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
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
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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