Beware the Ides
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2)
As the Head of Lawrence School in Northeast Ohio, an independent school designed for students with language and attention challenges, I read the March 15 issue of Newsweek with a deep sense of sadness and gathering dread. It inspired, no, provoked this return to blogging after an eight-week hiatus!
There’s no question that good teachers make a huge difference in the lives of kids—but bad teachers are not to blame for the huge systemic failures, the ridiculously unfair funding practices, the venial political wrangling, and overwhelming social pressures that have paralyzed school districts across the country.
In the interest of full disclosure and for those of us who pay attention to history, I allow that we Italians—particularly Italian leaders—get understandably nervous in the middle of March; but this Ides of March issue of Newsweek ought to make everyone fear for our children, as well as our future as a democratic society.
The cover story, “The Key to Saving American Education: Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, focuses on teacher quality and the lasting impact of poor teaching on children in our public schools – and the difficulty of evaluating and removing ineffective teachers.
According to the authors, poor and minority students in our nation are paying a higher price and experiencing more negative outcomes due to our failure to supply every classroom with an effective teacher.
I will not defend the practices of teachers’ unions, or poor practice in our nation’s classrooms, and I am on record arguing for effective educational practice for all children regardless of where they live or where they go to school. But for Newsweek to load the responsibility for the failure of our public schools on the backs of unsuccessful teachers deflects the conversation away from the real issues.
Ultimately, our abdication of responsibility for the state of our nation’s schools, particularly in the urban centers, denies millions of children the fundamental opportunity to acquire a good education as well as to claim their rights as American citizens—namely “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Teachers, their unions notwithstanding, are victimized by these failures as well.
The other group of at-risk students who pay a particularly high price for this failure is the group represented by those we work with at Lawrence School: children who struggle with learning because of language processing differences and difficulties focusing attention. Some come with labels such as dyslexia or ADD, and others remain undiagnosed, struggling silently for years.
What happens to these students who—because they are not receiving the appropriate identification and intervention—set early patterns of experiencing failure in school? Students identified with learning differences drop out in alarming numbers—at twice the rate of students without these learning issues—and only 13% of LD students educated in public schools matriculate to four-year colleges after high school.
These students are not giving up on school because of lack of intelligence, interest, or ability. Rather, school—or more specifically our failure to take responsibility for the state of our nation’s schools—is giving up on them.
At Lawrence and similar schools that specifically serve this population, the number of students matriculating to four-year colleges is between 75% and 85%. At Lawrence, 96% of our graduates go on to attend a two- or four-year college. I am not suggesting that matriculation is sufficient measure to determine whether or not quality teaching is going on—but if independent schools are able to achieve these outcomes with at-risk learners, then, as a nation that cares about educating our citizenry, we ought to figure out why.
There are about 300 schools like Lawrence across the country. Our population of students comes from diverse backgrounds and cuts across all socio-economic levels. Demographically, we often look a lot like the public and parochial schools in the communities surrounding us. So what are independent LD schools doing that is different? Why are our kids learning to read and write, do mathematics, and achieve at levels that support college acceptances?
For that matter, what are innovative charter schools like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programs) academies doing differently? Or so many charter schools across the country and any number of public schools who fit the 90/90/90 characteristics profile?
Let’s identify and do the right things! Let’s figure out what practices account for these differences in achievement, and let’s bring them to scale in our public school systems. Let’s not give up on children when they are identified as “dyslexic” or “underachieving” but rather dig beyond labels to understand how their minds work and how they can best learn. Let’s broaden our expectations and definition of “effective teaching” and let’s provide our educators with the knowledge and training to become true experts –not just in the field of teaching, but in the science of learning.
Let’s not give up on our children or lose sight of how important they are to the future of our nation!
Sounds great, right? But, do we know what constitutes effective teaching?
We surely do. The list of characteristics that define “effective teaching” is straightforward—so much so that it is painful to write them and realize that so many of our kids are not provided with a teacher and a classroom every year, every semester, every day where these characteristics are on display:
- Use systematic teaching procedures (like frequent review before presenting new material), and they adjust the level of material to challenge higher achievers. In short, they match instruction to the needs of their students.
- Work with small groups throughout the day and frequently monitor student progress so that they can give students feedback about their progress and performance.
- Communicate with parents frequently.
- Operate in classrooms where students spend a higher proportion of time engaged in tasks directly related to skills they are learning and practicing (“Time on Task”).
- Articulate rules and discuss classroom protocols with children, enlist their support and cooperation.
- Provide a variety of ways for students to apply knowledge and skills.
- Run predictable and orderly classrooms where the discipline is neither strict nor lax.
- Pace the quantity of information presented to students and continually check for understanding by asking questions of all students.
This is not a secret list that requires a Dick Tracy decoder ring to understand! These practices have long been recognized in the profession and by researchers as effective.
Producing professional educators who engage in these practices requires:
- Professional Development Programs – Carefully designed professional development programs with courses in which teachers can get useful feedback on their implementation of these kinds of practices. These programs need to be sufficiently funded to ensure implementation.
- Empowerment of Administrators – Administrators in schools to be empowered with the authority to implement evidence-based effective practices and to be held accountable for teacher and student performance.
- Supports for Students’ Physical and Mental Health – In economically stressed communities, basic nutritional, medical, dental, and emotional supports need to be funded and put in place to support children so that teachers have students in their classrooms who are ready to learn.
Thomas Jefferson is attributed with once saying:
“An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.”
As an enlightened citizenry, we need to raise awareness of what the real problems are, raise the funds to properly support the children in every community, and raise hell when anyone tries to blame the children or the teachers in failing schools for a failure of national will.
What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below, or email the author at email@example.com