Feb 17, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
Joanne Jacobs, educator, blogger and author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds, participates today in our Author Speaks Series with an excellent article on how “Schools won’t improve until administrators and teachers can admit the problems, analyze what’s going wrong and try new strategies. Students won’t improve if they think they’re “special” just the way they are.” Enjoy, and feel free to add your comment to engage in a stimulating conversation.
When self-esteem became an education watchword in 1986, I thought it was a harmless fad. I was wrong: It wasn’t harmless. Many teachers were persuaded that students should be pumped up with praise, regardless of their performance. Schools lowered expectations so students couldn’t fail. Everyone got an “I Am Special” sticker. Till the standards and accountability movement kicked in, students often were judged by how they felt about learning not by whether they’d actually learned something.
I remember a children’s book about a badger (or suchlike) starting school who’s afraid to tell his teacher he can’t read. In the denouement, the teacher assures the badger that she “loves” him “just the way he is.” Surely not. Teachers can’t love all their students in any meaningful way. And the whole enterprise of schooling is about changing children from what they are, such as illiterate, to something better, such as literate. er. It’s OK to start school not knowing how to read. It’s not OK to stay that way.
What happens to those “special” children if they don’t learn how to read, write and calculate fluently in the early grades? Eventually, reality bites.
I spent years hanging around Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school, to write a book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds. DCP recruits students who earned Ds and Fs in middle school and tries to prepare them for four-year colleges. I call it the anti-self-esteem school.
Most Downtown College Prep students come from Mexican immigrant families, speak English as a second language, qualify for a free lunch, etc. They’ve got plenty of excuses for failure. Held to low standards for years, most start ninth grade with fifth-grade reading and math skills and terrible work habits.
DCP puts them in a mix of remedial and college-prep classes and demands they do homework every day and show respect for their teachers, classmates and their own futures.
Honesty is the school policy. No time is spent inflating self-esteem. Instead, students are told that they’re way behind but have the ability to improve if they work hard.
Students don’t crumble when they’re told that they’re behind. They’re not stupid. They already know that. What they don’t know is what to do about it. Their teachers tell them how to catch up, step by step. Students are praised for making progress, even if that means moving from an F average to an F+. But they’re reminded again and again that they need to pass with a C or better to qualify for a public university. If they fail a class, they can try again in summer school or repeat the grade.
If they need to spend two years in ninth grade, so be it. The school’s unofficial motto is: We’re not good now, but we can do better.
When Greg Lippman, the school’s co-founder and first principal, insisted students practice public speaking, a teacher worried they’d be embarrassed. “I disagree that it’s more humiliating to be told what you’re doing is crappy than to have people tittering in the audience,” Lippman replied. “Bombing out, and coming back from bombing, is a big part of what we do here. It’s just like those PSAT scores. They were crap, garbage. OK, let’s go and get better.”
After awhile, it’s obvious that students who do the work do improve.
Selma, who I thought wouldn’t make it out of ninth grade, is now in college studying to become a nurse. Another girl who’d gone through school as a straight D student came alive in 10th grade and made it to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Who knew Gina was smart? Gina will graduate in June with a psychology degree and go on for a master’s in social work.
Lorenzo, who wore the “loaner” shirt every day because he couldn’t get it together to wash the uniform shirt, turned out to be a talented artist. No kindly adult told him that his talent made it unnecessary to pass reading, writing and math tests. It took him five years to pass college-prep classes, but he made it. Lorenzo is now an art major at Chico State.
Nationwide, about half of students who start college never earn a degree; most drop out in their first year. The numbers are worse for Hispanic and black students.
Most DCP graduates struggle academically in college, but they don’t quit: 80 percent are on track to earn a bachelor’s degree. Their ambitions are backed by basic skills, strong work habits and the resilience that comes from knowing how to fail, try harder and improve.
The willingness to admit failure isn’t just for students. Lippman and co-founder Jennifer Andaluz told me many of their ideas about how to educate left-behind students didn’t work very well in practice.
“Our kids couldn’t read,” said Andaluz. “We didn’t realize how serious the problems were when we started. We thought we’d get everyone to calculus as seniors. It was just a matter of engaging kids, motivating them. We discovered Marta couldn’t multiply 3 times 4.”
They scrapped the Algebra 1 book because students couldn’t read it. They added English assistance for immigrants. In the second year, they added remedial English and math. In the third year, they redesigned the ninth grade curriculum, requiring most students to take remedial courses in addition to English 1 and Algebra 1. In the fourth year, they raised standards and told more students they’d need five years to be college ready. And so on. Like its students, DCP is getting better.
Schools won’t improve until administrators and teachers can admit the problems, analyze what’s going wrong and try new strategies. Students won’t improve if they think they’re “special” just the way they are. Many schools aren’t good now. But they can do better.
— Once a Knight Ridder columnist, Joanne Jacobs now blogs on education at joannejacobs.com.
Her book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds, is available online and in book stores.