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'Excellence Through Equity': an Interview With Pedro Noguera & Alan Blankstein

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Pedro Noguera and Alan M. Blankstein agreed to answer a few questions about their book, Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student.

Pedro Noguera is a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA. His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts. Alan M. Blankstein served for 25 years as president of the HOPE Foundation, which he founded and whose honorary chair is Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Educators can learn more from Noguera and Blankstein at upcoming ASCD institutes.

LF: Desmond Tutu's foreword highlights a theme of the book as "confronting old zero-sum game thinking in which someone must lose."  It echoes the old community organizing adage that power is not a finite pie - if I get some, it doesn't have to mean that you get less.  It can mean that more opportunities are created for everybody.  Can you give a summary what you think this perspective means for both broader school policy and for teachers every day in the classroom?

Alan Blankstein - Schools, classrooms, districts, states, provinces and nations featured in the book have used equity - defined as every student receiving what s/he needs to succeed ― as a driver for greater success among all students. It works because the culture and systems developed to assure this kind of equity become more responsive to each student's needs. The idea that students learn the way we teach is replaced with teaching the way they learn. The idea that all students should get the same homework done and in at the same time is replaced with a culture and policies that take into account the fact that the fastest growing segment of our student population doesn't even have a home, and that these 1.3 million students should not be punished for this, but rather supported by the school community and their policies.

The result of these and many other shifts in instruction, culture and policy, is that schools become exciting, challenging-yet-supportive, and innovative places in which all students thrive, versus places that sort students into winners and losers where even the winners' diverse needs and learning styles aren't being completely met in the school context.

Pedro Noguera - One of the districts we feature in the book is Abbington, Pennsylvania.  The chapter is written by Amy Sichel, who has been superintendent for about 15 years (She was also elected President of the American Association of School Administrators).  Abbington shows us that the effort to reduce race/class disparities in achievement resulted in all students making significant gains over time.  This was made possible by raising standards, increasing rigor and providing support to students in challenging AP and honors courses.  Abbington also shows us how to navigate the political opposition that arises from parents (usually affluent, well educated parents), who are likely to perceive any efforts at expanding access to rigorous courses as a threat to their kids.  Abbington avoided the zero-sum trap by showing that it was possible to serve all students well, and by generating concrete evidence that this was indeed occurring. 

LF: In the book, you suggest that the "alternative to equity is catastrophic." Why should people not dismiss that as hyperbole?

Blankstein - It's pretty clear that we are seeing signs of this throughout the world right now.  The collective wealth of 3.5 billion people in the world (1/2 of the global population) is less than that of the wealthiest 80 people. This represents a trend that has been growing since the 1970s and now manifests in myriad ways, some of which we don't connect to issues of equity. Yet poisoned drinking water in Flint, Mich., the resurgence of Ebola in West Africa, the exponential growth of street children in Bombay, and the increasingly frequent reports of episodes of police shootings such as in Ferguson, Mo., have in common an underpinning of growing inequity that disproportionately falls on the backs of our children.

We have seen and still experience the outcomes of economic despair and hopelessness worldwide. The "Arab Spring" was ignited by a street vendor who was poor, angry and hopeless, and the instability we see throughout the Middle East since has similar underpinnings. The South African leadership took an unusual path when faced with similar dynamics in their country. F. W. DeClerk,  The leader holding official power of the regime at the time, worked with the opposition led by Nelson Mandela to assure a peaceful transition to democratic rule. In so doing, they "avoided a bloodbath" according to Archbishop Tutu. This is an important lesson for us all at this juncture.

Schools can serve as an echo chamber for the inequalities in wealth, language skills and so on that students bring with them, or schools can serve to redress inequities and give students a brighter future and pathway out of their current circumstances.

Noguera - Inequality in our society―in income, wealth, access to health care and transportation―reinforces the inequities in academic outcomes that we now call the achievement gap.  A closer look reveals that gaps in academic achievement are perpetuated by gaps in opportunity ― in the opportunity to learn in school, and to the supports that affluent children typically have outside of school.  When we address these gaps we begin to rebuild the possibility that education can serve as a path to mobility.  Of course, we must do more.  We must address the social issues like trauma and hunger that often accompany poverty, we must make access to high quality preschool and college affordable and accessible.  When we make these kinds of investments in opportunity we begin to move toward a more just and equitable society.  That benefits all of us. 

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LF: You say that schools need a "new paradigm." What does that mean, and what should it look like?

Blankstein - The paradigm is described above to a great extent. It turns out that a zero sum game doesn't actually fit the reality we are seeing and it's possible to instead create win-win scenarios with all stakeholders. This begins with a new assumption about the school's role: that of finding and cultivating the varied talents of all students vs. determining which among them are best suited for AP classes, enrichment, etc. It also means that we are broadening the definition of "resources" from economic only, to include human and social capital. Including students who would not usually be in an AP class, for example, becomes an opportunity to enrich the class with more interesting viewpoints and varied teaching strategies that meet all students' learning styles. 

Economic resources, likewise, can be used creatively to fully engage and develop all of the school community. For example, Anne Clark, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools, writes about how they used strategic staffing to move top principals and their lead teams to low-performing schools in a manner that engaged and addressed concerns of all parties. As a result, it has now become a badge of honor and desirable to be asked to relocate to help a low-performing school, and all schools in the system are excelling. 

Noguera - We need a new paradigm for education because the old paradigm assumed that intelligence was innate and that the responsibility of schools was to measure intelligence and sort on the basis of perceived ability.  We need schools to cultivate a broad range of talents and strengths in all children.  We need to focus on the "whole child"―access to nutrition, music, art, guidance, emotional and psychological supports.  We need schools that tap into the intrinsic desire to learn that all children possess.  For the last several years we've been too narrowly focused on assessment.  We should instead focus on how to get children excited and deeply engaged in learning. 

All of this is part of a different way of thinking about education.  Many of these ideas are already present in independent private schools serving affluent children.  Poor and middle class children need this type of education too. 

LF: You write:

 "In recent years, educational practice has been less aligned with knowledge and research derived from child development. As policy makers have become more focused on holding schools accountable for producing evidence of student achievement as measured by performance on standardized tests, recognition of how variations in child development relate to reaching milestones such as learning to read has increasingly been ignored."

 What would you suggest have been the reasons behind this move towards ignoring research and, instead, emphasizing the idea of "accountability"?  Do you think the Every Student Succeeds Act might signal a change?

Noguera - No Child Left Behind (NCLB) moved us a step forward because it required schools to produce evidence that all students were learning.  It also required states to disaggregate the data so that we could see how well different subgroups were performing.  However, NCLB ended up hurting far more schools because it compelled them to focus too narrowly on test scores, and resulted in many schools ignoring the development of the higher order skills - independent research, critical thinking, using evidence to develop arguments, etc. Child development reminds us that not all children do things (e.g. learning to read) at the same pace.  It also reinforces the idea that play and discovery are important parts of learning.  Our kids have been tested too frequently and insufficient attention has been given to creating classrooms where students are actively engaged in learning. 

Theoretically, ESSA will give states and districts more flexibility in how frequently they test and even the forms of assessment that are used.  The question is: will they know what to do with the flexibility?

BlanksteinAmerica is an outlier internationally in its heavy focus on testing which has led to narrowing the curriculum, and in poor schools, eliminating the kind of enrichment that makes schools meaningful and relevant for children. Brockton H.S., featured in our book, went from being the lowest performing school in the state of Massachusetts and has been among the highest performing now for almost a decade. This is in great part due to a shift in philosophy to one that embraces the whole child and compensates for their challenging and economically impoverished home lives through an array of extracurricular as well as academically engaging opportunities. At the core, this is about adults in the school knowing their students. The testing emphasis in our country has served to do the opposite in many cases, as educators felt compelled to cover curriculum vs. know their students.

The ESSA gives us another opportunity to make a meaningful change. Yet state departments will need to rethink traditional underlying assumptions of compliance as the lever for commitment if we are to see true shifts in school cultures and student outcomes.

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LF: Can you briefly share some examples of the "courageous leadership" you write about that are necessary to create equity in our schools - perhaps one on a state or national level, another for a district, and a third for a school or classroom?

Noguera- At the state level we've seen courageous leadership in California with their equity-based funding formula under LCAP - Local Control Accountability Policy.  The new law is empowering school districts and providing the resources to meet the needs of students who have been poorly served. 

At the district level we're seeing leaders like Superintendent Cindy Martin in San Diego and Richard Carranza in San Francisco who have targeted high-poverty schools with highly skilled principals and teachers, and who have moved away from punitive approaches to discipline and effectively implemented restorative practices to promote order, safety and personal responsibility in schools. 

At the classroom we continue to see teachers who are highly effective despite constraints related to poverty in motivating and engaging students.  The sad thing is that too often these teachers work in isolation and do not serve as a resource for their colleagues.

Blankstein--We returned to the original meaning of the word "courage" in depicting such actions by Ed leaders. All of them displayed this "heart" by taking on challenges that were in synch with their core; why they were even in the field.

Two quick examples include Paul Reville, who as commissioner of education in Massachusetts dedicated resources to closing achievement gaps, gained public support for this and was then able to garner even more resources as a result to further the work and make his state one of the nation's top performers.

Marcus Newsome was always rooted in equity and played out this passion beginning as a teacher in D.C. schools through to administrator at all levels in various challenged districts. Yet at Chesterfield, Virginia he met a new challenge: that of working in a wealthy, high-performing district. Yet this did not dissuade him from addressing the often unspoken secret of the underperformance of "those kids," who were often written off or simply ignored. 

Both of these leaders exemplified the five principles of courageous leadership in the way that they rooted their work in their own commitment, faced the data and their fears, chose a strategy that became an unwavering focus, and built relations around the plan to sustain themselves and the long term change efforts they endeavored.

LF: Thanks, Pedro and Alan!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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