Big Think Interview With Pedro Noguera

A conversation with the Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University.
  • Transcript


Pedro Noguera:  My name is Pedro Noguera.  I’m a professor at New York University.  That’s good.

Question: What was your educational experience like growing up?

Pedro Noguera:  I was educated partially in New York City in the public schools.  We moved from New York to Long Island.  I attended public schools in Long Island, a place called Brentwood, very large public school system there.  I’ve often said I succeeded in spite of my education, not because of it.  I attribute a lot of my own success in education to my parent’s influence, which is ironic because neither of my parents had a high school degree, but they put a lot of emphasis on the importance of education, the importance of learning and so all six of my siblings all graduated from college, very good colleges, so a lot of it was really their influence and what they instilled in us.  Schools for me were never, I would say, that intellectually stimulating.  There were a few exceptions along the way, but I say a lot of what I learned I learned outside of school as well.

Question: In what areas of education reform are you most actively involved?

Pedro Noguera:  Sure.  Well I’m a sociologist and the focus of my work for the last 20 years or so has been trying to understand the way the social context influences what goes on within schools, so how change in the economy, changes in communities, demographic changes all impact children’s lives, their families and the schools they attend, and so a lot of my work has been involved in trying to help particularly urban schools, but even suburban and rural schools that are dealing with difficulties in educating all the children they serve, which typically means children of color, children who are poor, children who don’t somehow meet the norm, making sure that they understand what it takes to educate those kids, and I think that that interest comes right out of my own experience in recognizing how vital and how important it is to provide all kids with a solid education.

Question: What causes the high dropout rate in minority communities, and what can curb it?

Pedro Noguera:  Well you know there are many factors that influence the dropout rate.  What I like to remind people of is dropping out is a symptom of a larger problem and if you don’t address the underlying causes then you never can solve that problem.  Kids don’t dropout in high school.  They typically the signs that they’re becoming increasingly alienated from school show up much earlier and the problem is that schools don’t intervene early or effectively.  Some kids leave because of the pull of the streets.  Some kids leave because they need to work to support their family.  Some kids leave because nobody at school cares about them.  They haven’t made any connections with adults, because they’re bored, because they don’t think what they’re learning is relevant or meaningful, so there are a lot of reasons why kids end up leaving school.  What I’ve found is that there are schools that serve large numbers of poor African-American, Latino kids that where they are graduating, where they are thriving and what we don’t do is learn from those schools and do more what they do and what works and what you find in those schools generally is strong relationships between the adults and the students, a real clear sense of mission about why they’re there, an understanding of how to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of those students, all the things that are lacking typically you find present and so it’s not as though it’s as hard as it sometimes seems.  I think right now we have policymakers who are kind of you know banging their heads thinking what will it take to reduce the dropout rate and I keep saying well look at the places where you have low dropout rates and do more of that.

Question: Are high-dropout schools hurt more by insufficient external (government) or internal (community) support?

Pedro Noguera:  Well I think it… the factors are internal and external, so for example doing work in Newark right now, Newark, New Jersey and it has high dropout rates.  One of the big factors is that kids start to realize when they’re in high school there are no jobs for them in Newark and so the… Why stay in school if you… education is not going to result in a real change in their life, either access to college or access to a job the motivation to stay in school diminishes over time.  So it’s what is going on outside of school, but also then you have parents and adults in the community who also have had experience of having education not work for them, not open doors, so what starts to happen is there is a sense within the community that education is not the pathway to success and that’s born out of experience.  It’s not a myth.  It’s true, and so what you need to do is you need to start to create a different reality by creating some schools that do in fact open doors and create pathways to opportunity for kids.

Question: Which is a larger problem for failing school districts: lack of funding or misuse of funding?

Pedro Noguera:  Well money is certainly important.  You know in this country we consistently spend the most money on the most affluent kids and the least money on the poorest kids, so I would say if money didn’t matter then why don’t we just reverse it for awhile and see, try it out, but nobody is interested in that, at least not in the affluent communities, but nonetheless, it’s not simply about money.  There are schools in high poverty areas that have resources and you see resources wasted or used ineffectively, so it’s money is important, but by itself it is not a solution.  It’s how the money is applied.  It’s both the efficient use of resources, but also the effective use you know and that is where good leadership is necessary.  Accountability is necessary to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to do.  It’s essential that you evaluate to make sure that if you set up a program to help kids that there is evidence that it actually helps kids.  So I would say that money is always a factor, but it is never a solution by itself.

Question: How can a failing school be turned around?

Pedro Noguera:  Well I say you have to focus on three areas and you have to focus on them simultaneously.  First you have to focus on the culture of the school, the attitudes, values, beliefs, the norms, the relationships.  Typically failing schools have dysfunctional cultures, a culture of blame, a culture where not working, not teaching is accepted and if you can’t find ways to change that you can’t really move a school, so you really need to focus on creating a culture that is focused on accountability, on achievement, on learning, a culture that is focused on creating stronger relationships between adults and kids with a clarity around mission.

