November 23rd, 2011

DISCUSS: What Should We Be Thankful For In Education?




What should we be thankful for in education? We convened several individuals to discuss the topic. You may also be interested in our piece on the state of the American teacher, embedded above.


Joe Nathan, Macalester College

Six main categories of strength this fall

Joe Nathan is the Director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College. He is a former inner city teacher and administrator, PTA president and the author of four books.

I am thankful for students who overcame huge difficulties and succeeded — in helping others, or in helping themselves to graduate, enter some form of higher education, and return to help young people in their communities.

Educators in some district and charter public schools who refuse to make demographics destiny. Through their creativity, persistence, passion and skill, they help young people accomplish far more than the young people thought possible. Often, an important part of their work is to blend academic and artistic work. These adults eliminate gaps between students of different races and income levels.

The immense power of artistic expression. At its best, art, music and other forms of the arts help give us insight, courage and hope.

Foundations and other community groups willing to identify and work with educators who are making a difference, to help them make even more of a difference.

State and national legislators who are seeking — and finding — ways to encourage and assist the most effective educators.

Journalists who seek out the successes, as well as the shortcomings. The best of them help readers/listeners understand what is, and is not working.

And that’s just a short list.


Anne Wescott Dodd, Bates College/College of New Jersey

Just look how far we’ve come in a relatively short time

Anne Wescott Dodd, Senior Lecturer in Education Emerita, Bates College, is the author of several books and numerous articles about education, teaching, and learning. She continues to teach online for The College of New Jersey’s global program in education.

When I first considered responding to this question, my mind went blank.

After all, who could be thankful for No Child Left Behind? The obsession with proving students have learned by stressing their performance on standardized tests to the exclusion of teaching them to think critically and develop a lifelong passion for learning? The fact that too many believe public schools and overworked teachers can even begin to solve complex societal problems when so little is done by anyone else to alleviate poverty, to mitigate the effects of adult substance abuse and domestic violence on children, or to make our streets and homes safe and nurturing for all children?

Then I recalled schools decades ago, and I can see how far we have come.

I remembered Donald, a classmate in 8th grade, who always sat in the back of the room by himself. He was bigger than all the other kids and rather clumsy. The teacher never asked him to read aloud when we all read a paragraph from the social studies book. Then we all moved on to high school — Donald didn’t come with us. As many students did back then, he dropped out of school at the end of 8th grade along with many of the Franco-American kids who lived in “Frenchtown” and went to work in the mill with their fathers.

I can’t forget teaching my first-period English class in a large California junior high school. My class, the so-called low achievers, was labeled “Basic,” and small by California’s standards — 30 students. My class list included IQ scores for every student. While several students were classified as “slow learners,” a few boys, bigger and older from being held back, had juvenile records. The kids from Cuba spoke Spanish, not English. A shy girl, newly arrived from Indonesia, knew only Dutch. I struggled all year, trying to teach something to such a diverse group with only a state-adopted textbook they could not read.

Today, because of special education and ELL programs, these students would have opportunities to learn and grow. They would not be left behind. That is a lot to be thankful for.


Robert Enlow, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

The conversations are shifting, and for the better

Robert C. Enlow is the President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He has worked at the Friedman Foundation since it started in 1996.

First, there has been a significant shift in the dialogue about education. The focus is now on students not systems, on what students need to succeed and not on what systems need to have to continue existing in the current form. This shift has been brought on by a number of factors, including the increasing international competition, the continuing quality issues in American schools, the state budget fiscal crises, changes in the political context and, most importantly, growing parental demand for quality options. The status quo is simply no longer acceptable and solutions are being sought from every possible angle, including those from outside the traditional public school system.

Second, I am thankful for the dramatic increase in parental school choice. In 1996, there were only five programs operating in five states that allowed parents to access private schools using public funds. Today, there 27 school voucher and tax credit scholarship programs that operate in 18 states. These programs allow a wide variety of families, including low-and-middle income families and those with special needs children, to select a private school option using public funds. Moreover, charter schools have grown dramatically and now around three percent of all children in America attend a charter school of choice.

