Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Excellence in Education

David Drew wrote an extremely interesting article for the Washington Post, “Why US can’t get back to the head of the class (because itwas never there).” He makes the point that American education excels at the university level, but not at the public school level. He further talks about the role poverty plays in our educational limitations.

Professor Drew makes an excellent point. After all, I don’t see American youngsters lining up to get visas so they can get their educations in other countries. We have some of the finest universities in the world, and we have a comprehensive system of private and state colleges and universities that is well equipped to meet the educational needs of any student who can graduate from high school and has the fundamentals to begin a college education. These are not the young people we need to be worried about, and they can certainly succeed whether they have an average or much better than average high school education.

We fall short in the short-changing of young people from impoverished neighborhoods and through our community college system, where these bright and motivated young people get stuck at the basic skills level, and never get beyond.

I live and work in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. New Jersey is unique in the United States in that it is parceled into an unusually large number of small communities, each running its own public services including its own school systems. It has been said that New Jersey leads the country in school superintendents per capita. The outgrowth of this system is a collection of schools that vary greatly from each other, yet, even with variations between the different suburban schools (and there are some that have particularly great reputations) the big divide is between the suburbs and Camden. I live minutes from the city of Camden, in great safety and with certainty that my children went to good schools, knowing that out of earshot, there are children who walk to school passing needles in the street and having heard gunshots the night before.

Professor Drew focuses on the issue of safety, and, I agree. It is not possible for children to learn if they do not feel safe. It is also not possible for teachers to teach effectively if they don’t feel safe.

My children were in school when the shootings at Columbine took place. Our community was shaken. For a few days, my children and their classmates felt afraid to go to school, and the schools made adjustments those couple of days. They understood that while the children were so scared, they could not learn. Yet stepping back, it seems odd that children in suburban New Jersey should feel scared to go to school because of shootings that took place 2000 miles away, when they do not even register that frequent shootings occur only ten minutes away.

The solution to this problem is far too complex to be taken on by the educational system. It involves several systems which include the war on drugs, the criminal justice system, and the child protection system, in addition to education. These fuel and exacerbate the problems that are inherent with poverty and the lack of economic opportunities.

But putting that complexity aside for another day and another discussion, we can at least focus on what the schools can do. When I read reports of schools that excel in the inner cities, they are almost exclusively centered on the presence of an inspired leader, the principal, and a commitment to make the in-school experience vibrant and vital. The same teacher who might have been burnt out and afraid, comes to life, and the same student, who might have seemed angry and rebellious, and may even face terrible circumstances on the streets and in their own homes, beams with excitement and gets engaged.

For those who have followed my blogs, you know that I put great emphasis on keeping teachers in charge of the classroom and parents in charge of the home.  I think homework should be assigned cautiously, and teachers should never assume that their assignments override the parent’s ultimate decision about what should happen in that particular home. It’s in that same spirit that I look for academic autonomy for teachers in the schools, and believe that the internal motivation of the teaching team, not the external pressures that we “race to the top,” provide the foundation for improving the quality of education. And that quality education cannot start unless the children feel  safe, at least in their school, and the teachers feel safe when they go to work. Even if the outside community fails to be safe, creating a zone of safety in the school is central for children to be able to learn.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He is the author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers and currently works in his own private practice.

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