In addition to focusing on culture you have to address the systems in place, systems for how you make sure that the curriculum is in place, for how you make sure that interventions that draw on best practices are being applied to kids, systems that allow you to use technology effectively, that allow you to diagnose learning needs of kids effectively, so there are systems that also have to be put in place, so that the system that is at the school is not just dependent upon the whims of individuals, but it can function even if you have a change in teacher or principal, the school still functions as an organization that has a clarity around its purpose.

And then the third key ingredient is always leadership.  You have to have people in leadership roles who have vision, who have the ability to motivate, inspire the people around them, who have the ability to share responsibility, to mobilize and recruit resources for that school.  You need leadership to attract good teachers.  You need leadership to sustain good teachers because without a good principal in place teachers tend to suffer, so leadership is a critical variable in all this.  Leaders who know how to generate a sense of buy in from the staff and then from students and the parents are really what it takes to create highly effective schools.

Question: Why do you believe No Child Left Behind contributes to de facto segregation in the schools?

Pedro Noguera:  Well basically No Child Left Behind doesn’t address it, hasn’t touched it.  You know here we have a law that you know if you look at the law itself it’s literally hundreds of pages long and no mention at all over about the need to create integrated schools.  Think about this.  By the year…  Most demographers project by the year 2040 or 41 we will be a country where people of color make up the majority.  To not prepare kids to function in a world where they’re going to need to interact with diverse groups of people I think is to deprive them and to deny them a good education.  There was a time in this country where we thought that was important, where we were willing to risk a high degree of polarization by busing people and you know finding ways to integrate communities and schools.  We’ve retreated from that.  Some of that is because of the courts.  A lot of that is because the lack of political will.  Where we are now as a country is accepting the idea of segregated schools and I think it’s like Plessy.  The idea of Plessy vs. Ferguson was separate but equal.  I think that’s where we are now.  We’re still not at equal, but I think that many people are satisfied with separate.  I think that that is a huge political problem.  I think they will never be equal because the way we educate our kids is directly related to the way we value not only the children, but also their parents and the communities they live in and so I see this as a major political challenge that there is not much leadership to address right now.

Question: If there were the political will to solve the problem, how would you recommend solving it?

Pedro Noguera:  Well I think we’ve had major setbacks in the courts, which have limited the ability to integrate schools, so you can’t cross district lines, for example, to create more diverse schools, so there are legal limitations out there, but beyond that one of the major reasons why schools are so segregated is because in many cities the public schools disproportionally serve the poorest kids, and what ends up happening when that is the case is that middle class people, affluent people don’t put their kids in the public schools, so you end up with a two-tiered system, a private one for the white and the affluent and a public one for the poor.  That’s New York City.  That’s Chicago.  That’s most cities across the United States.  The only way to address that is to significantly invest in the public schools, so that the public schools can really offer an education that the middle class would choose for their children, so I think that’s got to be part of the strategy.  You can’t attract white middle class parents unless you address the quality of the schools.  Now it’s also true that there is still bias.  There is prejudice and there are a lot of white parents who don’t want their kids in school with poor black and brown kids, and so I mean creative ways you could address that through magnet programs and other issues, but ultimately it does change of beliefs and my hope is that with time some of those attitudes will change too.

Question: Has national education policy changed or remained the same under Obama?

Pedro Noguera:  I think there is a lot of continuity from Bush to Obama in terms of education policy.  There haven’t been many major changes and I’m disappointed about that.  I think that neither the president nor the secretary is clear what was wrong with No Child Left Behind, and what I see coming from the administration so far is too much emphasis on charter schools and a tendency to frame it as a competition between charters and traditional public schools.  When you consider the fact that the vast majority of kids are in public schools I think that is a big mistake.  I just think if you don’t have a strategy for addressing the quality of education that children receive in public schools then you don’t really… you can’t really innovate and improve those schools, and so far I haven’t heard the administration come up with any ideas that sound particularly innovative.  They say they want to encourage innovation.  They never define what that means or what it looks like or anything else.

Question: What education reforms need to take place within government?

Pedro Noguera:  Well at the state and federal level basically what we need are ways to intervene more effectively in schools that are floundering, the chronically failing schools.  Shutting them down is not a strategy for improving them.  It may be an option that we have to consider, but we first of all need to figure out why were they failing in the first place and get at the root causes of failure and I think that I don’t know of any state governments, much less the federal government that has figured out a strategy for doing that effectively and so I would say that would be one big thing they could do.  The other big thing that both the state and federal government have to do is to think about creative ways of linking educational efforts to economic development efforts.  If you want to improve schools in Detroit you have to think what are the… what jobs are we preparing kids for in Detroit?  If it’s not going to be manufacturing cars then we need something else.  Otherwise you’re going to continue to have a mass exodus of people from Detroit or Cleveland or any of the other major industrial areas in the Midwest and Northeast, so we need to think creatively and strategically what are the jobs for the future?  How do we make sure we’re preparing young people for the jobs of the future?  And that is where state and federal leadership I think have come in much more than it has right now.

Question: What reforms need to take place within teachers’ unions?

