I was a school counselor at an alternative school for the first time this past school year, and I cannot begin to explain the challenge of working with these students who, though not much different from the students I’ve dealt with over the past several decades, have a concentration of “issues.” The students I worked with this school year were placed in this “alternative” setting because they did not experience success in the “traditional” school environment for a myriad of reasons. In consideration of this situation, what I have found to be one of the most troubling aspects of my job is the continuing stream of education reform models that are parading past school districts like mine. Each model professes to be the next best practice to improve student achievement and performance, but too often fails to consider the reality of what actually happens in a classroom! Having worked in and around a large urban school district for three decades now, I have seen so many reform models that it makes my head spin. And even though I was closely involved with one of the oldest and most successful of such models – career academies – various other models that have presented themselves over the years continue to reach for – and miss – the ever-elusive goal of creating competent, productive citizens ready to successfully move into post-secondary education/training or the workforce out of high school. The talent development model with its ninth grade “academies,” outcome-based, project-based, competency-based or standards-based education, charter schools, alternative schools…all of these models have or continue to portend “best practices” to get students ready for the next step in their lives out of public or private educational settings. So, with all these, why is the United States ranked 17th in global educational rankings?
I have a theory that is quite simple and which I’m sure you’ve heard in a number of different ways: if you keep on doin’ whatcha been doin’, you’re gonna keep gettin’ whatcha been gettin’!! Dr. Bill Daggett, of the International Center for Leadership in Education, has made it clear in numerous presentations that we, as educators, cannot hope to change student outcomes if we keep teaching students like we did in the 1950s. Geoffrey Canada, of The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), recently asked the question in a TED Talks presentation: why does education continue to use a business model that does not work? The fact that “alternative” schools are necessary for some students, (regardless of their reasons for being placed there,) and are actually growing in numbers, is clear evidence that what they are the alternative to isn’t working for larger numbers of students.
The word “reform,” by definition, means “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults and abuses.” [Merriam-Webster, emphasis added] Yet, I feel quite safe in saying that, by and large, educational reform has done very little to move towards a significant “change of form or removal of faults and abuses” in American education for decades. The pockets of success, such as career academies or HCZ continue to be looked upon as niceties, and not the clear pathways to student success that they truly are. Why else would their ongoing success not catapult them into widespread replication and unilateral support, from the legislators who have oversight over local, state and federal funding for education, to foundations who claim to be dedicated to student success? I have a theory about this, too, yet it is not such a catchy phrase as the first: …because it takes real work and real commitment, along with the realization that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to learning. Different students learn in different ways, at different rates and through different methodologies…and they learn better from people who show genuine concern for them and whom they like!! And yet these fundamental concepts are not emphasized in any funding legislation, nor are our teacher training programs promoting nearly enough the concept that those who wish to enter the field should actually like their students and want the best for them.
This is a concept that I have long believed to be at the core of helping students succeed, one which Dr. James Comer of Yale University and the great George Washington Carver both believed as well: no real learning can take place without significant relationships and the understanding of those relationships. It’s not so much about the subject matter, but rather about getting students to want to know what you’re teaching, connecting whatever knowledge or wisdom you are trying to impart to what it means to them! This includes helping them to understand that they do have significance to the world beyond their immediate sight, whether that means helping to prepare them to earn a family-sustaining wage – legally – or helping them feel good about wanting to continue their education, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. Students of all ages and abilities also need social and emotional support in order to achieve, along with life skills integrated into the curriculum for traditional, non-traditional and alternative learning situations. How can a student focus on schoolwork or homework when home is work? What good is it to know biology if you cannot relate it to the necessity for good nutrition? What difference does learning the Bill of Rights make if you don’t understand your obligation to stop legislators from cannibalizing it?
Let us, as educators, really take a hard look at what we call education in this country and stop being afraid to blow it up – that is, make it new from the ground up. Throw away the “one size fits all” ideas of the past and allow education to become the individualized learning experience that it should be. Some may see this as radical – what great change hasn’t been viewed that way? Others may say it’s too expensive to have enough teachers to give each grouping of learners that kind of option. But what is the alternative? (pun intended!) For our nation to remain behind the academic 8ball globally? For our economy to suffer because corporations must continue to spend billions of dollars on remedial training for new employees? The world around us is changing more rapidly than ever before and we must understand that we are preparing our students to succeed in a world that is/will be very different from the one we were educated in. We have to take a fresh new look at the work we do and remember that it really isn’t about us…it’s about our students and giving them the right tools they will need to build a better future for everyone.