Tag Archives: African-American students

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

12 Nov

At a recent gathering held at The Westminister Schools, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, suggested we stop focusing on testing and focus on how to get all students more excited about learning.  The Westminster Schools hosted Connected Community, a dialogue about transforming Atlanta education featuring Dr. Noguera, a leading authority on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

I think he’s onto something, but I’d offer a friendly amendment:  Let’s focus on everyone being more excited about learning – students, teachers and parents.  My suggestion for how we get there is pretty straightforward.  Let’s all behave as if learning is exciting. Seriously.

Where would we start? District and school leadership would have to align all people connected to schools around this purpose. They would have to lead and demonstrate to parents, staff, students and the community what it means for everyone to be excited about learning and why it’s important to the school’s productivity and performance.  Without understanding what and why, these stakeholders aren’t in a position to contribute to the attainment of the result – they’re not on the team.

In case you’re confused, people matter in an organization and schools are no exception. I hope we’re finally on the verge of figuring this out.  And the good news is none of this should run afoul of union rules or education policies. Efforts to unleash positive energy and success doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money.  David Novak, Chairman and CEO of Yum Brands! writes in his book, Taking People with You, Achieve Breakthrough Results, that people want to feel appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they want to have fun, but they are more often overlooked and unappreciated. This is a missed opportunity for too many of our schools.  Putting people first doesn’t mean low standards.

Having fun or experiencing satisfaction at work is a theme echoed in an Education Trust report entitled, Building and Sustaining Talent.  It shares howthe conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction and results in increased learning for students in high-poverty/low performing schools.

And students are people who matter too. Clayton M. Christenson, the Kim B. Clark Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his book Disrupting Class, that despite our appeals to children that education is the key to their futures, the fact is that school is not most children’s first choice of places to be – past elementary school anyway.  In order for school to become a top choice for kids, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and they want to have fun. Working hard and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive and in many cases, it’s really okay to have fun while you work.  Ask the folks at GE, Target, Southwest Airlines or Yum Brands!.

It’s pretty well understood that children learn best when they are excited about and engaged in learning and this aligns with their need to have fun and succeed in school.  Likewise, teachers experience more satisfaction in their work and are more productive when their efforts are appreciated and recognized, and when they too have a little fun.  When children come home more excited about what they’re learning in school and are more knowledgeable, their parents become curious, excited and interested to learn what’s happening at their child’s school – or maybe they’re in shock.

Take this example of how a teacher inspired her students to learn offered by Dr. Noguera during his remarks. The teacher brought a hermit crab into her classroom to teach her students about the crab and its habitat.  As the children had never seen one, it made the hermit crab real and unleashed a level of excitement and curiosity in them to learn about the crab that the teacher hadn’t quite seen before. Voila! With this small innovation, the teacher produced excitement and a deepened engagement in learning from her students. I don’t know the results of the paper, quiz or test she likely gave, but I’m confident these  more deeply excited children did a fine job of demonstrating what they learned about a hermit crab.  Given the students’ positive response to her inventiveness, I’m hopeful the teacher became more inspired to look for additional ways to excite and engage her students.

My question is, what if anything did the school leader do to recognize and celebrate her inventiveness, the children’s enthusiasm for learning and parents’ curiosity about what’s happening at the school?

When we recognize and celebrate the creativity of teachers, enthusiasm for learning from students and interest from parents, leaders take an important step to act on what is valued and add meaning to what all the people connected to the school care about.  Actions always speak louder than words.

Etienne R. LeGrand is co-founder and president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society


Are black parents ready for the “parent trigger”?

29 Sep

As thought leaders, administrators and educators explore a myriad of solutions for what we all agree is a looming state of crisis in American education, the subject of parental engagement has made the short list of proposed strategies.

In a NY Times editorial last week, author Peg Tyre elevated this dialogue to another level when she raised then option of the “parent trigger”–a concept that is being proposed in more than 20 states to recognize and increase the impact of engaged parents and, I would argue, possibly bring another layer of complication.

According to Tyre, California was the first to adopt this trigger. Here’s how it works there: “parents whose children attend a failing school can band together. If 51 percent of them sign a petition, they can demand, and the district must provide, a new set of administrators to run the school. Alternately, the disgruntled parents can ask that a charter school operator be brought in to take over.”

