washingtonpost.com
Five Great Educators Who Make a Difference

By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 17, 2008 6:39 AM

Columbia University's Teachers College Press comes out next month with a book about five important reformers: James P. Comer, John I. Goodlad, Henry M. Levin, Deborah Meier and Theodore R. Sizer. If you were assembling the leading American thinkers and writers about education, you would have to include these five. They tell the stories of how they became so obsessed with education and what they learned about improving schools in the book "Those Who Dared: Five Visionaries Who Changed American Education."

It occurred to me that a review of the book by an intellectual midget like myself would not do their lives justice. I don't always agree with them, but many readers will say that is my problem, not theirs. So I asked the book's editor, Carl Glickman, co-convener of the Forum for Education and Democracy, if he could persuade each of them to send me a short essay on the best way to help impoverished children learn.

Sizer, a legendary high school reformer, was ill and could not participate, but the other four have sent me the pieces below, plus a bonus essay from Glickman. I am taking a risk, showing how interesting this column would be if written by any of these visionaries, but I think it is worth it:

Deborah Meier, founder of the Central Park East Secondary School and a leader of the small school movement in urban areas:

To my question, "What do our kids who are the most at risk need?" the answer, in one, short sentence, is: exactly what our most advantaged kids need, and then some.

We learn best and most efficiently in the company of those who are demonstrably good at doing what we'd like to do and those whom we can imagine becoming. That's the history of the human species -- and that's precisely what formal schooling has eschewed for most kids.

What do I mean by "and then some"? I mean that we need to widen the possibilities of the type of person these children imagine themselves becoming. Schools must provide interesting adults who demonstrate their talents in the company of students in ways that make those talents seem accessible and worthwhile to the young. Once we have that right, other things will follow.

The only absolute necessity -- the bottom line that makes public education a civil right --is that we must be sure that, during the 12 years they spend in school, our students have lots of opportunities to see how power is exercised. We must provide them with a passion for democratic forms of power, which are not natural and involve complex trade-offs, balancing acts, and tensions. Neither a few experiences with public service nor a few courses in civics will give them this passion. Nothing less than immersion in a culture that values democracy and grapples with its contradictions, limitations, and compromises can prepare students for citizenship.

Also, we need to help our students get in the habit of seeing themselves as potentially powerful beings -- as being full members of the larger public world, not merely an outsider or a passive observer of it. One of the advantages that come with being a member of a powerful family is that one already takes the latter for granted. However, the best schools for the rich make a big point of training for power. One of the disadvantages of being on the edges of society is that one tends to take one's irrelevance in the larger public arena for granted. And the "boot camp" schools we usually design for the poor reinforce that sense of powerlessness.

Of course, our less advantaged children also need to have equal access to high-quality health care and all the other goodies that money buys their more advantaged peers. It takes a powerful school culture working in collaboration with family and community to turn the habits of powerlessness into the aptitudes of powerfulness. This won't happen by imitating traditional schooling -- even the traditional preparatory schooling of the ruling class. The power of the latter comes precisely from its exclusivity; we can't replicate it on a mass scale.

If we want that for everyone, we need to invent new forms of community for adults and students, forms that create laboratories for exploring -- among many subjects -- the nature of democracy.

James P. Comer, the child psychiatrist who pioneered research on raising student achievement among poor minorities via collaborating with parents and community services.

To educate the lowest achieving students (who are most often poor, in rural isolation, or from marginalized minorities), it will be necessary to turn traditional schooling on its conceptual head. The current, mechanical, input-output model that pervades our schooling system and focuses immediately on curriculum, instruction, and assessment must be changed to a model that focuses primarily on relationships, creating a positive culture, and student development.

What reads like a slight difference is a huge and profound change in practice. Development and learning are inextricably linked and take place through a critical dynamic: From birth caretakers interact with the young in ways that make emotional attachment and bonding possible. Through this arrangement, as the young act on their environment to build their own survival and expressive capacities, they can imitate, identify with, and internalize the attitudes, values, and life management styles of their meaningful caretakers.

