A Tale of Two Schools

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

There are two current storytelling efforts about two different schools that, if you’re not careful, might feel like the American version of a tale of two cities.

In the first, a 10-part video narrative about a year in the life of the Mission Hill School in Boston, we’re treated to the best of times: a place where every children is known and cared for, where learning is experiential and engaging, and where the adults are both extremely skilled and highly collaborative.

In the second, a two-part This American Life series about a high school in Chicago, we’re given a glimpse of the worst of times: a place where 29 current or former students were shot the previous school year, where some students spend their entire high school careers avoiding social relationships out of safety, and where every member of the football team has dodged gunfire at least once in their young lives.

On one level, these two stories do provide some stark, uncomfortable contrasts: at Mission Hill, there are good days and bad days, but on balance the school is steady, secure, and consistently supportive of its students. And at Harper High School, there are moments of personal transformation, but on balance its students are forced to survive in a Sisyphean environment filled with fear and uncertainty.

On another level, however, the stories of Mission Hill and Harper High provide the rest of us with a clear message about the state of public education as it is – and as it ought to be. In fact, it’s impossible to hear these two schools’ stories and not see three clear implications for school reform going forward:

1. Our nation’s schools need to do a lot more than improve reading and math. It’s fitting that Harper High School is a “turnaround school.” That means the U.S. Department of Education has given it an additional $1.6 million annually “in order to raise substantially the achievement of students.”

If you haven’t been paying attention, anytime you see the word “achievement” you can just replace it with “standardized reading and math scores.” In other words, the only explicitly stated goal of our federal turnaround funds is to raise student performance on tests. That’s not just myopic – it’s tragic, particularly when you hear the story of Harper High and you meet young people like Thomas, a young man who had witnessed multiple murders, and who already worried he would hurt a lot of people soon.

Not surprisingly, the story’s reporters met Thomas in the school’s social work office, where he was usually found. “Sometimes I just need to talk to somebody,” he tells them, avoiding all eye contact, “and that’s why I come here.”

Don’t get me wrong – every school in America should set high academic standards for their students. But let’s be equally honest about something else: in communities like Thomas’s, young people often have just two places to escape to – the streets or the school. And when we threaten the ongoing existence of safe havens like a social worker’s office – as Harper will be forced to do when its looming budget cuts take effect – we increase the likelihood that Thomas will take a wrong, perhaps deadly, turn.

2. Our nation’s children all need the same things. It’s impossible to watch the Mission Hill series and not see the value of ensuring that every child feels known, loved and supported by at least one adult in the school. Once again, this is a foundational element of the schooling experience that transcends academic content. As Mission Hill 3rd grade teacher Jenerra Williams puts it, “You have to know them to teach them well. And once you do, you just naturally become their advocate.”

We see the same lesson at Harper High, where social worker Anita Stewart says goodbye to a young person running off to class with these words: “You are a person. You are valuable and you matter.” Indeed both of these remarkable educators understand something the bulk of our education policies chooses to ignore: that unmet social needs become unmet academic needs.

This observation should inform everything from how schools are evaluated to how teachers are prepared. Once again, however, our desire to engender measurable school reform on a political timetable (as opposed to one that actually reflects what we know about how organizations can implement lasting changes) has left us with empty discussions of schools that “boost performance” and teacher preparation programs that act as if a deep understanding of child development is a luxury, not a necessity. And once again, we can do better.

3. Our nation’s teachers need and deserve our support. There’s no escaping the fact that in the last several years, we’ve painted a general picture of America’s teachers as lazy, protected, and inferior. But the stories about Mission Hill and Harper High reveal a different picture: of adults who are highly skilled, highly committed, and highly valuable to the communities they serve.

To be sure, there are teachers out there whose unions have protected them from sanction, and whose ability to impact the lives of their students has long since passed. I had some of these characters as colleagues, and in my experiences working with schools around the country for the past decade, I would say they account for no more than 5% of the profession.

By contrast, the educators we see and hear at Mission Hill and Harper are masters of their craft, and models for us all. They are more than heroic; they are ambassadors of a profession tasked with the most important goal of a democratic society: to help children learn how to use their minds well, and how to harness the power and uniqueness of their own voice.

For these reasons, A Year at Mission Hill and This American Life are exactly the sorts of stories about public education we need. In Boston, we see a school in which both old and young are struggling to actualize a Dewey-esque reflection of the ideal learning environment; in Chicago, we see a school in which both old and young are struggling to escape a Dystopian reflection of our national culture of violence. And in both schools, we see personal stories of hope and transformation, and a real-life reflection of the social and emotional foundations of a healthy school.

The rest is up to us.

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