puzzle or
fascinate them. Schools need to focus on this inquisitiveness by
providing children with the skills and opportunities to whet and
respond to their curiosity. All children are inquirers, and schools
need to provide them with the skills and opportunities to do
"research" through conversation and interviews, reading, analysis and
contemplation, and then communicate their findings and results to
others in a variety of forms, including artistic expression. Computers
and electronic media can be important tools in fulfilling these roles.
As children see that their curiosity is valued, they also see that
they need to acquire a range of skills to satisfy their curiosity.
This is a rather different path to skill acquisition than the
arbitrary drill-centered, teaching-to-a-test approach required by No
Child Left Behind regulations.
The enriched approach that I am advocating has been used in over 1,000
Accelerated Schools in the United States and abroad with superior
results in both basic and advanced skills. In this approach, all
students are treated as gifted, and teachers and schools identify
students' strengths and then build instructional experiences and
needed skill development. Central to this approach is the concept of
powerful learning, which integrates curriculum, instruction and school
organization-- just as we do for gifted and talented students. In this
context, children see meaning in their lessons and perceive the
connections between school activities and their experiences outside of
Children become active learners, rather than simply memorizing
worksheets, and they develop their natural talents and gifts, applying
them in creative ways to solve problems and make decisions, thereby
becoming responsible and informed citizens. The overall key is to
replace remediation for all children with academic enrichment.
John I. Goodlad, a leading intellect and statesman on the role of
education in a democracy:
The small lens of observing problems of schooling narrows the scope of
analysis and remediation. Consequently, the present one-size-fits-all
model of so-called school reform has led to a narrow curriculum and a
reliance on tests of academic achievement as the sole criterion of
individual and school quality. Not surprisingly, the scope of efforts
to reduce the to-be-expected gap in pupil achievement is confined to
the obvious, such as calling for harder work on the part of
principals, teachers and pupils. Modest returns become the norm.
The consequences are much more complex and serious than the
immediately obvious. Increasing nationwide adherence to this model has
significantly decreased the comprehensiveness and relevance of
school-based teaching and learning to the point of endangering the
longstanding democratic public purpose of schooling. Decades of
research on cognition reveal little relationship between standardized
academic test scores and the human traits we value highly, such as
good work habits, compassion, honesty, dependability, perseverance,
respect for self and others and any other of the virtues that provide
the moral grounding of our democracy. Major studies reveal widespread
public expectations for our schools to embrace the personal, social,
vocational and academic development of their students.
We want it all but presently are getting very little. Why, then, waste
time and resources, deprive our people of the potential educative
power of our schools and endanger the making of a democratic people by
narrowing the criterion of school success to academic test scores? We
might as well ask, "Why try to fix something that isn't broken but
I've spent six decades in, around, or studying schools, schooling and
teacher education. Tests have been the very backbone of the enterprise
for more than four of those decades. We will always have tests; they
can be very useful. What the tests of the past 40-plus years told
teachers, most already knew -- and, if they didn't, they should have
been in another occupation.
Most parents and students were made aware, too, especially at the end
of each year, when grade failures were announced. What might have been
the reaction of all three groups -- teachers, parents and students --
and all those people in the larger schooling enterprise had they known
that slow learners who are promoted to the next grade do as well or
better the following year than do matched groups of slow learners who
are not promoted? Isn't it time to quit tinkering with a worn-out
system that hardened into its present deep structure nearly a hundred
years ago? We will not have the schools we need until we come together
around the idea that renewing our public schools, one by one, from sea
to sea, is the essential starting point for renewing our democracy.
Some of us who are now considered to be "over the hill" stand (or sit)
ready to help.
Carl Glickman produced this piece on reducing the dropout rate among
urban and rural poor youth with his colleagues on the High School
Completion Task Force of the Education Policy and Evaluation Center,
part of the University of Georgia's education school:
If there were to be a comprehensive effort for reducing the dropout
rate, it would address these known factors:
Students drop out of school because they are uninterested in what they
are being taught. This issue can only be resolved by changing school
curriculum to make it more active, engaging and relevant. This means
providing more up-to-date books, technology and teaching materials;
integrated experiences that build on students' interests; and supports
that allow classroom teachers to teach in ways that make students want
Students drop out because they need to support themselves or their
parents and siblings, or they have their own children to care for but
do not have access to child care. To solve this problem, schools need
to coordinate with social agencies and child care and school hours
need to be more flexible.
Students drop out because they feel alienated in school. Some students
are the victims of bullying and harassment by fellow students, while
others leave due to involvement in violence, drugs and other criminal
behavior. Still others have an abusive home situation or find their
identity in a gang. This shows a need for programs that teach
tolerance and acceptance of differences to both school personnel and
students. Also, alternative and transitional programs are needed for
troubled students, along with more follow-up work at home with
families and youth agencies.
Students drop out when they fail state exit exams due to language
difficulties; when they are taught by teachers who are certified, but
not in the subjects those teachers are asked to teach; or when
students have high test anxiety when they are under pressure to
perform on standardized exams. There need to be incentives for hiring
more in-field teachers and language specialists, providing more
professional development for veteran teachers and offering more
flexibility in how students can demonstrate what they have learned.
Students drop out because they feel anonymous in large schools in
which they do not receive ongoing personal attention and support from
the same teachers and counselors for multiple years. Large schools
should be broken up into smaller team units or smaller schools,
classroom time should be reorganized and class sizes should be reduced
so that teachers and counselors can come to know each student well
over the course of many years.
Students drop out as a result of nonexistent or poor quality of early
childhood programs. High-quality early childhood programs have been
proven to help students do well in school and in their adult life.
This means that every child, from infancy on, needs a developmentally
appropriate, integrated curriculum, complete with rich language
experiences and manipulative activities, provided by well-prepared
early childhood educators.
Economists Clive Belfield and Henry Levin of Teachers College found
that with every additional dollar spent on high-quality programs to
keep high school students in school until graduation, the economy
benefits by a return of $1.30. Just as important, every student who
graduates high school adds to the core of knowledgeable and active
citizens of one's neighborhood, state and nation.
Can we afford not to act? Only if we do not care about our common future.
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