Also, through this arrangement, caretakers can mediate the physical (including brain construction), psycho-emotional, moral-ethical, linguistic, cognitive-academic learning growth and development of children and students. Most students from mainstream backgrounds -- regardless of their socioeconomic, racial, or regional backgrounds -- experience this dynamic. Children who do not come from mainstream backgrounds, or who have a non-mainstream experience, are more likely to be underdeveloped, or differently developed, and are less likely to be successful in school and in life.

Such children often lack the competencies, confidence, and sense of belonging needed to perform well in school. They often withhold or withdraw, or act in inappropriate ways as they sense failure in the school setting. Nonetheless, many of these students are from vibrant and meaningful subcultures. Their emotional attachment to kin, friends, and the cultural organizations to which they feel they belong is very powerful. Many of these students, even when making academic progress in school, may eventually be highly conflicted about or reject the mainstream school and life culture if there are no positive sanctions and there is no collaboration between home, school, and community.

Most teachers and administrators -- through no fault of their own -- are not prepared to create school cultures that create a sense of belonging, support student development, and positively sanction activities and behaviors that make success possible in school and in the mainstream of the society. Student underdevelopment and staff under-preparation is the major reason that capable students are performing badly.

The way to change this is simple to state, but difficult to bring about. The entire 3 to 4 million-person education workforce needs to be able to create the kind of school culture that supports development, teaching, academic success and life preparation. There is evidence that this can be done. But leadership within each element of the education enterprise -- parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers at every level and school staff preparatory programs -- must work collaboratively and synchronously to make it possible.

With a focus on the underlying problem, commitment to and an appropriate framework for change, it will be possible to educate all children well.

Henry M. Levin, the economist who has taken education research to new heights in creating the idea of accelerated education, rather than remedial education, for low-achieving students :

What poor children need is what all children need: a nurturing, safe, and stimulating environment that will build on their strengths. Instead, we ignore the nurturance and safety and leave the stimulation to happenstance on the street.

What is clear is that educational policy must support changes in families, neighborhoods, and communities, and not just schools, since only about 10 percent of our children's waking hours are spent in school. But powerful changes need to be pressed upon schools. The types of schools that work for poor children -- and, indeed, all children -- are those that create the richest learning environment and that respond to students' natural wonder and curiosity.

All children are curious. Schools need to be prepared, through a rich curriculum and good instruction, to show all children that their curiosity is an important path for skill development and learning. All children are motivated to learn about the things that puzzle or fascinate them. Schools need to focus on this inquisitiveness by providing children with the skills and opportunities to whet and respond to their curiosity. All children are inquirers, and schools need to provide them with the skills and opportunities to do "research" through conversation and interviews, reading, analysis and contemplation, and then communicate their findings and results to others in a variety of forms, including artistic expression. Computers and electronic media can be important tools in fulfilling these roles.

As children see that their curiosity is valued, they also see that they need to acquire a range of skills to satisfy their curiosity. This is a rather different path to skill acquisition than the arbitrary drill-centered, teaching-to-a-test approach required by No Child Left Behind regulations.

The enriched approach that I am advocating has been used in over 1,000 Accelerated Schools in the United States and abroad with superior results in both basic and advanced skills. In this approach, all students are treated as gifted, and teachers and schools identify students' strengths and then build instructional experiences and needed skill development. Central to this approach is the concept of powerful learning, which integrates curriculum, instruction and school organization-- just as we do for gifted and talented students. In this context, children see meaning in their lessons and perceive the connections between school activities and their experiences outside of the school.

Children become active learners, rather than simply memorizing worksheets, and they develop their natural talents and gifts, applying them in creative ways to solve problems and make decisions, thereby becoming responsible and informed citizens. The overall key is to replace remediation for all children with academic enrichment.

John I. Goodlad, a leading intellect and statesman on the role of education in a democracy:

The small lens of observing problems of schooling narrows the scope of analysis and remediation. Consequently, the present one-size-fits-all model of so-called school reform has led to a narrow curriculum and a reliance on tests of academic achievement as the sole criterion of individual and school quality. Not surprisingly, the scope of efforts to reduce the to-be-expected gap in pupil achievement is confined to the obvious, such as calling for harder work on the part of principals, teachers and pupils. Modest returns become the norm.

