Elbow grease, my mother says, is the solution!
by Charlie Leck
This blog was updated at 9:00 AM on Wednesday, 16 July 2008The question under consideration: How do we improve the education of minority children and seriously decrease the gap in educational achievement between white and minority students in America?
This is the third and final part of a series of blogs on this question and its potential answer.
You'll hear no thunder as you read through these thoughts I have on the subject. There will be no great opening of the skies. Answers to tough problems are rarely popular and likeable.
My mother taught me, when I was a little kid, that I wouldn't like the answer to tough questions. She called it "elbow grease." All the time, "elbow grease!"
"How am I ever going to get this pan clean?" I held up the charred pan in which the duck had been roasted.
"Use a little elbow grease," she would say.
"How will I ever get this paper typed before Tuesday?"
It was her way of saying, hard work – or work at it! Just, for heaven's sake, stop whining about it and do it!"
She was a tough hombre, that old lady of mine. It was a useless exercise for me to come home from school and complain about a teacher or two. She would only smirk at me. Work harder! Try harder! Put more effort into it.
It was she who taught me to read, though I would gladly have forgone the lessons. She was seriously ill during my high school years. She had slipped from being a giant of a woman, with the big and muscular body of a beautiful Bohemian farmer's wife, to a frail, skinny and bony old lady who was actually only approaching her fifties. She would have to spend most of her hours supine. She liked to stretch out on the sofa in our living room as much as she could, rather than in her bedroom. That way, she could have contact with her family and interact with them as the day went on.
When I would try to watch a little telly, she would object.
"Read to me," she would plead! She loved books so and her books of the month tended to pile up, unread, because she had not the strength to hold them anymore or the eyes to read them very well.
I would sit next to her sofa, on a straight back chair and read to her as long as I could. Sometimes, if the book was really good, I would lose myself in it and go on and on for her. She loved it.
As I look back on it now, it seems that it was mostly popular trash, things like By Love Possessed, written by James Cozzens; The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain; and The Far Country by Nevil Shute.
Somewhere during that period, Hemingway's extraordinary book, The Old Man and the Sea, was published and my mother and I read it together in a day. It was the first time she ever urged me to read with more feeling, to get into the story and feel it. I remember that she cried when old Santiago attempted to beat back the sharks, in a fruitless effort to protect his enormous fish from them. The sentences were all neat and clean. The story was simple, but true. Its heroes were an ordinary old man and a great fish.
When the last sentence was read to her, I even read the dust jacket to her because we were both unprepared to put the book down.
"One cannot hope to explain why the reading of this book is so profound an experience. Developed to its own perfect length, it can be read in an evening. At the end you have known a hero, an old man who embodies the essential nobility in human striving; you have known another veritable hero, a giant fish who is the embodiment of what is noble in animate nature; for three days you have known another presence, vast, pervading, but inanimate, the world of the Gulf Stream. You have lived a tragedy, but a tragedy which, at the last, emerges without grief into beauty. And you are likely to feel that you have been changed by what you have read."
Yes, changed! Forever changed! From then on, when I held a book in hand, I felt I possessed something enormously important. It was this massive effort on the part of one who was trying to express both self and life, and the meaning of both. Books became forever my friends and I only felt comfortable when I was surrounded by them, as I am at this moment.
One of the last books I read to her was John O'Hara novel of 1958, From the Terrace. It was massive and it took us so long to get through it. At its end, she was disappointed and so was I. It hadn't seemed very special to me and almost too simple and romantic. She told me he was a wonderful writer and very important. She urged me to read Appointment in Samarra, so that I would understand how good he was. It was a number of years before I did, long after my mother died. I remembered her as I put the book down and I whispered to her that she had been correct. O'Hara could certainly write.
"When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness." [John O'Hara: Appointment in Samarra]
It was also in these years in the fifties, when I was struggling in school with any subject that wasn't about literature, writing, drama, speech or history, that a dearly loved cousin explained to me that any subject could be conquered if we could read well. She told me I read so well that I could go beyond and around any teacher to discover the secrets behind science and math. Reading well, she explained, is the great key that unlocks the entire world to us. "A math problem is nothing more than careful reading! And, that is true with chemistry and physics as well."
By luck, I had learned to read well and to love books with a passion. Learning came easily.
So, what does this lengthy introduction mean? What has it to do with improving minority education?
I read an interesting essay last night by Mitch Pearlstein. He is the founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. The home page of the organization's web site has a photo of a lovely, hopeful young girl, sitting before a large book. Her face is resting upon her hands that are spread out on the book. The caption, scrolled across the photograph asks us: "Remember when you were young and you believed anything was possible?" The caption also provides the answer: "You were right!"