This demand for more options, particularly from lower income families, should give us greater hope the future of American education. As the conversation shifts from school systems and school type to school choice and school quality, the hope is that American children will graduate with a bucketful of human capital that they can use to ensure our country remains an economic powerhouse.


Joyce L. Epstein, Johns Hopkins University

Successful partnerships are being implemented

Joyce L. Epstein is director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University.

My colleagues and I are especially thankful for the educators, parents, and other partners who use our research and the resulting training, tools, and materials to strengthen their programs of family and community involvement. Hundreds of preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools, and scores of districts, states, and organizations in highly diverse communities across the country and in Canada are members of our National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) at Johns Hopkins University. They are showing that they can apply research-based structures and processes to plan, implement, evaluate, and continually improve their policies and practices to engage more and different families in their children’s education.

When research is ready for use in practice, implementation is everything. Without good partners in education, research remains — literally — on the shelf. So, it is very gratifying to see that educators, parents, and others in the community can work together — creatively and purposely — to ensure a welcoming school climate and conduct activities to improve students’ attendance, behavior, and college and career readiness; increase student achievement in reading, math, and help students meet other goals for success in school.

Our research shows that what schools do to implement good partnerships is the best predictor of whether and which families and community members become involved in their children’s schools and education. The schools and districts in NNPS are confirming this research result by taking action to engage their own students’ families in productive ways, regardless of their racial, ethnic, linguistic, educational, or socio-economic backgrounds. Their dedicated work is worthy of many thanks.

If you want to meet some of those who are taking new directions in developing their partnership programs, visit our site and read about their very promising partnership practices in the section Success Stories. You will see why I am thankful for and inspired by their work in November and all year ’round. You, reader, may be inspired to join them on the path to partnerships.


John M. Holland, Emergent Learner

Teachers are now part of the public discussion

John M. Holland has dedicated his career to serving the neediest and youngest school children as an NBCT preschool teacher of 3- and 4-year-olds from Richmond, Virginia’s toughest neighborhoods. Currently he writes about Pre-K issues on his blog Emergent Learner.

I am most thankful for increased focus on accomplished teaching in our public schools. Over the past several years the rhetoric about teaching has been mostly focused on the mediocre and failing teachers in our public schools. A crescendo of teacher bashing — which began in 2010 with the L.A. Times use of value-added measures to publicly “out” good and bad teachers — reached fevered pitch in February 2011 when Gov. Scott Walker stripped collective bargaining rights from teachers. This now seems to have abated. The likes of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Chester Finn have changed their tone in the popular media these days. It may be due to several thousand teachers standing up for themselves in July at the Save Our Schools march or it may be due to the increased number of young and seasoned teachers speaking out about education.

One might call me foolish. I don’t spend much time reading local newspapers online so I am not so exposed to the everyday comment venom spat by Joe the Plumber types across our nation. I have spent some time listening to the bigger pundits and it seems that many of those that felt safe bashing teachers less than six months ago have taken a step back from trying to push us off that particular cliff.

Yet, in September I attended the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow technology and innovation conference and was pleasantly surprised by David Brooks. All of the panelists, including Klein and Finn, seemed to show a little more understanding of the learning process than they previously seemed capable. In the opening session David Brooks said:

“… people learn from people they love, they don’t learn from computers they love, and anything that gets in the way between the relationship between the teacher and the student is something I’m likely to be skeptical of.”

This step back from the edge of blaming teachers and increased focus on the relationships great teachers have with their students is new. The fact that the Times would back track even a little bit to include teachers means that teachers will no longer be left out of the public discussion about what happens in our classrooms.


Darren Beck, Harmony Educational Services

Think about Julie Andrews (just follow along for a second)

Darren Beck, the new Director of Strategic Development for Harmony Educational Services (turnaround and hybrid specialists), has taught at and been the administrator in elementary and secondary schools in California and Utah since the 1990s. He previously served as the VP (1 year) and President (2.5 years) of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

Have to admit that when the opportunity arose to express what I am thankful for in education, Julie Andrews immediately came to mind. You know that moment when the thunder and lightning hit around the Von Trapp mansion and our favorite unorthodox novice, Maria, huddles with the children and sings arguably one of the best educational songs ever, “My Favorite Things.”