The consequences are much more complex and serious than the immediately obvious. Increasing nationwide adherence to this model has significantly decreased the comprehensiveness and relevance of school-based teaching and learning to the point of endangering the longstanding democratic public purpose of schooling. Decades of research on cognition reveal little relationship between standardized academic test scores and the human traits we value highly, such as good work habits, compassion, honesty, dependability, perseverance, respect for self and others and any other of the virtues that provide the moral grounding of our democracy. Major studies reveal widespread public expectations for our schools to embrace the personal, social, vocational and academic development of their students.

We want it all but presently are getting very little. Why, then, waste time and resources, deprive our people of the potential educative power of our schools and endanger the making of a democratic people by narrowing the criterion of school success to academic test scores? We might as well ask, "Why try to fix something that isn't broken but doesn't work?"

I've spent six decades in, around, or studying schools, schooling and teacher education. Tests have been the very backbone of the enterprise for more than four of those decades. We will always have tests; they can be very useful. What the tests of the past 40-plus years told teachers, most already knew -- and, if they didn't, they should have been in another occupation.

Most parents and students were made aware, too, especially at the end of each year, when grade failures were announced. What might have been the reaction of all three groups -- teachers, parents and students -- and all those people in the larger schooling enterprise had they known that slow learners who are promoted to the next grade do as well or better the following year than do matched groups of slow learners who are not promoted? Isn't it time to quit tinkering with a worn-out system that hardened into its present deep structure nearly a hundred years ago? We will not have the schools we need until we come together around the idea that renewing our public schools, one by one, from sea to sea, is the essential starting point for renewing our democracy.

Some of us who are now considered to be "over the hill" stand (or sit) ready to help.

Carl Glickman produced this piece on reducing the dropout rate among urban and rural poor youth with his colleagues on the High School Completion Task Force of the Education Policy and Evaluation Center, part of the University of Georgia's education school:

If there were to be a comprehensive effort for reducing the dropout rate, it would address these known factors:

Students drop out of school because they are uninterested in what they are being taught. This issue can only be resolved by changing school curriculum to make it more active, engaging and relevant. This means providing more up-to-date books, technology and teaching materials; integrated experiences that build on students' interests; and supports that allow classroom teachers to teach in ways that make students want to learn.

Students drop out because they need to support themselves or their parents and siblings, or they have their own children to care for but do not have access to child care. To solve this problem, schools need to coordinate with social agencies and child care and school hours need to be more flexible.

Students drop out because they feel alienated in school. Some students are the victims of bullying and harassment by fellow students, while others leave due to involvement in violence, drugs and other criminal behavior. Still others have an abusive home situation or find their identity in a gang. This shows a need for programs that teach tolerance and acceptance of differences to both school personnel and students. Also, alternative and transitional programs are needed for troubled students, along with more follow-up work at home with families and youth agencies.

Students drop out when they fail state exit exams due to language difficulties; when they are taught by teachers who are certified, but not in the subjects those teachers are asked to teach; or when students have high test anxiety when they are under pressure to perform on standardized exams. There need to be incentives for hiring more in-field teachers and language specialists, providing more professional development for veteran teachers and offering more flexibility in how students can demonstrate what they have learned.

Students drop out because they feel anonymous in large schools in which they do not receive ongoing personal attention and support from the same teachers and counselors for multiple years. Large schools should be broken up into smaller team units or smaller schools, classroom time should be reorganized and class sizes should be reduced so that teachers and counselors can come to know each student well over the course of many years.

Students drop out as a result of nonexistent or poor quality of early childhood programs. High-quality early childhood programs have been proven to help students do well in school and in their adult life. This means that every child, from infancy on, needs a developmentally appropriate, integrated curriculum, complete with rich language experiences and manipulative activities, provided by well-prepared early childhood educators.

Economists Clive Belfield and Henry Levin of Teachers College found that with every additional dollar spent on high-quality programs to keep high school students in school until graduation, the economy benefits by a return of $1.30. Just as important, every student who graduates high school adds to the core of knowledgeable and active citizens of one's neighborhood, state and nation.

Can we afford not to act? Only if we do not care about our common future.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive