Schools vs. poverty, racism

Can Schools Overcome Poverty and Racism? Deborah Meier tackles Mike Petrilli’s question on Ed Week’s Bridging Differences.

. . .  it isn’t money “alone” (it actually rarely comes alone) that damages the children of the poor. Still, we both agree that money helps. For example, the poor are more likely to be in school while suffering from pain (e.g. toothaches, nausea, or a fever or untreated wound.) Going to the doctor, finding someone to stay home with the baby, taking a day or two off work are advantages that money buys.

It’s worse when poverty is generational, Meier writes. And it’s also about race. “There’s a difference when you know, for sure, that your poverty is not a reflection of your racial inferiority.”

For today’s poor, schools probably are better than before World War II, “but not good enough to wipe out poverty,” Meier writes.

Children need “to belong to a place that embraces them, their families, and their communities.”

 If from Day One we acknowledge their rich language (yes) and ideas and the experiences they are trying to understand we’ll do better than imagining they come to us as blank slates. We also need space so that a group doing “x” can get excited without bothering Group Y. So that “projects” don’t have to fit inside a notebook for lack of space to think bigger or get finished in an hour for lack of storage and display space.

We need quiet places and noisy places, places full of books and computers and others full of paint and clay. We need adults with the freedom to make spontaneous decisions—shifting the conversation in response to one of those “wonderful moments” and deviating from any designed curriculum. Teachers need the time to mull over what they have learned from student work (written as well as observed) and collegial time to expand their repertoires. We need feedback from trusted and competent colleagues. We need time for families and teachers to engage in serious conversations. We need settings where it seems reasonable that kids might see the school’s adults as powerful and interesting people who are having a good time.

Success should be defined “in broader ways than test scores or college completion,” Meier concludes. And “we need to also tackle poverty directly.

She recommends My Life in School by her “hero,” Tom Sobol, New York state commissioner of education in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Does it work? asks Petrilli inPoor kids need a hand up, not a hospice.

Does your vision of schooling work to help poor children gain the skills and knowledge and confidence and connections that will allow them to climb the ladder into the middle class? Does it help them do better than they otherwise would have, if they had gone to a “regular” (boring!) school?

. . . If you were seeking an “accountability waiver” for Mission Hill, or similar schools, what would you be willing to promise in terms of student outcomes? Higher graduation rates? Lower teenage pregnancy rates? Lower incarceration rates? Higher voting rates? Higher college matriculation and completion rates (including at the AA level)? Lower unemployment rates? Higher wages?

Without some way to assess student outcomes, “we’ve turned your beautiful educational vision—complete with books and computers, paint and clay—into a form of childhood hospice—a respite from life’s daily struggles, but also a surrender to the inevitable.”

Planting the seeds at Mission Hill

A Year at Mission Hill, a 10-part video series on a experimental Boston public school, is now complete, writes Sam Chaltain in (Extra)Ordinary People.

Mission Hill founder Deborah Meier believes “democracy rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

We see a montage of children in various states of joy. We hear teachers sing the words of poet Kahlil Gibran at their school’s graduation ceremony (“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”). And we watch principal Ayla Gavins tell her staff she will refuse to administer new testing requirements under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

“The freedom of teachers to make decisions about their classrooms and their lives is essential, ” Meier says. “The whole point of an education is to help you learn how to exercise judgment – and you can’t do that if the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.”

Ed policy opponents aren’t evil

Whether you support or oppose education reforms, your policy adversaries aren’t evil, writes Daniel Willingham. Furthermore, you probably don’t know what they’re thinking — especially if you think they “don’t care about kids.”

Despite his opposition to education reformers and his “history of defending teachers and their unions,” Pedro Noguera was labeled anti-teacher (by Bridging Differences colleague Deborah Meier and others) for writing that teachers’ “unions must be clearer about what needs to change,” he complains. That’s bad strategy, Noguera writes.

If we also take the position that anyone who suggests that teachers’ unions are not doing enough to push for change in the way schools operate we will lose critical supporters, and not just me. There is widespread failure in urban schools (and many suburban and rural schools as well). Change is indeed necessary.

Some of the comments suggest that everyone who supports education reforms must be in league with right-wing knuckle-scrapers, if not Satan himself.