Why that song, you ask? Maria taps into prior knowledge and acknowledges she has a multiage group with varying levels of ability to deal with and does so expertly with that trademark sweetness we have come to expect. She addresses the sorts of things kids are grateful for in their increasingly mixed up lives. She doesn’t shy away from identifying and especially validating the kids on those matters that are or will soon come to be deeply disliked, things that will cause stress and fear to be ever-present. But she doesn’t overdo it, instead opting to fill her charges with hope. (And I’m not talking about some fruitless dream that ignores there is a real world to deal with, but hope that is anchored to real need, high expectations, and just enough idealism to get these children over their challenges.)

I’m thankful for so many folks out there throughout education who aren’t willing to give up or quit. No matter how many “dogs bite” or “bees sting” or sadness hits on a given day, they get up in the morning (if, in fact, they slept) with the idea that they’re going to impact kids. All sorts of people trying to do what they think, what they feel, what they believe to the core of their being to be the best things to raise hope, lift hearts, and create a vision for what can be.

When I think of these people (and express gratitude for them), then I don’t feel so bad.


Amy Wilkins, The Education Trust

Many are believing it can be done

Amy Wilkins is vice president for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust. An experienced political and community organizer, Amy previously worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, the Democratic National Committee, the Peace Corps and the White House Office of Media Affairs.

I’m most thankful for all of the educators across the country who — undeterred by myths about what some kids can’t do — are doing the hard work necessary to close the achievement gap.

Take the educators at George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala. Their students — almost all African American and poor — achieve at levels that far surpass those of many schools serving only wealthy, white kids. Teachers at George Hall ensure that their lessons are rich, effective and broaden student horizons. Instead of saying that their kids are too poor to learn at high levels, they use field trips and other outside materials to build background knowledge and provide the kinds of experiences that more affluent children get as a matter of course.

Similarly, Elmont Memorial Junior-Senior High School in New York is a large, comprehensive middle and high school that serves nearly all students of color, has a 96 percent graduation rate and aims all of its students not just at entering college, but at completing college. The strongest teachers at Elmont are assigned to the students who are furthest behind, and every student has access to college-prep AP classes. Indeed, Elmont’s principal dismisses excuses about any student’s abilities: “Because a child is poor doesn’t mean he can’t learn. Because a child lives in the projects doesn’t mean he can’t learn. If there are gaps, we must fill those gaps.”

The educators at George Hall and Elmont are just some among thousands who are proving that no one should give up on a child because of circumstances in his life that are beyond the school’s control. Instead, as George Hall’s principal puts it, “First, we have to believe it can be done.”

Some may say that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty and racism. But I’m grateful for the educators who show us every day that the opposite is true.


Eva Baker, UCLA

Our imagination shall guide the way

Eva L. Baker is a Distinguished Professor, Director of the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST). She works in educational assessment, reform, and new technologies. She has held national offices in professional and academic organizations, and conducts most research in schools or designed for military training.

I am thankful our education system is struggling to get it right for all levels of students, but especially for the youngest, and our least well prepared. Our nation is built on immigration and opportunity. I believe we can find ways to re-energize our approaches by focusing on individual students, and individual teachers in a supportive rather than punitive way. A great source of optimism for me is how some countries have been able to put aside their extreme political differences to forge highly effective educational (and economic) systems.

Why is the US not in partnership with societies that have solved some (but not all of our problems)? Think of South Korea and Japan as examples. Look around at the best: fewer not more tests, tasks involving 21st century skills, preparing students for the certainty of uncertain futures. Softening in accountability and admissions testing.

An inveterate techie, I’m ready to discount those without much imagination about that part of our future. I am thankful for foundations and innovative government agencies still willing to take a chance on an unusual solution, one that might make the lives of teachers, students, and parents better, in social, emotional, and intellectual roles. I believe our imagination, transformed to reality, will lead us to satisfying new careers, not just jobs, and improve the lot of us all. Most, I am thankful for the spiritual ethos that comes with American optimism, not limited to formal religion, but focused on our responsibility to others.