Pedro Noguera:  Unions need to make it very clear that the interest of the teachers are aligned with the interest of the children.  Whatever is good for the teachers better also be good for the children and if not then it’s a problem.  It should be the case that parents and children are in total solidarity with their teachers because they recognize that when teacher’s work improves that they also benefit.  Right now in too many places that’s not the case.  The teacher’s union has defined its interest in terms that are often antithetic with the children’s interest and that’s a huge problem.  It’s a problem for the unions because it means a lot of times they’re not getting the political support they need and it’s a problem for the schools because too often the schools work for the adults and not for the children.

Question: Which policies that teachers’ unions support undermine the interests of students?

Pedro Noguera:  I think just the fact that it’s so difficult to remove ineffective teachers is a real problem.  It should not be that hard to get rid of people that we’ve evaluated and that we know are not effective.  It should not be that you have a job for life just because you become a teacher.  It’s too important a job and that not only when you allow ineffective teachers to remain in schools, in classrooms it not only hurts the children.  It hurts other teachers because the other teachers then are… they often have to make up for what that ineffective teacher is not doing and so I think the union needs to…  If the union really is ever going to professionalize teaching it has to take on much greater role of policing its own members.  That’s what professions do.  They evaluate each other and what is interesting is there are few districts in the country where teachers now evaluate each other and in those places they actually remove a much higher number of teachers than in districts where it’s done by administrators.

Question: How do parents need to change their approach to their children’s education?

Pedro Noguera:  Everybody, I mean parents need to be very clear about what their role is in supporting their children.  They need to understand that to the degree that they’re reinforcing the importance of education, that they are getting their kids to bed on time, to school on time, limiting TV and videogames, reading with their kids, all of that will benefit their children.  All the research shows that when there is reinforcement at home for what goes on in school children benefit.  It doesn’t mean that only college educated parents can do that.  As I said earlier my parents… neither of my parents had college degrees, but they really understood and reinforced the importance of education.  I think most parents want to see their children succeed, but what they need is help on how to help their children succeed and many parents are at a loss about how to do that.

Question: Which methods of reducing school violence have worked, and which haven’t?

Pedro Noguera:  Well violence in schools is to some degree a reflection of violence in society and violence in communities.  It’s very odd that we would think we’d have safe schools when we have such a violent country that we live in where people have guns and people being killed in some communities quite regularly.  At the same time violence in schools is often a product of a dysfunctional culture, kids who have disconnected from learning, a strained or weak relationship between the adults and the students because right here in New York City I could take you to schools, some schools are violent, have metal detectors and sometimes right next door same school, no problem with violence, no metal detectors.  What is the difference?  The school that has the positive culture where the kids are connected to learning and have clear goals tend to not have problems with violence and discipline.  So you can’t address violence without addressing the educational mission of a school.  You have to make… Kids who think they’re headed somewhere behave a lot differently than kids who think they’re headed nowhere and that’s about the mission of a school and about the ability of the educators to convey that mission to kids and to instill a sense in them that of hope and possibility.  I think right now we have in the name of safety turned schools increasingly like prisons.  We have zero tolerance policies.  We have police in schools, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and those devices and strategies don’t produce safety.  They produce an environment where in fact where you feel less safe, because if it takes an officer with a gun to keep the school safe then we’re really in trouble.  Safety is a product of relationships.  It’s a product of children being well known.  It’s a product of or a byproduct of children being very clear about they they’re there and having a stake in their own education.  The hardest children to discipline are kids who have given up on learning and so what does that tell you?  It means that we need to figure out a way to make it matter again and if you can’t do that most of the things we try to do in the name of security will never work.

Question: Why do you believe school shootings in affluent white communities have hurt minority school districts?

Pedro Noguera:  Sure.  Most of the mass shootings that have occurred in places like Columbine; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and others were in predominantly white suburban communities.  In most cases the assailants were white males who were harassed or bullied by other kids, but what has happened in response to these shootings? Two things.  One is state legislatures have adopted laws to lower the age at which we will prosecute juveniles as adults, so what we’ve seen is an increase in the criminalization of young people, increase in the number of young people going to prison for relatively minor crimes, and secondly this tendency towards turning schools into prison-like institutions, and that particularly happening in urban areas, and so I think this very punitive approach is a real travesty and one that neither makes schools safe nor does it address the core underlying issues.

Question: What can average citizens do to help the poorest school districts?

Pedro Noguera:  First thing I would say is be careful of your assumptions.  We live in a society where our… the conventional wisdom, the assumptions about why schools fail, about why students fail are usually informed by stereotypes about race, about poverty, assumptions that some kids or their parents don’t care, don’t value learning.  If you believe that is the case, then you believe nothing can be done and the degree that we believe nothing can be done, nothing will be done.  That’s why I always like to remind people there are schools right now in this country where you have poor kids of all different backgrounds who are learning and thriving and achieving, and that is all the proof we need to know the problem is not the kids.  The problem is the way we treat the kids.  The problem is the conditions we place kids under and what we need to do is to figure out ways to make sure that all kids have access to schools where they are learning and where their needs are being met and that is something that takes political will.  It can’t just be up to the educators to make that happen.  We need…  Communities say we need good schools for all our kids.

Recorded on January 28, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen