Saturday, July 5, 2008

Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire!

Part Two: The Problem of Minority Education
This may be the answer we're looking for, but where do we find the teachers?
by Charlie Leck

"It is my hope that some parents and teachers out there will agree with me that our culture is a disaster. In a world that considers athletes and pop stars more important than research scientists and firefighters, it has become practically impossible to develop kind and brilliant individuals." [Rafe Esquith]

Okay! In my last blog, on the problems of educating minorities in Minnesota and all of America, I wondered what the secret might be to solving the problem. I offered Thomas Sowell's likely response to such wishful thinking:

"The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret. Work seems to be the only four-letter word that cannot be used in public today."

I'm leaning toward Sowell's ideas about education and why it's failing in so many of our inner city schools. Throwing money at the problem doesn't seem to have worked. There is apparently only one answer: Great and hard working teachers! That leaves us with the question: How do we get them to return to schools in poverty areas to do the work that must be done?

A teacher opening in the schools in our finest suburban communities gets dozens of applications. Sometimes, no applications are submitted for a teacher opening in many of our inner city schools. Let me come back around to this in a moment. First, however, you must introduce yourself to Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher, if you haven't already done so.

Oh, my goodness, is this an extraordinary man. And, oh, what a teacher he is!

I happened upon his book, Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire, just a little over a year ago. If you are a teacher, read this book. If you care about the problems of educating poor and minority children, read this book. If you get excited about contemporary and ordinary heroes, read this book. If you care, read this book.

You don't have to buy it! You know where the library is, so go check it out! Remember the library? Get to know your local library again and you'll find it one of the most exciting places on earth.

If you want a quicker, simpler introduction to Rafe Esquith, listen right now to this 8 minute public radio interview with him (National Public Radio also has an interesting story posted about him on its web page from 3 July 2008).

I found Esquith's work a remarkably pleasant, joyful and inspiring book to read. I put it way up on top of the list of the best inspirational books I've read. I can't imagine that someone who teaches hasn't read this book. It ought to be mandatory reading for anyone who teaches in a poverty situation.

Esquith calls his sytle "teaching with total abandon!" He freely admits, way up-front, that not all teachers will have the time and freedom to teach the way he does. He recognizes that lots of teachers have other important and personal responsibilities pulling at them. He puts in 11 hour days just at his school and then there are more hours of preparation at home.

I'm not going to give you a description of Esquith's techniques. Hopefully, I've challenged you enough that you'll get the book and read about them yourself.

The important question for this essay is: How can we get teachers like Rafe Esquith into our schools where they are most urgently needed?

There's no doubt that it will take money. Yet, if our inner-city school have great teachers like this, we won't need to pour money down a drain by thinking that plant improvement and equipment purchases will do the job. As Thomas Sowell points out, hard work, by inspired and good teachers, will solve the problem.

If I were on an urban board of education, I'd be demanding that we figure this out. That is, figure out how we get great, inspiring teachers to come to work in those schools that have the biggest, most serious problems of education. We ought to have a recruitment program bigger and better than anything the military has ever tried.

We should make it a "call to save America" and we should get people like Bill Gates and his foundation – or Michael Bloomberg, Steve Forbes, Warren Buffet, Opra Winfrey and many others like them – to fund this massive recruitment program. Make sure they understand that we are recruiting heroes who are willing to give up something for their country – who are willing to bet with us that they can make a difference and change the world – that they can break this disastrous generational chain of family poverty and failure that exists in our inner cities.

Great teachers, who will "teach like their hair is on fire," could change America in a generation – yes, in a generation! They would be hailed and regarded even as our military heroes are!

Now, I can hear so many readers, as they toss up their hands in disbelief, saying: "What whimsy!"

It isn't at all a fantasy, folks! A great, inspiring leader could call our nation to such greatness. Perhaps he will.