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A big change in ease of maintaining contact with past students has come to pass with the Internet. We still continue to learn, and, if actively teaching today, we have a longer time period available to assess the effect(s), to plan changes, consequently, that we had on students.

E-mail, as well, offers students an opportunity for a response deferred in time. Students never telephoned (this was before the cell/smartphone era) and frequently missed office hours (schedule conflicts, mostly), but e-mail allowed mutual convenience. This also tended to separate the mature/responsible student from the immature/less than responsible student.

Overall, the multiple communication modes and significantly enhanced visual presentation modes ought to be considered one of the greatest collection of advances for the good of education. I was quite handy with a camera and often used 35mm slides in my advanced chem classes, few of my colleagues ever did by comparison.

David, your last paragraph is especially interesting to me (I agree with you about Internet and email). I have worked with many terrific teachers who have developed something that works well (like 35mm slides in chem classes) and found profound indifference from colleagues. Any thoughts about that? Professional jealousy seems like a big and rarely discussed issue. I’m interested in your thoughts on what might be done.

As the parent of a young college student with high-functioning autism, I’m thankful for the dedicated special education professionals who work with a most needy and difficulty student population. My son was driven to clinical depression (1st & 3rd grades - shame on them) in a “good” neighborhood charter school. Teachers there refused to work with IEP required therapists or provide the modifications or accommodations required so he could succeed (I don’t do that in MY class). I found a little nonpublic school outside our district as no options nearby had openings, appropriate settings or wanted our child. I drove a 75 mile round trip - twice a day for 7 1/2 years to this little nonpublic school “that could”.

I am forever grateful for the owner/administrator, the teachers and aides for giving my son the chance he deserved. When he was placed, he hit, kicked, screamed, bit people and threw things (all learned at the charter school - he never had such violent outbursts at home until treated so badly). It took one full year before he realized he was “safe” and could sit and attend in class. Once he realized it was ok to be himself, he learned and has been an A/B student ever since. He is now in a community college, takes the bus by himself and is very proud (as are his parents) of his accomplishments. He worked hard, but could not have been able to do so without those wonderful people who gave him the confidence to believe in himself.

I continue to work with other families of students with disabilities in K-12, because I believe all students have the potential to succeed if we allow them the tools to do so. My son is a sign of hope for the success of their children.

I have no idea what he’ll end up doing as a profession, but I know he’ll be happy and feel proud in whatever he accomplishes. He could not have come so far without that little nonpublic school.

Thank you for giving my son his future.

I offered some thoughts on this topic on another thread. I will not repeat those here.

As I look back over this year there is one thing for which I am very thankful, and that is the many people who came together for this past summer’s Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. We were teachers, parents, teacher educators, politicians, … people who wanted a focus on things beyond test scores. As a result there is an ongoing effort to attempt to broaden the public discourse on education beyond the things that have been pushed by the likes of certain foundations who have used their money and influence to drive out other voices.

I am also very thankful to those students who are willing to enter into sometime scary places, when their teacher (me) asks them not only to take ownership of their learning, but to embark on journeys of exploration of mind and self for which there is no predetermined answer. That makes entering my classroom each day an exciting challenge for me. It also makes a 5-day break like the one on which I am now somewhat depressing, because I am removed from my students.

I’m thankful John Holland was part of this panel! Regarding Amy Wilkins’ statement, I don’t know who those “some” might be, those who “say that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty and racism.” That seems to distort what I hear more often, but if you are hearing that, I’d hope that if pushed to clarify their viewpoints, few people would cling to that formulation of the problem.