To the child who reads well, anything is possible! That's what Pearlstein was getting at in the column I read last night.
"No matter how weak some schools might be.
No matter how policymakers might have fallen down on the job.
No matter how some superintendents might legitimately claim underfunding.
No matter how stultifying bureaucratic constraints might be.
No matter how many families might be in turmoil.
No matter any of it. There simply is no reason many more young people can't work harder at their studies than they do."
There's that interesting idea again – work harder! Remember how it was expressed by Thomas Sowell in parts one and two of this series?
"The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret."
"Elbow grease," my mother is shouting from the grave. "Work harder!"
Pearlstein goes on to say:
"So here's a modest proposal I'm entirely literal about. When school resumes in
September, everyone who isn't a K-12 student should stifle their brilliant
reform ideas for a month. The same applies to their complaints about one
education-related problem or another. Instead, I would urge students to use the
time and spotlight to imagine how they might achieve at higher academic levels
completely on their own. Parents and teachers can help get discussions started,
but then they have to butt out."
"Read an extra book… every few months," Pearlstein blurts out! "Do some homework over weekends. Use the Internet a bit more for academic pursuits and a bit less for game playing."
The way to solve the achievement gap in education is to encourage students to work harder – even if only a little harder – like one more book every few months or 30 minutes of diligent academic pursuit over the weekend.
How do we convince students? As I said in part two of this series, we need teachers who will "teach like their hair is on fire."
We need teachers who will commit themselves to work harder – to use some elbow grease – to convince students that they must work harder also. We need teachers who can convince students that just a little more work will achieve good results for them – and a lot more hard work will open up glorious doors of opportunity to them.
Teachers must convince students that it is fun to live comfortably – to have a good job – to live in a nice house – to go on exciting vacations – and to contribute positively to one's community.
And, we need teachers who can convince students that it is fun to learn – it is as exciting as any adventure in life.
I'm convinced after looking at this entire question, as thoroughly as is possible for me, that throwing money at it will not help. In many cases it has appeared to harm already bad situations.
And, we can whine all we want about uncooperative and disinterested parents. It is rather hellish to try to figure out how we can do something about that problem.
An editorial in the Minneapolis StarTribune last week dealt with what good schools have in common.
"Research has shown what many good schools have in common: strong leadership and clear direction. Dedicated educators who know students and families and have high expectations. Orderly, nurturing school environments. Sharp curriculum focus on knowledge skills and values. Involved parents and community.
How to convince students that learning is fun
It only makes sense to believe we can learn a great deal about how to train and teach minority students if we look at success stories. So, I set out searching for a couple examples of schools in the United States that are having success – or at least appear to be having success.
Let's begin right here at home, in Minnesota.
A KIPP School will open here in Minnesota this fall. It will be called Stand Academy. Katherine Kersten' story about it, The Toughest School You'll Ever Love, appeared in local paper on 16 July 2008.
Stand academy will promote the kind of ideals of hard work, commitment, earning and investment that I wrote about above. It sounds very exciting and we need more experiments like this one.
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA)
More than 50 percent of the children in this charter school are in poverty situations. Even so, TiZA had some of the highest scores in the state on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading, writing and math. How come? Why? What is TiZA doing right? [Check out TiZA's web site!]
Instead of being suspicious of this school with a concentration of Asian, African and Middle East students, one should be filled with awe upon reading the school's mission and goals.
TiZA begins with its teachers. They seek out and train teachers who will excite students about learning and inspire students to work hard.
Now, there's lots to criticize and question about this school. Is it right that the school is so religious in its approach and still receives state funds? Are they teaching a kind of Islamic faith that rejects Christianity and Judaism?
My point here is that this school understands how to recruit teachers who will inspire students to learn and they are learning even though they are racially in a minority position and economically in poverty situations. It can be done. Can't we learn something from it?
Read this Minnesota Public Radio report on TiZA. It's the most objective report that you'll find.
The Preuss School, San Diego
Now, let's hop on out to California to look at the Preuss School, an extremely successful model. Granted, this is an ideal program in an ideal setting. It has magnificent tools at its disposal and it is generously funded. Nevertheless, it shows what can be done if the will is there.
"The Preuss School, located on the University of California San Diego (UCSD) campus in La Jolla, California, is a charter middle and high school dedicated to providing a rigorous college prep education for motivated low-income students who will become the first in their families to graduate from college. As part of UCSD, a major research institution, The Preuss School also serves as a model school to study and develop best practices in the preparation of low-income, urban students for college admission to be disseminated to improve public education. [Read more]"
If you read just the introductory paragraph above, you have to be excited and intrigued. If you clicked on "read more" and read in more depth, your corpuscles must have started dancing and prancing.