"Rafe Esquith is a trail-blazing, fast-talking, fifth-grade teacher who has racked up a slew of awards for his work at a public school in Los Angeles. Ninety-two percent of the children at the school live in households below the poverty level, but Esquith's students have reached the pinnacle of academic and artistic success. His fifth-graders are already tackling high-school fare: algebra, philosophy and Shakespeare."
[MPR's All Things Considered, 22 January 2007]

And, here's an excerpt from Esquith's book:

"…I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated teachers who try to make a difference. Like all real teachers, I fail constantly. I don't get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach. Being a teacher can be painful.

"For almost a quarter of a century, I have spent the majority of my time in a tiny, leaky classroom in central Los Angeles. Because of a little talent and a lot of luck, I have been fortunate to receive some recognition for my work. Not a day goes by when I do not feel overwhelmed by the attention.

"I doubt that any book can truly capture the Hobart Shakespeareans. However, it is certainly possible to share some of the things I've learned over the years that have helped me grow as a teacher, parent, and person. For almost twelve hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, my fifth-graders and I are crowded into our woefully insufficient space, immersed in a world of Shakespeare, algebra, and rock 'n' roll. For the rest of the year, the kids and I are on the road. While my wife believes me to be eccentric, good friends of mine have not been so gentle, going as far as to label me quixotic at best and certifiable at worst.

"I don't claim to have all the answers; at times it doesn't feel as if I'm reaching as many students as I succeed with. I'm here only to share some of the ideas I have found useful. Some of them are just plain common sense, and others touch on insanity. But there is a method to this madness. It is my hope that some parents and teachers out there will agree with me that our culture is a disaster. In a world that considers athletes and pop stars more important than research scientists and firefighters, it has become practically impossible to develop kind and brilliant individuals. And yet we've created a different world in Room 56. It's a world where character matters, hard work is respected, humility is valued, and support for one another is unconditional. Perhaps when parents and teachers see this, and realize that my students and I are nothing special, they will get a few ideas and take heart."

Here's the web site of the Hobart Shakespeareans! You won't be sorry if you pay a visit to this wonderful site.

"Every child deserves a great public school-that is a fundamental right. And
great teachers are what make great public schools great." [Reg Weaver, President
of the National Education Association]

There's a touch of propaganda in this video, but meet Richard Ognibene, the 2008 Teacher of the Year in New York State.

Here's a story about Deborah Kenny, a white woman who teaches in Harlem, running a charter academy and proving education can work and change the lives of students. The story is from Esquire Magazine.

"In founding her schools, Kenny strove to re-create urban education. Her emphasis is on teaching critical thinking, not standardized-test compliance. At VA's schools, student progress is monitored daily, and as problems arise, Kenny and her staff utilize a rapid-response approach to help students stay on course. If there is a sense of urgency in the way Kenny runs her schools, it is because she knows that she is in the business of saving these kids, of providing them with futures."

Interestingly, the classrooms in Kenny's school were all given names, instead of numbers. Now kids going looking for Duke, Stanford, Columbia or Yale. Kenny, herself, has a doctorate in education from Columbia University. What significant hallmark describes her and her teachers? Easy! It's hard work!

Granted, it's self-promotional, but here's what Village Academies' own in-house materials say about Kenny:

"Deborah Kenny is the founder and Chief Executive of Village Academies, a network of college preparatory charter schools serving low-income, minority children in Harlem, New York. She was founding Principal of the network's first school, Harlem Village Academy. Under Kenny's leadership, Harlem Village Academy produced dramatic student achievement gains. Students enrolled 2 to 4.5 years behind grade level, lacking phonics and basic math skills, many with a history of chronic poor behavior. Despite these challenges, students now score in the top 6% of students in the country in math, and the top 23% in reading. 96% of seventh graders passed the 2006 New York State math test, ranking them #1 of all charter schools and #1 of all open enrollment public schools in New York City.

"The Village Academies leadership team has pioneered several innovative and highly effective educational programs, such as the Village Academies Leveled Reading Program,™ an assessment and instructional system that has been recognized as a conceptual breakthrough in the field, and the Village Academies Levels of Grammar Mastery Program. The Village Academies schools are widely regarded as among the highest performing charter schools in the country.

