This article appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
There’s a little town outside of West Palm Beach called Belle Glade. It’s a dirt-poor, mostly African American town. It has produced more professional football players than any other town in America. Some people say it’s because the grass is so hot that they run fast there. I say it’s because we love football. Football coaches will go anywhere to get a football player: in a trailer park, in a dirt shack, in a housing project.
It’s a reflection of our priorities, our popular culture, what we care about, what we invest in, and what we don’t.
A year after Katrina, the Superdome was up again. Years later, there were still no schools in the lower Ninth Ward.
The biggest obstacle to educating children right now in America is the belief that some children aren’t worthy, or simply can’t learn, or that their parents don’t care.
If you believed that was true, then you wouldn’t be troubled. You’d say, “Well, look who we’re working with.”
That says something about American culture.
The small Caribbean island of Barbados has a higher adult literacy rate than the United States. And the people are poor.
When I was there, 300 students took the SAT, and all of them got a score over 1200. All of them were black. All of them were poor or working class.
Why is it that being poor and black is not an obstacle to achievement in Barbados? It’s not about race. It’s about something else. It’s very American. I think unless you travel and see other places, you don’t realize how American this phenomenon is.
If we could figure out how to meet the academic and nonacademic needs of students, if we could see kids beyond their deficits, and understand their strengths, their needs, how they learn, and engage them, we would design very different kinds of strategies. We would think more about how to create a different culture in the school.
In many schools, parents are seen as the obstacle—we will do this in spite of the parents, not with them—and it shows. Parents always have an impact—either positively or negatively. The kids who have the worst outcomes are those whose parents are least engaged.
We need a different kind of vision.
We need to think about the work of teaching as being embedded in a community, and we need to see the community as a partner.
I’ll give you an example.
There’s a school on the Lower East Side, PS 18, which is located right in the housing projects. There are high rates of substance abuse among the families, and of mental illness. School stays open at night until ten.
There is a published novelist there who is doing a writing workshop for kids.
The principal hired him because her theory is that it’s not enough to teach writing. It’s important to get someone who has a passion for writing to teach. Because what she wants to do is to expose her kids to excellence, so they can aspire to excellence. She’s not focused on remediation and teaching grammar. She’s focused on developing voice in her kids, and teaching them to aspire to become writers.
At night, that same school is open to parents. There’s a juice bar and an Internet café, and services for families, because that same principal believes the school has to function as a community center for parents.
The city recently put a charter school in there and displaced nearly half the kids, so a resource that was vital to that neighborhood is being taken, under the guise that their school was “failing.”
In other schools, they are not asking, “How do we raise achievement?” They are asking, “How do we get kids excited about learning?”
At a school I work with in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, every student learns the violin. They want to expose them to music, something outside their experience. They also think that teaching violin will help teach them self-control, how to breathe, how to concentrate—something beyond getting higher test scores.
Right now, for the most part, we use fear as a motivator, as a strategy—fear and pressure on schools.
The State of Florida puts letter grades on schools: A to F. Edison High School in Miami gets failing grades.
The principal told me recently, “Now the state says they’ll take us over.” I asked him, is he worried about being taken over? “Not at all,” he said. “There are so many schools just like us. And furthermore, do you think the State of Florida would know what to do if they took us over?”
There is a different way to think about this term “accountability.” Accountability can mean that people in authority are actually implicated in the performance of a school. This is the Canadian model, where officials from the ministry of education go in and say, “What can we do to help?”
We’ve been focused on this question of the achievement gap. I would argue the gap is not simply about test scores. It’s about so much more. It’s about gaps in learning opportunities, about gaps in preparation, gaps between ability and performance.
Teachers will tell you that a lot of kids don’t care about the tests. They just zip through the questions. They don’t take them seriously: “This might mean a lot to you, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m in fourth grade.”
How do we address these gaps?
The center I direct at NYU works with several school districts around the country. Many of the schools that perform at higher levels are doing things that allow them to get better results from kids in poverty because of the way they are organized. They have built a strong sense of community. Teachers aren’t working in isolation. They work in teams. They collaborate. They analyze work together. They plan lessons together.
The Bronx Academy for Language and Technology serves the most vulnerable in New York City. These are all recent immigrants with interrupted education in their home countries. That means they were not attending school regularly. So they are not literate in their native language, which is Spanish.
Many of their peers drop out because many of them are also undocumented.
But the Bronx Academy has over 90 percent of its students graduating. What is their secret?
Not a single lesson is delivered to a student unless it has been vetted by another teacher. They meet and plan together every day. They critique each other’s lessons.
Since 40 percent of the kids are undocumented, teachers are worried about how they will get gainfully employed. Hence the focus on technology. They start them in community college in their junior and senior year, so they are already getting college credits without having to formally apply.
Every teacher in the school is also a teacher of literacy, no matter what subject they teach.
When I asked students, “What do you like about the school?” they kept telling me, “It feels like family,” “It feels safe here,” “ I feel supported here.”
Schools like these are showing us that you can in fact devise strategies to teach kids who are on the edge.
I sat in on a ninety-minute math class at Hollenbeck Middle School in East Los Angeles. When the bell rang, the students acted like they were disturbed, they were so engrossed in what they were doing.
There are schools like Eagle Academy in the South Bronx, a school for young men that was created explicitly by David Banks to counter the pull of the streets. David told me, “We need to create a school to save young men from early death, from violence, from prison.”
He has six schools now, all premised on the idea of creating a prep school for young men who would otherwise be in reform school or worse.
The first time I ran into young men from Eagle Academy, I was on the subway in New York City. I saw three guys in ties. One offered his seat to a pregnant woman. I thought at first they were Mormons.
I asked them, “Who taught you to offer up your seat like that?” They said, “That’s the Eagle way.”
So I was curious. I asked, “What’s the Eagle way?”
I found out their strategy is, first of all, to keep these young men so busy they don’t have time for the streets, and to expose them to activities that are outside of their experience, like chess, and robotics, and fencing.
When I was there, they had the Tuskegee airmen come in—men in their eighties who had served in World War II. The message was: You are capable of greatness, and there are great things expected of you.
When you go to schools like that, you see there’s a different strategy about much more than achievement. You see kids who take more ownership and become more invested as learners.
One of my colleagues was so impressed by what he heard about in a high-performing middle school we work with in the Bronx, he opened up his chemistry lab. So now those kids are working in the chemistry lab at NYU, and they are exposed to the university, and they are applying there.
The reason I share these stories is this: I have a lot of colleagues on the left who say until we do something about poverty and capitalism, nothing can be done. That leaves us paralyzed.
Others will tell you the problem is the kids: they are inferior, and can’t be helped.
If you don’t challenge that, there’s complacency.
There is a lot we can do.
I spent time studying school reform in Boston. We looked at ten schools, all subject to the same kinds of reform. Some got better, some didn’t.
We decided to ask the kids about their experience in school.
One thing we found was that the district was using the fear of failure as the primary motivator on kids. For kids in poverty, fear of failure is not a very good motivator, especially if they already know a lot of failure. What we were hearing from kids when we asked them, “What motivates you to do better?” was hope—hope that I can do well, and hope I can help my family through education.
Fear is powerful. But hope is powerful, too.
Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University and the author of several books, including Invisible No More: Understanding and Responding to the Disenfranchisement of Latino Males and Schooling for Resilience. This piece is adapted from a lecture he gave at the Havens Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Watch the entire lecture here.