Not long ago, I was reading a recent statistical report on the condition of education worldwide that had gotten a lot of attention in the education press. I was fascinated by the insights contained in the analysis that accompanied the numbers.
So, I resolved that my next Tucker’s Lens—this one—would be devoted to calling your attention to the highlights of the report.
But then, just as I sat down to write the blog, I got an e-mail from a dear friend and colleague, Loretta “Shou-Shou” Polhill. She, too, had read the report. I’ll share more about her in a bit. Suffice it to say here that Shou-Shou is a highly-educated African-American educator who could have done anything she wanted to with her life, but she has chosen for years to devote herself to African-American kids growing up in the most desperate circumstances in our big cities, on the ground, in their midst.
Shou-Shou had read the same report I had read, but she had reacted very differently to it. Here are some excerpts from her e-mail:
With all due respect to you my dear friend, much of what I [saw in this report] was not new, not shocking. For this longtime educator, it was expected, a repeat of what I have already heard. The fact that teaching is not financially and intellectually attractive is so not new. We know that the hours devoted to just teaching surpasses other countries. We know that numbers recording increased graduation rates don’t necessarily mean anything in terms of student’s success in the real world.
Too many students and parents think their diploma has currency. Have you ever been to an urban graduation ceremony? One would think they hit the lottery, parents and students. Once the reality sets in, parents and students realize that they will have to find a way to meet their financial obligations—like rent, food, medicine—some other way.
I continue to believe we are doing it all wrong for people of color, most especially, African-Americans and poor children. We do them such a disservice. We seem to think not at all about what it means for these young people, when they leave high school, to return to their communities, to try to thrive or just to participate in that particular environment. Survival is often the issue that blots out all the others. The disparity between their schooling and what actually happens when they return to their neighborhood is something we need to pay more attention to.
I am so frustrated. The young people in “those” neighborhoods just want to get out of the “hood” but they don’t know how to navigate the disparities between their schools and the deeply embedded culture in the community. It just ain’t cool to do well in school. Too many want “street creds’ first and foremost. Not all, but far too many. Our schools in “our” neighborhoods are a “mess,” for the most part. The educators just don’t understand what the students actually face or reject it.
We are drowning. The billions of dollars spent on education aren’t capable of saving the many who are sinking and will subsequently drown.
Shou-Shou quotes from Vygotsky, pointing to the famous psychologist’s theory about the way social interaction influences cognition, the way the social and cultural context for our development shapes what we learn and how we learn it in school and out. She thinks that insight is routinely ignored by professional educators. Shou-Shou said:
I have literally been in more than 300 plus schools locally and nationally, working and observing. What I saw, more times than I would like to admit, were schools (classes) in which teachers “taught” but far too many students, based on my observations and their subsequent test scores, were not retaining, not understanding, not internalizing, not able to transfer. The blame? Poverty, low SES, parents…Everything, but now we need to fix teaching to make up for the differences among the students and the challenges many face.
One of my teachers, in hindsight, was a master teacher. She leveled the playing field so all of us could learn and be successful. We went on field trips several times a month. Sometimes more. She made sure we had experiences that could level the playing field for us with students who had the kind of experiences that the writers of the curriculum, textbooks and texts assumed we had. And she gave us opportunities to read and write about those experiences.
She didn’t just talk about stuff. She allowed us to experience it. The application to mathematics, science and history as well as reading and writing were cleverly woven into the learning. Yes, Ms. Stuckland knew exactly how to teach. We went to farms, colleges, factories, museums, operas, the Franklin Institute, saw symphony orchestras and on and on. I still remember one conductor’s name: Eugene Ormandy. With those experiences, chalkboard and chalk, paper and pencil were all we needed. And, art supplies to make and demonstrate our learnings. Different times now, but the experiences afforded me were lasting and beneficial.
Shou-Shou ended with a quote from Voltaire: “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” And she then said, “We have failed so many.”
And who, exactly, is this remarkable woman? I asked her if she would write me something that would capture her story. This is what she wrote:
I grew up in the ‘50s in a small town in southeast Pennsylvania. Its schools were integrated. Both my mother and father graduated from the same high school as I did. We lived in one of the “colored” sections of town. Four blocks of neatly packed row homes, most owned by the parents of the kids who lived there. There were two other segregated sections of town in which blacks lived. Ours was regarded as the best. A doctor lived across the street from me. A dentist and a beer salesman lived around the corner. But, most of our parents were factory or domestic workers. Everyone worked. There were no stay-at-home moms. I saw what I could actually become one day, but I was not accepted by them. They—the doctor, dentist and beer salesman—were the “better offs.” They treated us as their social inferiors and we saw them as superior in status. We would be recognized as equals only after we “became something.” By the way, Marc, the wives of our upper-class neighborhood were not college educated. Just light skinned (colorism) and “pretty.” The doctor’s wife, by the way, would not allow us to walk on their sidewalk when they were expecting their “bougie” black friends from Philadelphia, 15 miles away.
