Defeatist schools

A recent post by Kevin Carey at The Quick and the Ed highlights one of the essential dilemmas faced by those of us who are working desperately to improve students' academic and life success: there is a pervasive attitude in K-12 organizations that outputs are dependent on inputs. You routinely hear comments from educators such as "You can't expect us to do any better than we already are with these kids" or "The reason that [school / district] is doing better than we are is because they serve those kids."


"We believe that we have no meaningful impact on the children that we serve. We are hostage to our demographics. Whatever comes in the door is essentially what's going to go out at the other end." Those are chilling words to hear, both as an educational leader and as a citizen of the most affluent and powerful nation in the world.

Despite the ritualistic mantra of educators that "all children can learn," there are large numbers of teachers and principals who don't truly believe it. If they did, they would act in ways much differently than they do now.

Luckily we have (increasingly numerous) examples of schools where this belief has been challenged at its very core, where educators have come together and said "Collectively we can make a difference!" These schools are finding ways to make it happen, despite their challenging demographics. It starts with a belief that it can be done. As Dr. Douglas Reeves notes in The Learning Leader:

Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia has the following demographic characteristics:

  • 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced lunch
  • 68 percent minority student enrollment
  • 40+ languages
  • Between 1998 and 2005 not a single child in the school system, to the best of my knowledge, has changed his or her ethnic identity. Not a single child has won the lottery. Few if any children have adopted different languages at home. In other words, this story is not about changes in children or their families, nor is it a story about changes in demographic characteristics. This is a story about changes in teaching, leadership, and learning. While demographic characteristics remained the same, student achievement rose dramatically.

    In 1998, only 11 percent of the elementary schools in Norfolk contained more than 50 percent of students who scored proficient or higher on the state's English/Language Arts assessments. In 2004, 84 percent of the elementary schools achieved that distinction, and in 2005, 100 percent of the elementary schools in the district were fully accredited. They not only had 50 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards in English / Language Arts, but these students also met state requirements in math, science, writing, and social studies. In 1998, none of the middle schools in this district had more than 50 percent of students meeting state English / Language Arts requirements, and six years later all the middle schools met this requirement. In addition, the district more than tripled the number of middle school students taking advanced math courses in middle school. In 1998, only one out of six high schools had more than 80 percent of students passing state English graduation requirements, and six years later every high school in the system achieved this distinction. Moreover, some high schools had more than 90 percent of students passing external exams in chemistry and biology, while the dropout rate remained an astonishingly low 0.5 percent for the district - one of the lowest high school dropout rates of any urban system in the nation. The students didn't change. They were still ethnically, linguistically, and economically diverse. But something profound did change - the commitment of the leaders and teachers in this district to make a difference in the lives of students.

    Yes, we absolutely need to be sensitive to overall contexts and larger societal issues. I, too, am concerned about the increasing gaps between the top and bottom income brackets of our society. I, too, am gravely worried that our political and educational policies may be causing increasing harm to our most disadvantaged populations. We must seek to understand the complex contexts in which our students live and we must fight and advocate and cooperate until progress is made. But we must never, ever give up, even mentally. For then the battle, and all hope, is lost.

    LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

    Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

    Getty Images
    Sponsored
    Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

    No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

    Keep reading Show less

    4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

    In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

    (Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
    • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
    • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
    Keep reading Show less

    A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

    She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

    Strange Maps
    • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
    • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
    • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
    Keep reading Show less

    Why I wear my life on my skin

    For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

    Videos
    • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
    • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
    • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
    Keep reading Show less