It always seems impossible until its done. ~ Nelson Mandela
Read enough blog posts, follow enough people on Twitter and attend enough educational conferences and you might be fooled into thinking that moving schools into the 21st Century is a relatively easy task. There are lots of success stories–many examples of dedicated educators making tremendous progress in shifting educational paradigms. But, I am here to tell you that this “school improvement thing” is not as easy as you might think. I am entering my seventh week as a principal, and truth be told, it has been a bit overwhelming. There have been a number of successes in our first few weeks of school, but there are a significant number of challenges that lie ahead.
Perhaps our most daunting challenge is building the universal belief that all of our kids are capable of success (see Do You Mean What You Say?). A significant number of our students come from low socio-economic areas in our community and it is far too easy to write off their academic performance (or lack thereof) as a product of their environment. Socioeconomics is absolutely a factor to consider as we plan educational strategies and interventions, but not one that should determine whether or not a student is successful at our school. Troubled by a few comments I heard this week that implied that some of our students (those from economically depressed neighborhoods) may not be capable of meeting high expectations, I pulled It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools off the book shelf, in a search for ideas. It proved to be a worthwhile read.
Author Karin Chenoweth, presents the stories of a number of schools that have a proven track record of success, in spite of the obstacles encountered in high poverty communities. In addition to providing vignettes of schools that have beat the odds, Chenoweth identifies characteristics of the schools where “it is being done.” Here are a few of my favorites:
- They have high expectations for their students. ”They assume that their students are able to meet high standards and belive their job is to help their students get there.” This goes beyond simply establishing expectations — it means providing the necessary supports for students to be successful.
- They don’t teach to the state tests. Instead, they teach a “rich, coherent, curriculum tied to state standards” and they emphasize the importance of involving students in meaningful, engaging and collaborative activities.
- They use data to focus on individual students, not just groups of students. Learning is personalized. For schools that beat the odds, it is not enough to have a general sense of how the school is performing, it is necessary to know how every student is progressing.
- They constantly reexamine what they do. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We can ill afford to continue doing things just because that is how it has always been done. Reflection and successful education are inseparable.
- They make decisions on what is good for kids, not what is good for adults. The “beat the odds” schools consistently based decision-making on the best interest of students. This sounds like common sense, but it’s not as easy as it appears. For every action and activity we must ask ourselves: (1) what is my purpose, (2) is this a good use of time/resources, (3) is this in the best interest of my students?
- They establish an atmosphere of respect. ”Students are treated with respect, teachers are treated with respect, and parents are treated with respect.”
- They like kids. I would hope that every educator likes kids (if you don’t, please find another profession). However, we have all had those kids who make empathy a challenge. Chenoweth makes a great observation about how these students are perceived at schools that are beating the odds, “the struggles that students have outside school only increase the regard teachers and principals have for what they are able to achieve in school.”
In 2010, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Pedro Noguera speak to this issue. Dr. Noguera talked about the importance of helping kids from poverty develop social capital — access to people and resources that will open doors and help them succeed. He also warned of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and something he referred to as Pobrecito Syndrome. He implored educators to refrain from lowering standards, but instead work diligently to make high standards accessible to all students.
I wish I had more answers than questions about how to address this issue in our educational system, but I do believe that success and achievement in schools with significant numbers of students coming from low socio-economic homes is not impossible. Shame on us if we assume otherwise.
Related post: Beyond the Blame GameChenoweth, Karin. It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007.