Marshaling the Power of Schools
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of public schools as the crucible of American democracy, founded to provide all children — independent of family circumstances — with a solid education that prepares them for future citizenship.
Yet the ones I attended as a child, the ones I observed as a newspaper reporter, and the ones my children went to did little to sustain that idealistic vision. Until I began actively searching out “unexpectedly successful” schools for Ed Trust, the schools I experienced seemed to be organized around random acts of education, replicating inequity rather than disrupting it.
Many years ago I tried to express this observation in a newspaper column by referring to the sloppy organization of schools. My inelegant characterization elicited an angry letter from a teacher. He wrote that he and his colleagues were working harder than anyone had a right to expect and that I shouldn’t call anything they did sloppy. Of course, he added in a burst of honesty, some teachers sat in class reading the newspaper rather than teach, but most teachers were working incredibly hard.
I asked this teacher what his school did to ensure that the students with the newspaper-reading teachers were learning what they needed to learn, and he responded: “Nothing. They’re screwed.”
And that’s what I had meant by sloppy. This teacher’s school was firmly in the tradition of being organized around isolated and idiosyncratic classrooms. As such, students could not depend on the support of the entire school but instead had to depend solely on the efforts of individual teachers. And if teachers read the newspaper in class, so be it. At the same time, teachers could not depend on the support of the entire school, and even the hardest-working teachers saw their efforts weakened and dissipated. This point was driven home to me in subsequent conversations with my correspondent, who was frustrated that his work wasn’t having the effect he had expected to have. Like many of his fellow teachers who enter the field with great optimism and idealism, he left a couple of years later, angry and disappointed.
Since then, as writer-in-residence at Ed Trust, I have spent more than a decade seeking out and learning from what I call “unexpected schools” — high-performing and rapidly improving schools with large percentages of students of color and students from low-income families.
These schools have restored my belief that it is possible for schools to act as crucibles of democracy, providing a solid education and opportunities to students independent of their family circumstances. I no longer think it’s possible; I know it is possible because I have seen such schools. Those schools are not just good places to be a student but also are satisfying places to work. In unexpected school after unexpected school, I have heard teachers and other staff members say that — although they work incredibly hard — they love their jobs because they know they are making a difference in children’s lives within a supportive environment that they often describe as “like a family.”
I know that educators around the country would like to be able to replicate the success of these unexpected schools, and I would argue that the first thing we need to do is learn from them. They hold important lessons — the most important being not that the work is easy but that it is doable.
In my new book, Schools That Succeed, I look closely at how they do that work. Stay tuned in the coming weeks to hear more.