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Be Excellent at Simple

Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst writes again to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah, 

You closed your last post by asking me to describe my "dream school."  I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you.  We're a long, long way from ensuring that every child has a sound, basic education—or even access to one. That's as much of a dream as I have the bandwidth for right now. 

We have all spent time—too much time—in conferences, panel discussions, and watching TED Talks, playing buzzword bingo as visionaries natter on about their grand visions for paradigm-shifting, disruptive innovations. Apparently there are exactly two things standing between every child and an engineering degree from MIT: a lousy teacher and a tablet computer. But I'm equally impatient with those who paint a vision of schools as social service agencies of first and last resort, providing meals, vision and dental services, day care, and recreational activities, with occasional breaks for a class or two. By all means, let's teach the whole child, but what gives us the confidence we can ask more of schools when we're struggling with math and reading?

Forgive me if I sound churlish. It's unfair of me to be dismissive of earnest, well-intentioned men and women in our field who think deeply about improving outcomes for kids.  I'm not a cynical person, Deborah, but I'm often baffled by our insistence on making the perfect the enemy of the good. My Democracy Prep colleague Lindsay Malanga and I often say we should start an organization called the Coalition of Pretty Good Schools.  We'd start with the following principles.

  1. Every child must have a safe, warm, disruption-free classroom as a non-negotiable, fundamental right.
  2. All children should be taught to read using phonics-based instruction.
  3. All children must master basic computational skills with automaticity before moving on to higher mathematics.
  4. Every child must be given a well-rounded education that includes science, civics, history, geography, music, the arts, and physical education.
  5. Accountability is an important safeguard of public funds, but must not drive or dominate a child's education. Class time must not be used for standardized test preparation.

These five things don't strike me as too much to ask.  I am not arguing for a stripped-down, bare bones vision of schooling.  "Be excellent at simple," Lindsay often counsels her teachers.  Pretty good advice.  I'd like to see schools do fewer things, but do those things exceptionally well.  I'm as aspirational as the next guy.  I can be inspired by talk of education as the civil rights challenge of our era and educational moon shots, but sometimes our reach exceeds our grasp. 

But there are too many barriers to even "pretty good," many will argue.  Perhaps.  Did you see the piece by Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post on PISA data a couple of weeks ago, Deb? It belied the often-repeated idea that our schools are fine, and that affluent American kids are the equal of any in the world. They're not.  A remarkable chart showed every country's 2012 PISA math scores by socioeconomic decile.  At a glance you can see that the children of America's top socioeconomic decile are not performing anywhere near as well the most affluent kids in other nations, including many whose average socioeconomic status is below the OECD average. "At the top of the distribution, our performance is surprisingly bad given our top decile is among the wealthiest in the world," noted Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Education who reviewed the data for Joy's piece.

So we're not doing very well.  NAEP scores for 17-year old reading over the past 40-years—a span of time that includes A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, standards-based teaching, and test-driven accountability—resemble the EKG of a patient in cardiac arrest.  So much time, energy, and trillions of dollars spent.  So little to show for it. 

If you push me, I will reduce my "Pretty Good Schools" list to one: A pretty good school is one that keeps kids in school until they graduate at age 18.  Every good outcome in life, public and private, correlates with staying in school, and we should have enough variety and choice within and between schools to keep kids attached and persisting. I tend to think we'd be more successful at even that most modest of goals if we were pretty good at the other items on my list. 

Am I guilty of a failure of vision?  Probably.  But discussing my "ideal" school feels a bit self-indulgent.  I am grateful for your vision, leadership, and dedication to our children, Deb.  Our country is a better place for having your dream schools in it.  But the world does not need my "dream school."  It needs schools that usher my students' dreams into the world.

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio

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