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up where we belong

Gail Thompson interviewed 121 out of 136 (89%) teachers at a large urban high school asking them about their school, their colleagues, their students, the parents of their students, the quality of their own work, and their ability to be effective teachers. She asked the teachers to respond to prompts like:

  • “I consider my current school site to be one of the best public schools in this district”
  • “I believe that most of the teachers at this school are outstanding educators”
  • “The majority of my students come from decent homes”
  • “I care about my students’ academic and personal welfare both inside and outside of school.”

I’m happy to say that a large majority of them responded in ways that we would like; that is, most of the teachers agreed that they worked in one of the best schools in the district, that their colleagues were outstanding teachers, that their students live in decent homes, and that they care about their students. Further, most of the teachers believe they are making a difference for their students, that they are using innovative and pedagogically sound instructional practices, and that their students would rate highly as a teacher. Based on these answers and despite all the problems that we know exist in public schools, we can at least feel that teachers in those schools have the right attitudes and that they believe in themselves, their schools, and their students.

A deeper look at all the questions (52 in all) she asked reveals a more complicated picture.

  • When asked if they would want their “own children to attend this school” only 29% agreed.
    80% of the teachers agreed that some of their “colleagues do not have high expectations of their students.”
  • 64% “believe that parents or guardians are largely to blame for students’ low achievement.”
    Nearly 40% of the teachers didn’t “believe that all students deserve a college preparatory curriculum.”
  • And, when asked if students are largely to blame when they “fail to pass a test or fail an assignment,” 57% of the teachers agreed.

Thompson also surveyed the students in the same school. She asked them to respond to statements like:

  • “Most of my teachers are good teachers.”
  • “Most of my teachers are willing to give me extra help during class if I need it.”
  • “I wish I had better teachers.”
  • “Most of my teachers are fair about discipline.”
  • “I believe most of my teachers care about me.”

As we would hope, most students answered that their teachers are good, fair, caring and willing to help, yet there were marked differences between the way Blacks, Latinos, and Whites (the groups that made up 90% of the student population) responded. Significantly less percentage of the Black and Latino students (56% and 57%, respectively), for instance, thought most of their teachers cared about them than White students (70%).

Even more important, student responses were different from teacher responses in ways that, I believe, should make teachers sit up and pay attention. For example, 97% of the teachers said they care about their students, but as we just saw, less than 70% of the students felt their teachers cared about them. 91% of teachers said they “make the curriculum relevant” to their students’ lives, but only just over half of the students agreed with similar prompts about their courses.

While differences between student and teacher perceptions is a big part of the story of Up Where We Belong, the book Thompson wrote based partially on her surveys, the real punch comes from the voices of the students from focus groups she conducted with them to follow up the surveys. The students tell us what happens when their teachers make them feel stupid or discipline them unfairly or just don’t seem to care. They also describe what a powerful force for good a caring, skilled teacher is when he or she believes in his or her students. Those stories, combined with Thompson’s own experiences as one of “America’s stepchildren”—a term, she uses “to refer to African Americans, Latinos, Southeast Asians, Native Americans, and sometimes even low-income whites, because members of these groups are often marginalized and treated as second-class citizens in schools and the wider society”—make the book immanently readable, emotionally effective, and compellingly motivational.  The result is a persuasive argument for the educational reform “lessons” Thompson learned through her work:

  • Lies, subterfuge, and denial are “weapons of mass destruction” that impede school reform and harm many students, especially America’s stepchildren.
  • Some people in high places don’t really want achievement gaps to be closed.
  • Too many influential people still don’t believe that Americas’ stepchildren are capable of academic excellence.
  • Oppressive school settings, inadequate teacher preparation programs, and a lack of support will continue to drive new teachers out of the profession.
  • As long as their voices, needs, and concerns continue to be ignored, teachers and students will find creative ways to derail school reform efforts.
  • At best, school reforms that are based on high-stakes testing will produce “tuna” that looks like Star-Kist but is not the real thing.
  • Because of resistance and racial prejudice, it is difficult for African American and Latino school administrators to improve the status quo in K-12 schools.

Books about education reform come in all shades of ideology; Thompson’s is useful and different because it is based, and sets the standard for successful reform, on what the students themselves say. Too often, student voices are not part of this discussion. Thompson listens to students and helps us all hear what they say. Let us hope that the Obama administration is listening, too.

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2 Comments

  1. Mark says:

    This make us take a hard look at ourselves as teachers. At my school, the only real reform that I have been involved in petered out after just two years with a change in administration and the last budget crunch. I feel administrators are afraid to let teachers take a real leadership role in this sort of thing, and it is hard to make top-down reform work.

    I feel like I am only making excuses, but it is hard to show kids you care when you have 1.5 minutes per kid per period. That being said, i could do better at it, I am sure.

    Do you have some models of real reform you can share? Ironically, I have come across my own school as a reform example in searches.

  2. eric says:

    Interesting perspective on education reform by malcolm gladwell:
    http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_12_15_a_teacher.html

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