"The Preuss School's mission includes the development of strong character, healthy lifestyles, good judgment, ethical behavior and instilling a sense of service to one's home community. We believe that the family, neighborhood institutions and school all share responsibility for encouraging young people to develop as both scholars and citizens."
Okay, before we discuss how the Preuss School manages its success, let's take a peek at its 2007 graduating class as profiled by the school's web page.
- One-hundred percent of the 2007 Preuss graduates will be attending two- and four-year colleges and universities. Two students will enroll in college by way of service in the Navy and Marines.
- 96% of the graduating class of 2007 has been accepted to a 4 year college or university. The past three years it has been at 91%, a stellar number that we thought hard to surpass!
- While 62% of the graduates of 2007 were accepted to a University of California campus, 32% have actually enrolled at a UC campus for the fall semester. Twelve students or 15% of our graduates will return to the UCSD campus in the fall as freshman students.
- Eight students or 10% of the 2007 graduates will attend prestigious private universities such as Columbia, Colgate, Duke, Harvard, Vassar College, Woodbury, and the University of Southern California.
- This class of 2006 has attracted $1.25 million in private scholarships and grants!
- A record number of Preuss School students, five out of a graduating class of 78, have been designated as Gates – Millennium Scholars. They will be fully supported in college and graduate school as long as they maintain their grades and community service.
- A relatively stable trend has been identified among our 2005, 2006 and 2007 graduates - on average, 40% have declared a major in engineering, science or a health-related field.
Okay, I'll admit it. Preuss starts with top-notch minority students. Remember, however, that they don't come out of situations where their parents and grandparents have shown academic success.
Here's the Preuss School's criteria for applicants – it shows clearly that the school starts off in a good position with their students.
The goal of The Preuss School at UCSD is to recruit and register the most promising youngsters who will enter the 6th , 7th , 8th , and 9th grades from the greater San Diego area who meet all of the following general criteria:
- All students must meet the federal school guidelines for economic support known as "Title One" or "Free or Reduced Lunch" subsidy.
- The parents or chief guardians are not graduates of a four-year college or university.
- Student applicants must demonstrate high motivation and family support as defined by the highly successful AVID program in San Diego schools.
There is no reason why there couldn't be a Preuss School in every state in the nation, with some states, like California, New York, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania having a number of such schools. Don't give me a jerking around about the cost. It's not a problem in Minnesota and it's not a problem in any of the states I mention above. There are big time funders and foundations in each of the states that would step up to the plate to bankroll a school like this.
Such schools could then become models for other schools in the community. Success begets success. A state just needs to show it is serious about educating minorities and in so doing we may discover one of the roots of the problem.
We must ask: Are states serious about the problem? Do community leaders really want to successfully educate minority students? Is there a threat to the established power structure? These are questions John Gibson raised in my last blog and they may be more real than I initially thought.
Teaching teachers to "teach like your hair is on fire!"
The education and training of teachers in America is not anything for us to brag about. Though there are exceptions, the education departments at our colleges and universities are probably the least praiseworthy of any departments on campus. This must change.
We must figure out how to teach teachers to inspire and motivate young people to work harder. The very clinical methods of instruction on how to teach have failed. They might work in situations where the students are already motivated by social circumstance and by their families, but this method won't work in schools where children are unmotivated, poor and hungry.
How do we develop more teachers like Rafe Esquith, about whom I dealt in the 2nd part of this series? Departments of Education in all the 50 states should be working on this question in cooperation with their state universities and colleges.
This is an interesting 2001 story from the New York Times, by Patrick J. McCloskey, called
"Schools that Work," pointing out that urban Catholic schools seem to succeed at a rate way above public school in educating poor and minority children.
Here's an interesting read: The full transcript of a 2005 PBS Program, Making Schools Work, with Hedrick Smith, in which some exciting examples are cited of schools that are succeeding with minority students.
Jay Mathews wrote this interesting story in a 2005 edition of The Washington Post about high schools in Washington, D.C. that were nominated by their readers as schools that work successfully with minority students and learning-disabled kids.
Here's the 2008 U.S. News and World Report list of the best high schools in America. You'll need to work your way through the list to find those that work with heavy minority and/or poverty students.
Newsweek's list of the 1,300 top high schools in America is interesting and worth browsing through, looking for those schools that succeed with minority and/or poverty students.
Here's a PDF of a report by Clink Bolick, Schools that Work for Minority Students.
A book, Making Schools Work for Underachieving Minority Students, edited by Josie G. Bain and Joan L. Herman, might be helpful. Like most specialty books of this type, it's very expensive and you probably should try to find it in a city, regional or university library. The cheapest one I found listed was at ABE (American Book Exchange) where there was a used copy for $24.95.