How can teachers teach if parents don't parent?

Question: How can teachers teach if parents don't parent?

Joel Klein: The first thing I want to say is I know it can be done, those children that you’re talking about who come from the most challenging backgrounds, I’ve seen those kids in schools succeeding in education. I’m not saying it’s easy. And I’m not saying there aren’t enormous complexities in the system.

The way you do it is a combination, in my view, of three things. And you got to get all of them right.

The first thing is you’ve got to have an environment in which you set high expectations. I’m going to come back and tell you a story about that, but if the adults in the building don’t believe that the kids, no matter what their family circumstance, that the kids are going on to do great things, the kids will internalize the message. If they believe that family circumstance is the kind of handicap that makes it impossible for them to succeed, they’ll internalize that, and they won’t succeed. So in the absence of high expectations that are felt, I don’t mean articulated, but deeply felt, it won’t happen.

Second thing is you need high quality teachers, teachers who understand math. If you don’t understand math, you cannot teach math. And we have far too many people in the system who aren’t sufficiently familiar with content. I’ve been in schools where people are teaching the Civil War and it’s superficial the level they’re teaching the Civil War. And if you don’t have people who are teaching at a sophisticated level, the kids won’t learn.

And the third thing you need is the kind of partnerships to bring in the psychosocial disciplinary supports. We have programs in New York, a program like Turn Around for Children [http://www.turnaroundusa.org/] that’s working with our schools to address at multiple levels those kind of issues that you articulated about. The fact that some kids come with lots of disciplinary issues, deprevations.

But if you can mix together expectations, excellence and support in an environment, you can make it work.

Let me give you an example because people don’t believe. A lot of my friends say, “Well it’s not going to happen” for just the reason you said. They say, “Well kids start with too many disadvantages.” There’s a school in Bedford Stuyvesant called Excellence Academy. It’s an all boy’s school and it’s overwhelmingly African American, with some Latino boys. It’s a school that you would expect would not be performing very well if you used traditional demographic analysis.

I went to the school and I happened to bump into a kid, just by happenstance, as I walked in, and the kid says to me, “Good morning Chancellor.” Now the mere fact that he knew who I was--he was in kindergarten--was surprising. And I said, “Good morning, what’s your name young man?” And he said “My name is Jamal.” And I said “Jamal, what do you do at Excellence Academy?” And he said “Chancellor, I’m in a University of Pennsylvania Program.” So right, your eyes just opened up wide right, so I had the exact same. I said, “Jamal, what are you talking about, you’re in kindergarten, what do you mean you’re in a University of Pennsylvania Program?” Jamal said, “Well you know, Chancellor, I’m going to college. It’s never too young to think about it.”

Now you see, in fact, he will soon visit colleges, they will become now-- I admit his family may have never taken him to college. When I grew up, my parents never took me to visit a college. But the school became the shoulders on which this kid can now stand to see a different world, and so from the day he arrived at Excellence, he’s thinking, “I’ve got a different vision from the vision that I once knew about.” And they’re making it happen and they’re not making excuses.

The number of kids, when they’re at Excellence, who show up every day, who when they’re sick want to go to school, which is not a common phenomenon, reflects the fact that those kids not only have high expectations set for them, but they’ve internalized it.

And then I went back and checked, because they got their first results last year, in the third grade, and you would have figured they’d maybe have 55, 60% proficiency in the third grade for a school like that. And they had a 100% proficient in math and 92% in English. That outperforms almost any school in the city, those proficiency levels. So this can be done.

Now Excellence is a school that chose very carefully, that has a very strong leader. And we have others like it. But it’s that combination, and even when you’re doing it, you constantly perfect it.

Just like when you do the work you’re doing here at Big Think, if you don’t get better and better and better, it won’t work, no matter how good you start, you got to get better. The same thing is true in a school that faces the kind of challenges we’re talking about.

Recorded on: March 30, 2008

Even kids from the most challenging backgrounds can still succeed.

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