We Need Education Priorities That Resonate

Written by

Eric Cooper
Eric Cooper Eric J. Cooper is the president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education in Syosset, New York.

The Education Commission of the States, a national policy organization, made a small splash earlier this year with its list of the 12 hottest education issues for 2012. But it’s no surprise that it didn’t get more attention.

The right issues were identified, but they were described in academic terms (“common core state standards,” “blended learning”) many parents might not understand.

Still, even with plenty of time to get on board, the “choir” isn’t responding. That’s because most low-income families affected and targeted by these issues are likely too busy working to pay close attention or are more focused on other pressing school needs.

Let’s say we asked them to list their educational priorities. What would that list look like? I believe it would be inspired by the shortcomings and broken dreams of the parents’ lives and the “ideal” of the American dream they witness in homes and communities where they work and the affluent neighborhoods they sometimes travel.

Based on what parents from Bridgeport, Conn. to Birmingham, Ala., and from Minneapolis to Seattle and San Francisco have shared, here is what their dreams for their children look like:

  • Schools that are oases from social ills where children are safe from violence, low expectations and damaging stereotypes that dull the spirit and accelerate failure. These schools feed children when they are hungry and respect racial and cultural differences.
  • Up-to-date facilities, with welcoming classrooms equipped with modern technology. Like affluent public and private suburban classrooms, class size is small — not only because small means more effective, but because it gives students the opportunity to cultivate strong and positive relationships with teachers and peers.
  • Talented and experienced teachers with high expectations who know how to accelerate achievement, even for low-income students with limited enrichment opportunities at home, and where teachers join collaboratively with their students in learning and teaching.
  • Principals they trust, who lead with their hearts and minds and focus on the needs of all students as they maintain a relentless focus on improving instruction. These leaders enable all staff in the school on a daily basis to look for those teachable moments which guide rather than deny the unique potential of each student.
  • Exposure to schoolchildren with different world perspectives so that respect for different cultural experience is enabled and used to enrich learning, curiosity, kindness and real-world applications.
  • Schools connected to a network of community and health services to help ensure their children come to school daily, ready to learn, and eager to explore collaboratively in the journey of discovery.
  • Schools that welcome, embrace and give students the support and confidence they need to succeed – from the early years and beyond.
  • Creativity, world perspectives, American values, problem-solving opportunities, and critical and reflective thinking skills taught through the arts as well as traditional subject matter.

When these parents’ notions for education are met, great things can begin to happen.

Thanks to interventions guided by neuroscience and targeted investments, we have seen low-income, nonwhite students – many from immigrant families – given such opportunities in Eden Prairie, Minn.; San Francisco; East Allen, Ind.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and other locations.

Neuroscience teaches us students know more than they think they know, so schools must draw out that knowledge – especially with students demoralized by low test scores. To do this, professional development must help principals and teachers confront and raise expectations that are often too low for too many students. Teachers need to believe they can project and model high expectations simply by telling stories about successful people, creating opportunities for students to succeed, and using words such as “succeed” “master” and “achieve” to convey confidence. (Compare those to terms such as “at-risk” “low-performing” or “fail” that students in struggling schools are more likely to hear.)

Interventions also seek to make students more engaged by linking classroom lessons to their interests, using examples from their lives, and framing lessons around big concepts such as good and evil. Vocabulary development becomes a daily activity supported with rhyming, contextualization and retention exercises that build on what students know. Students also need opportunities to shine, so teachers let students narrate, record findings, lead problem-solving discussions, or even help develop lesson plans. All students do more when lessons are meaningful, more is expected, and they are set up to succeed.

Guess what happens when these interventions are in place? These students soar. In Eden Prairie, for example, African-American and Latino students improved reading scores by more than 50 percent on state tests from 2008-2011. Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco went from the district’s lowest-performing middle school a decade ago to a standout school in which all student groups made double-digit gains on recent state assessments.

In 2000, Beardsley Elementary School in Bridgeport was one of the district’s lowest performers and designated in need of improvement by the state. Today, in grade 6, for example, 94 percent of students scored at or above proficiency in math and 85 percent scored at or above proficiency in writing. During the 2010 – 2011 school year in East Allen, Southwick Elementary School went from probation status to 100 percent meeting adequate yearly progress.

When seen exclusively through the eyes of policymakers, our nation’s educational priorities are uninspiring to most parents. Unless they offer new ways of discussing and approaching education on a daily basis, these priorities will be irrelevant to parents in low-income communities.

Our educational priorities must address issues that matter most to these parents now, maximize their children’s educational opportunities, and raise prospects for a better future for all of us.