What I do hear in the debate, and what I also believe, is that you can’t expect schools alone to overcome all of the problems and challenges of poverty. You can’t ignore the effects of malnutrition or post-traumatic disorder and just pin your hopes on great schools and teachers. You can’t move children from school to school to school and then blame the schools if the child struggles to maintain academic progress. You can’t wish away the homelessness as you carry on with brilliant lessons. So, by all means, let’s do everything we can to improve schools, right now; every school and every system should be engaged in critical analysis and reflection and continual innovation. Schools should know their student body, understand and meet their needs. But the fact that some schools are figuring out how to overcome those long odds must not be used to defame the schools that haven’t had as much success yet. And as long as our national priorities pay lip service to inequity and budget for inequity, let’s not pin the blame on the schools for the mistreatment they endure at the hands of our politicians and voters.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute in this forum. I sincerely appreciate the diversity of perspectives described above. I wanted to bring one resource to everyone’s attention. A new series in Ed Week online titled Teaching Ahead, is providing teachers the chance to contribute to the national discussion on the direction of schooling. A plethora of young and seasoned accomplished teachers are voicing their opinions each month around a certain theme. The theme this month was student assessment. Check it out here. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_ahead/

In 1987, when I deemed the Boston Public School system outside the realm of possibility for a learning environment for my four year old child, and I found the private school system full to the brim, I had serious trouble explaining Home Schooling to myriad relatives and neighbors, and even to my husband. As a Founding Mother of the H.O.M.E. Club of Boston, I am thankful for the evolution now occurring within the education community that includes the sharing of facilities with learners who are not fully engaged with the system.

The physical plant itself, and the teachers employed therein, are a deeply important resource for every community, and not one which should be denied to anyone. Now there are opportunities for those two factions - the administrative and the home - to work together to share resources, just as hospitals do share their institutionalized and often magical tools and employees. With an average of 83% of our local taxes being used for public school facilities, it is a pleasure to see these changes.

Thanksgiving Reflection!

I have several big projects I am working on right now, and yesterday for some reason at the end of my emails to my collaborators I started typing “We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Then I got to thinking that I was typing it, but had I stopped to reflect on all I had to be thankful for? Well, here goes my attempt at doing so. My top ten list to be thankful for:

#1. Isn’t it cool that we serve a God that shows grace, continues to put us in the right place at the right time, puts the right people in our lives at the right time, and all the other great things even though, in my case, we fail miserably at serving him?

(The gap here is to emphasize how much more important #1 is than anything else I have to be thankful for!)

#2. An incredible wife and son. They make me better everyday.

#3. Great leaders who I consider coaches, mentors, and great friends. Such as Dr. Tony Bennett, State Superintendent of Public Instruction; Kevin Eikenberry, The Eikenberry Group; Dr. Dale Whittaker, Purdue University; Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Purdue University, Dr. Pamela Harrison, my Doctoral Committee Chair at Walden University; and Dr. Hobe Jones, retired Purdue University Professor who got me into teaching.

#4. The greatest Agriculture Science Teaching Staff in the country: Stacey Hartley, Ambra Tennery, and Kristen Scott.

#5. Outstanding students that are all ROCK STARS!

#6. Outstanding teachers to teach with.

#7. Outstanding school to teach in.

#8. Incredible corporate partners that help me be an effective teacher like SMART Technologies, Apple, Steelcase, Pasco, and many more.

#9. Community that cares about our school and education.

#10. The ability to DREAM BIG & HAVE ZERO FEAR OF FAILURE!

There are things I am sure I will think of after I hit “Publish,” but as I always say, “Don’t let perfection get in the way of a great thing.” I am so glad I took time for this reflection & encourage you to do the same.

As an international teacher I am thankful for all the learning opportunities I face each day that force me to become a more creative and effective teacher. I am constantly being challenged by the laws of the country I work in, locating resources, and teaching an entire classroom of ELLs. I am thankful for being from a country that allows me to leave and teach elsewhere. I appreciate knowing that I am a member of a vast group of people who care about others and dedicate their lives to doing their best to encourage and help their students no matter the obstacles.

I am thankful for students whose work and ideas transform my courses–students who take interest in the subject, think about it keenly, and challenge my own thinking about it.

I have written about this in two blog essays:

1. “How Student Work Can Illuminate Teaching,” http://gothamschools.org/2013/04/12/how-student-work-can-illuminate-teaching/

2. “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity,” http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/06/20/curriculum-a-springboard-to-creativity/




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