"Previously, Kenny served as Group President of Sesame Street Publishing, and as Vice President of Marketing and Business Development of Time Warner Parenting Group, where she developed new product lines for parents and children. She is a former teacher with expertise in youth leadership training and curriculum development. In 2006, Kenny received the national "Educators who Perform" award at the Center for Education Reform gala in Washington, DC. In addition, she was honored as the 2006 "Educator of the Year," presented by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University-Teachers College in comparative international education, and graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania."

Responses to my last blog were very gratifying – both in terms of the number of them and the quality of the comments. I want to mention, at this point, one of them in particular from John Gibson, of rural Arkansas. John fired, directly off the top of his head, some interesting thoughts that I think need to be added to the record for future discussion because they are important questions and points.

  • To a high degree, the past predicts the future.
  • One of the best predictors of who will fall into the educational achievement gap is the parents' status in that area and the achievements of grandparents. This is also an excellent predictor in other areas as well; like socioeconomic status, net worth, home ownership and a lot of other things!
  • Grandparents make the parents; parents make the children – parents nurture the children and the children become the students; and the students make the school.
  • The students themselves have a huge impact on the achievement level of a school.
  • Money, quality of teachers, and other factors have limited impact on the achievement level of a school.
  • Money spent on early childhood development/education is money very well spent. Mississippi, for instance, has never spent one state government dollar to directly support pre-kindergarten education.
  • We know well what some of the typical antecedents to educational achievement are; however, some are open to manipulation and others are more difficult.

  • It might be useful not to talk simply of hard work, but to ask ourselves about the precursors to a hard work orientation? How is it instilled and developed? How does it result in educational achievement? How can our society, or any society, through public policy implementation, better facilitate the instilling and development of a strong work orientation?

  • Poverty levels for African-Americans relative to whites has increased in recent decades; perhaps because share cropping finally totally disappeared in the South… and the decline of manufacturing in the North and elsewhere in the country began… and more poverty resulted in less educational achievement.

  • In the cases of Mississippi, unqualified teachers are often teaching in the poor schools. It is very difficult to learn high school level English or math from a teacher trained to teach physical education or to teach in elementary schools.

  • And let's not forget how minorities are disproportionately poisoned by our polluted environment; that must have a big impact on outcomes also.

    "Charlie, here are some more thoughts on education… of a more personal nature. I attended a 12 grade consolidated country school in eastern Arkansas. It was a small, 435 student school. There were twenty-one in my 1964 graduating class. It was segregated.

    "There were many children of extreme poverty in the classes in the early years of my 12 grade experience; but, by the end of my junior year, the only truly poor child left, by relative standards, had dropped out. His name was Jackie. He was a nice guy and smart. I wish I had been a better friend to him because I think he dropped out because he was the last poor kid and because of all the caste and class oppression that went with that.

    "My family was just above being poor. We had a country store in the middle of nowhere. My father was a dear soul, but, perhaps because of his years as a hobo, he was miserly. This resulted in our day to day living being similar to the local, truly poor folks.

    "Now it appears to me, in the case of my old school, the children of poverty do not drop out as early or as frequently as they did back then. The school is attempting to educate many more children who come from difficult circumstance. Some might say my old school is doing much better now because, although they are having less absolute success in average educational achievement among students attending, they are faced with much greater challenges than in the past."

Among all these bullet items that Gibson ticked off, he threw in one other that absolutely caught my attention. It caused me to email him back immediately, to ask him what the hell he was talking about.

  • Some people think we have figured out how to overcome these educational problems, but the solution is too revolutionary to the class and caste power structure, so it has been and will be resisted by the power structure.

Now, what, John Gibson, are you talking about? Could there be some facts behind this statement or is it just a touch of paranoia?

Finally, I urge you to take a look at the program of Ed in '08, which seeks to push education to the top of the summer and autumn's presidential campaign. The program is funded by Bill Gates and Eli Broad. This is an attempt to show voters that our national education system is in need of reform and that we aren't competitive in the global marketplace. There are rumors that another program, similar to this, but which concentrates on the education of minorities, has been launched in New York City. As of yet, I can't find out to much about it.

Next: We'll look at some of the minority education programs that are working.

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