I attended an integrated school, where far too many blacks were placed in the “special class” where they did arts and crafts all day. The only whites in that class had visual disabilities, mostly related to some form of mental challenges. I was one of just a few blacks in my classes. I never interacted with whites outside of school. Never invited to their homes, let alone parties. If they wanted to plan something, I sat outside in the hall until they were finished. When I was in the sixth grade, I was questioned when I scored in the 99th percentile on a norm referenced test. They said I must have cheated.
That was a defining moment. In junior and high schools, I was always in the top sections because we were ability grouped, tracked. In 11th grade, I got an “F” in health, even though I had a 97 average. I refused to erase the chalkboard because the white girls wrote all over it, not me. She commanded me to erase it. I resisted. My mother went to the principal who reversed the grade based on my average, giving me an “A.” This teacher was also the phys ed teacher and coached the varsity field hockey and basketball teams. I was cut from both, even though I was a standout in each.
I thought and continued to think I was always a little less than others, despite any subsequent accomplishments.
I have been a teacher, had assorted central office positions, did professional development training locally and nationally, coached principals and teachers, but best of all, I was a principal.
My love for my students came first, making sure that each one felt valued, respected and pushed toward their full potential. That was my job each and every day. I did not want any of them to ever feel they were “not enough” in any situation. My staff was encouraged to understand that we all come from different places and backgrounds, but it was our responsibility to make sure that each child succeeded…no matter what. It was difficult to navigate sometimes, but we did our best. I never ever wanted anyone to feel ‘less than,’ as I did so very many times. My guidance counselor in high school told me to push toward being a practical nurse or a file clerk. My mom said, ‘No Shou, lets push further.’
So Marc, that sums it up. The deal is we don’t pay attention to what our students actually have to face and consider in their daily lives, to the great distance between that world and the information they are expected to absorb and retain in schools.
Cognitive science provides a lot of support for Shou-Shou’s perspective on schooling in our cities. The way our mind works, it is easy and perhaps cognitively necessary to compartmentalize our brains, taking in what we are learning in school while in it—at least some of it—and then ditching it when we leave the school to embrace the values, attitudes, representations of reality and behaviors of the street. The need to be accepted by ones’ peers or maybe just survive can easily overpower the conventions and values of the school. And, as Shou-Shou points out, that is especially true if the reality is that one is stuck in that community, that school does not provide a route out, as it did for Shou-Shou.
Very few have Shou-Shou’s mother or Ms. Stuckland, her teacher. Even fewer have both. Shou-Shou’s mother set the expectations high and never let them fall and went to bat for her when all seemed lost, providing not just invaluable help to Shou-Shou when she most needed it, but a shining role model for what Shou-Shou would become. Ms. Stuckland knew that her students came into her classes lacking the experiences they would need to have a fighting chance of success in school and in the wider world after school and did what she knew had to be done —and she did it.
I’ve admired Shou-Shou for decades and am grateful for her friendship. Don’t be fooled by her comments on the research report I described at the beginning of this blog. She is no anti-intellectual. She reads these reports assiduously. Always has, because she knows it is her responsibility to know what the research says.
But she is, at the same time, frustrated by a perspective shared by many educators and probably more researchers that we’ll do what we can within the boundaries of the school and classes taught in them, but that is all we can do. If we are preparing them for flight from the circumstances they face in their communities, then we need to help them build the bridges to that life that are now missing. If we are not doing that, if we are preparing them for life in their community after they leave school, then we need to be very clear about what that means and how we are going to help. If we think that Ms. Stuckland was right, and their future depends on giving them experiences outside of the four walls of the school that are indispensable if they are going to be successful both in school and in life, then let’s do whatever is necessary to make that happen. If Ms. Stuckland could do it, so can we.
Shou-Shou is not opposed to the conventions of our research community. Not at all. She just wants us to deal with the realities of the lives of the children we say we are trying to help. Is that too much to ask?