On the subject of parental engagement in a child’s education, the research is clear: parents matter…a lot! Research consistently shows that parent involvement—in the home and at the school—has a significant influence on student achievement. Literature shows that students whose parents are involved in their children’s schooling have increased academic performance and overall cognitive development. For most people, that’s somewhat of a no brainer.

And while the notion of institutionalizing and operationalizing parental engagement has some appeal, how would it work in communities and districts where parents are systemically disengaged, uninformed and, themselves, undereducated?

Several research studies highlight the differences in the parental involvement of African American and Hispanic parents as compared to their white and Asian peers. This topic has also been reflected in discourse among educators and administrators. This phenomenon was reinforced for me recently when I encountered African-American parent who had no clue that her child had been truant for three weeks.

There are several reasons and barriers that inform this reality, but in many school districts, it is a reality nonetheless. If parental engagement is to elevate as the next big “it strategy” for reforming public schools, then attention must be paid to this racial/ethnic gap in parental engagement, and to getting more black parents up to speed to ensure this does not become yet another area where glaring disparity is perpetuated. If ever there was a case of “be careful what you ask for,” this is it.

I don’t propose to have a silver bullet either. In all honesty, it is a phenomenon that has left me at times dispirited in my work with African-American students over the past decade. But, I do think it has to start with this conversation. With juggling the various barriers and limitations in everyday life, many parents simply don’t have time or know how to support their child’s academic success…simply don’t know where to start.

We are trying to help with our parent-student contract that enables parents and children to talk about expectations for success in school and the behaviors that lead to it, and to hold themselves and their children more accountable to communicating and staying actively engaged during the school year. It’s a good start at helping parents express their commitment to their children, incorporate incentives along with consequences, and to set specific milestones for monitoring their child’s progress.

If you are a parent who is not fully engaged, or if you know one, let the discussion and the move to change start with you. How can you commit to ensure that, as parental engagement becomes a part of our public policy to reform education, minority parents are not left behind?

Students need sticks, but they need carrots more

22 Mar

Imagine how fed up you must be if you’re willing to risk your child’s humility to save him.  That’s what a Tampa mother recently did when she stuck him on a street corner with a sign around his neck saying among other things “GPA 1.22. … Honk if you think I need education.”

Being a fan of tough love myself, I immediately thought “hooray for her!” According to this recent AP story, Ronda Holder says she and the boy’s father have tried everything to get their 15-year-old to shape up academically. They’ve offered help, asked to see homework, grounded, lectured him and confiscated his cell phone. Sound familiar?  Apparently, James Mond III’s indifference at a school meeting was the final straw. The following day, Holder made the sign and made her son wear it for nearly four hours.

Yes, she was reported to the Department of Family and Children’s Services and of course experts were highly critical of the move.  Holder insists she’s fighting for her child’s education.  She’s right of course. The real truth is: she’s fighting for his life.  With so much at stake in this fight, the undeniable question is: how can Holder and other engaged parents motivate their young students as a complement to reprimanding them?

There’s much we don’t know about this situation.  I’d like to presume James was performing in school at some level before he fell to his current 1.22 status and that he had a level of motivation; however fleeting.  I’m curious to know whether his parents understand what motivates him – – what, if anything he’s invested in.  I don’t know the basis on which his cell phone was returned.  Given his grades ultimately fell to a 1.22, I’d say it was returned prematurely.

We don’t know if “carrots” were offered to James when he climbed himself out of his previous academic performance holes.  He had to have, right? After all, he got his phone back.  Was he rewarded by word or deed for the increased effort, given an additional carrot on top of the returned phone?  We need to expect academic success and then recognize and reward students’ effort, progress and achievement at every juncture along the way.

We all need to be motivated to engage – to be emotionally concerned and invested – in what we want to achieve: do well in school, lose 10 pounds, eat more healthfully, clean out the garage, or learn a new language.

As we all continue to “fight for children’s education” as Rhonda Holder says she is doing, let’s add some carrots to jump-start the intrinsic motivation students need to get in done in the classroom.

After James’ recent experience, perhaps he has newfound sources of motivation to draw on when the work seems uninteresting or he’s just not motivated to work hard.  I pray the drastic step his mother felt compelled to take got his attention.  I also pray that we add some carrots to the sticks and support our children need to achieve in school and in life.

Click here to view the news story and to hear about James’ story firsthand from his mom’s perspective.

Climbing UP the ladder: From actor to teacher

26 Oct

TV sitcom star Tony Danza (well known from his roles on Taxi and Who’s The Boss) recently participated in a media blitz to promote his new reality TV show “Teach,” currently airing on A&E.  When we first heard Danza was leaving his family and cushy Los Angeles lifestyle to teach 10h Grade English at an urban Philadelphia high school, the first word that came to our minds was: “Gimmick!”

Why else would an actor leave his privileged lifestyle and the esteem that comes with a decades-long TV career to “slum it” in the halls of Philadelphia’s largest public school?

That’s what we first thought, and then we had to catch ourselves.  Why should we see it as a gimmick?  There is, arguably, no more noble, glamorous or prestigious profession than that of teaching.  How is it that one of the most critical careers of all time has descended to the position of bottom rung on the ladder…that we would automatically count it as a gimmick for an actor to elevate his standing to teach.

As we went on to further explore the story, we learned that this was actually (likely) not a gimmick for Danza.  He had actually studied to become a teacher before he took advantage of an opportunity to pursue a career in acting.  It turns out that Danza did what many of us always wish we could: he took advantage of an opportunity to walk down his own personal “road not taken.”

Kudos to him!  This is the kind of Reality TV we can all get behind.  We’re hopeful that this could help contribute to our efforts, and the efforts of others, to elevate the teaching profession higher up–to its rightful place on the proverbial career ladder.   Check out a couple of links below to some interviews with Tony Danza regarding this dynamic season in his life.  And, visit A&E’s site to check out some of the episodes you’ve missed.

We applaud his efforts and support the messages he’s sharing with the youth in his classroom: that they can “have a good time and have good grades”; that they should “get smart early”; and that “there’s only one way out and that’s an education…a real education.”

It’s the Culture, Stupid!

15 May

Graduation ceremonies are book-ending the academic year and schools are closing for summer break.  Soon, the topics of education and the stubborn academic achievement gap will retire from public discourse for its annual 2-month hiatus.  But, sadly, the facts that continue to tell a disturbing story will reemerge just as strong by the fall:

  • There are significant gaps between blacks and whites in virtually every measure of achievement: NAEP math and reading test scores, high school completion rates, college enrollment and college completion rates.
  • Blacks are not faring well in high school graduation rates—only 55 percent, compared to 78 percent for white students and 72 percent for Asian students.
  • The dropout rate for black students is almost double the dropout rate for their white peers.
  • By the twelfth grade, on average, black students are four years behind their white or Asian peers.

But, discussion about this ominous academic achievement continually ignores one larger-than-life elephant in the room: the reality that African-American children are growing up in a peer culture and community network that, in too many ways, does not foster academic ambition. Instead, it’s a culture that, in too many ways, celebrates achievements in sports and entertainment more than academic achievement.

Consider these realities: Studies show African-American students are the least likely out of students in all racial and ethnic groups to:

  • Spend more time on their studies outside of school
  • To participate in academically-oriented peer groups or study groups
  • To believe success is based on effort rather than innate ability

They are more likely to view a C as a decent letter grade.  They spend 40% less time on homework than their white peers and 80% less time than their Asian peers.  And, nearly half of African-American fourth-graders and eighth-graders spend five hours or more watching TV on a typical school day.  This is compared to less than 20% of white fourth-graders.

It’s time administrators, educators and parents opened their eyes to the impact of the peer culture and community norms on how African-American children are faring compared to their peers in other racial/ethnic groups.  It’s time to consider new approaches for motivating student engagement in learning and commitment to achieve in school.

Consider the time and energy many parents invest in their sons’ and daughters’ athletic careers, yet they may not take 60 minutes to review their child’s academic standing or assist with homework. And, consider that students in general, and African American students in particular are often ashamed to excel academically. According to Lawrence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom, one out of every six students hides her intelligence and interest in academic achievement because she is worried about what her peers think.

We have to remove the blinders that relegate us to standard approaches to remedying this problem.  We have to recognize that school reform, while a viable part of the solution, is only a part of the solution.  We must supplement reform by confronting the overwhelming and powerful influence of peer, family and community culture—promoting a culture that routinely recognizes and rewards academic achievement as much as, if not more than, achievement in athletics and entertainment.

This is a battle we can win, but we must recognize the elephant in the room and see that a culture that respects education pays dividends.