Sunday, September 2, 2012

School Reform Needs Student Partners

Yesterday, I wrote about the slogan  posted at the website of Nashville Prep,  a public college preparatory school. " Champions aren´t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.” —Muhammad Ali   The point I wanted to make is that an important element of the success of schools and teachers is the level of effort expended by students.   What got me going down this path, right now, is a discussion underway on a Facebook page called "Contract for Student Achievement," which mentioned Nashville Prep.  At the same time, I've begun to read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education."   Both the Ali quotation and Ravitch's book speak to a concern I've been struggling with:  whether our current reform efforts can be successful, unless we do a better job of making learners a partner in their own success.

Just about any teacher will tell you that its way easier to teach students successfully, if they are engaged with their own learning.  Students who attend, who really want to master the material learn faster than students who don't  As a teacher, I wanted students with the attitude that nothing --not indifferent teaching, not episodes of boredom, not mediocre textbooks -- nothing is going stand in the way of my ultimate goal, to learn this material so I can be successful in my future life.   When students don't have that attitude, teaching is really hard.    We are doing a better job, I believe, in public education beginning to focus on what teachers and schools must do to remove some of the obstacles to student success in the classroom.   But, I fear, we've not yet figured out how to inspire enough of our students to kindle that individual desire, dream and vision, to make them active partners in learning.   Because, the truth of the matter is that when students are behind, it takes more effort, more courage, more persistence, and a whole lot more desire, to catch up.    We know, I believe, that students who are behind need to spend more time learning.   But if that more time learning is spent mostly engaged in what seems to be test preparation to succeed on a test that seems inconsequential for the student, how many students will be inspired to learn?

Ravich's book suggests that when a charter school displays unusual success, part of that succes results because students who fight hard to get into charters are typically the students who have become inspired to learn.   That's a debate for another time, and another post.   We can agree, can we not, that inspiring students to make the connection between learning and future success, and the connection between hard work and learning, should be a critical component to any successful school reform strategy.    None of the great ideas that are sweeping through public education today -- professional learning communities, instructional leaders, data driven teaching, differentiation, longer school days and longer school years -- will realize their potential, if the targets of these reforms don't become inspired partners in their own success.

A sign that we are possibly on the wrong road in this regard is the belief by many educators that there is no point in assigning homework to "these kids" because most of them won't do the work, and so it will widen the achievement gap.  In yesterday's post, I mentioned Frederick Douglass' decision to learn to read, despite the great risk that it entailed.  He didn't have a teacher, everything he did was homework.  Just think how much more successful we could be, if today's students figured out what Frederick Douglass figured out:  that learning through hard work, is the road to personal success and freedom!

Maybe we should spend more time trying to develop a curriculum that causes students to adopt the desire, dream and vision necessary to become successful learners.   What might that curriculum entail?  That's the subject of my next post. 

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