Advocacy

When I talk with teachers, I often find them flummoxed by my descriptions of "unexpected" schools. That’s the term I use to describe high-performing and rapidly improving schools with large populations of children of color and children living in poverty. These schools don’t fit the well-worn pattern of academic achievement tightly correlating with family income and ethnicity, a connection first documented by James S. Coleman in his eponymous 1966 report.

In 1987 then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett flew to Chicago and pronounced its schools “the worst in the nation.”

“I’m not sure there’s a system as bad as the Chicago system,” he said.

Detroit and a few other cities were clear rivals, but to Bennett, Chicago—with its 43 percent dropout rate and dismal scores on the college entrance ACT test—beat them all.

On one of her first days on the job, Betsy DeVos did what any U.S. Secretary of Education might do: She visited a public school.

Such an event might have gone relatively unnoticed if not for widespread worries that she neither understands public schools nor appreciates their central importance in building a civic community.

So, good for her.

She needs to see how public schools can be a beacon to the community — a metaphorical city on a hill, so-to-speak.

A well-designed summer program can help low-income students read and do math better. In fact, attending a summer program regularly for as little as five weeks for two years in a row could result in about a quarter of a year’s gain in both reading and math for students from low-income families.

Some kids tell their parents everything that goes on in school.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. My kids certainly never did. My older daughter, in particular, considered school to be her domain.

She established my outsider status her first day of nursery school, when I went to pick her up. Excited to hear about everything she had done, I asked her how her day went. Her response: “None of your business,” or something to that effect.

I recently learned that my work has been used as justification by school officials who advocate deliberately concentrating poverty in a few schools.

My reaction is dismay.

The high-performing, high-poverty schools I write about hold many lessons, but none of them is that we should deliberately create more high-poverty schools.

In the last few weeks I've visited five schools in four states. Each of them educates large numbers of students from low-income homes and students of color, and each is either high-performing or on an impressive improvement trajectory.

The schools are different in lots of ways, but one thing characterizes them all: Teachers, principals, and other administrators work hard at building trusting relationships that help create a sense of agency and purpose.

Here are three examples of what I mean:

The Swedish animated short, "Falling Letters (Bokstavsbarn)," (4:14 min) by Erik Rosenlund depicts a child who learns differently. In this case, some of the character's everyday actions turn out awkwardly or set them apart socially from peers.

The ending offers a heartwarming reminder of the power that parents, guardians, and teachers or helping personnel can have when simple support is needed for reassurance in trying times. The imagery can be especially valuable for young children who compare themselves with others and are saddened by their personal differences.

"I don't think there's a child out there who doesn't want to learn and be the best they can be."

Those are the words of Barbara Preuss, a veteran educator with more than 30 years of experience.

That is to say, she is no bright-eyed novice about to be confronted by reality. She is confronted by plenty of reality, every day. And yet she retains her belief that even the kids who act out and misbehave still want to learn and still need to learn.

She retains this belief because she has seen it again and again, in all the schools where she has worked.

Teachers get ready to contribute in your own way to the literacy festivities ahead. Join the Defined and Caption Media Program's (DCMP) 11th annual Read Captions Across America (RCAA) event!

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"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume