The Kids Are All Right
In spite of what you may be reading in mainstream media, there are plenty of public schools where things are cooking right along. The building is not crumbling, teachers are crafting relevant curriculum, and the kids are safe in their classrooms, learning.
My friend David Cohen just wrote a book (Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools) that makes this point precisely: Even in schools with baked-in limitations and serious problems—poverty as primary example—there are vibrant classrooms led by talented, energetic teachers. He visited more than 70 schools in a single school year, then drew portraits of genuinely exciting pedagogy and student accomplishment happening in California. He was careful to mention those problematic issues because they're part of the story: overcoming barriers to make education worthwhile, even inspiring.
It's not just happening in California, or in a small slice of extra-fortunate, extra-wealthy schools and classrooms. In every school in the nation, there are pockets—or a preponderance—of beneficial instruction yielding good results.
Good schools and good teaching are not sexy, though. They're easy to pick apart, using what Peter Greene calls BS test data (that's "big standardized" tests), and nostalgia built on our own murky, romanticized views of what schooling used to or should be. Our current national love affair with Big Data, often an unreliable narrator when it comes to evaluating something as holistic and personal as learning, might lead us to believe that only some schools and some kids are all right. From there, it's a quick jump to privatizing or shutting 'em down.
In February, I visited a former band student, Matt Prater, in his classroom at Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz. I watched him facilitate his Research and Design seminar, asking junior and senior students probing questions about the products they've designed—everything from how to pitch the product to highly technical snags in design and operation. The kids asked each other questions, too, offering feedback and advice, in a casual, maybe-this-might-work roundtable.
I cruised the room, looking at prototypes and collected data. I couldn't photograph one of the projects (although, trust me, it was way cool), because the students who created it have applied for a patent. All the R & D materials came from a university-based grant program that required the grantees to promote their own ideas, from needs assessment to drafts and fine-tuning.
This is rigorous stuff. There are awards on the wall, applications for summer programs and scholarships. Some of the projects feel like science fiction—dream analysis, pulling moisture out of air in a desert climate—but the students assure me that their work follows not only established protocols, but the work of other scientists. They're serious about this stuff; it's not just a school assignment.
Highland HS is a sleek modern building with a beautiful central courtyard, clean and uncrowded hallways and a friendly staff, at least a half-dozen of whom asked if I needed help finding something. The walls were plastered with MORP signs (it's the anti-PROM). Students dropped by Matt's classroom, asking about homework and due dates. There was a relaxed vibe, but the kids were unfailingly polite (and deftly suppressed amusement at the idea of their Chemistry teacher once being in my middle school band).
When I had Matt, he was a skinny, earnest percussionist, the kid I could count on to put the triangle away before breaking for the door when the bell rang. He did not set out to be a teacher. In fact, he had a successful career in a high-powered technology business—then suffered a life-threatening stroke at age 39. It took months to come back, and he retains some physical symptoms. He is clear, however, that teaching is not a lower-tier fallback. It was a change of purpose, a chance to use his considerable knowledge in a rewarding new occupational skill set.
Teaching agrees with him, and his students obviously respect him. He's one of the interesting people who are shaping their lives right now—just as they're changing his. I found myself almost ridiculously proud of Matt, watching him challenge and encourage his students. How do you learn to do that?
Leaving the building, I wait in the long pick-up line, watching clusters of boys skateboard down the sidewalk, a little unbalanced by the loads in their backpacks. Homework tonight.
I can't imagine anyone visiting this public high school and seeing failure. The kids are all right.