Elevating the “No Excuses” Debate

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Some aspects of public education are in a battle: standardized testing, teacher evaluation, school choice, common core, class size, and more. Every solution is up for a great debate on Twitter, in the editorial section of newspapers, and blogs from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, C.A. and everywhere in between. Yet, as these battles take place, I’m worried that the best solutions are not making it to the table. Both sides are publicly seen as arrogant and unwilling to compromise, and this is hurting our kids.

The latest debate at the forefront is “no excuses” as a method to change school culture. Opponents of this school culture model claim that the no excuses approach ignores poverty’s stranglehold on schools. Supporters of this model argue that students need to be taught to stop making excuses for their level of academic achievement by working hard, being nice and going to college. Somewhere in the middle is where the answer lies. Yet, again the public conversation is creating another polarizing argument that halts progress.

Here’s my take:
Opponents of No Excuses: Yes, poverty is the root cause of the problems ailing our nation’s most struggling schools and communities. Yes, districts must provide schools with the basic wraparound services to provide an excellent education for our children. Nevertheless, I’m afraid what’s missing from your public stance is the acknowledgement that school culture must change in many of our schools.

No excuses is not an approach to combat poverty. It is an attempt to create a positive school culture. If you do not agree with this approach to creating a positive school culture, you must then give solutions about how to create one. By simply saying, “No excuses ignores poverty,” you lose a great opportunity to push the school culture debate further.

We can push the school culture debate further by discussing the following:
1. What is the vision of your school?
2. Does your current school culture support your vision of creating a college-going culture?
3. If not, how do we create a college culture in our schools that are not graduating students who go on to college in high numbers?
4. What mindsets do children need to succeed?
5. What does this look like on a whole- school level? Classroom level?
6. As a staff, what will we do to drastically improve our school culture so that are students expect to go to college?
7. What is holding your school back from creating a positive learning environment? Does your school have a whole-school behavior and incentive system? How are you improving attendance? How are you decreasing suspensions?
8. If your school does have an amazing school culture, share it, tweet it, blog about it. What are you doing to share your school’s best practices?

Supporters of No Excuses
Yes, schools must take daring moves to create learning environments that raise expectations and push students to believe college is their route to success in places where going to college is not the norm. Yes, school districts and school leaders have the power to create schools as safe havens that equip our students with the tools they need to beat the odds in their dilapidated neighborhoods. Yes, many schools do a poor job of creating positive learning environments for children.

Nevertheless, what’s missing in your argument is the reality that it’s not just college banners donning the hallways, college chants echoing from classrooms, or demerit systems that create school culture. Wraparound services, low student to teacher ratios, positive working environments that provide teacher leadership and professional development are also important pieces that work in synchronization to provide our students with the best conditions to achieve at high levels.

We need to push the school culture debate further by answering the following:
1. What is your definition of the “no excuses” approach?
2. How did you come up with this approach as the most effective way to change a school’s culture?
3. What does this model look like at the school level? Classroom level?
4. What are the misconceptions of this approach?
5. What are the areas of improvement for the “no excuse” model?
6. How do you create buy-in of this model from staff, students and families?
7. What happens when children challenge this model?
8. What are your student attendance and suspension rates? Have you seen increased attendance and deceased suspensions with this model? If not, what are you doing to improve? If so, what best practices can you share?

Let’s all agree to take this debate to the next level. The real work is the action happening in classrooms and schools. We all agree that for far too long we’ve allowed the children living in our nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods to attend schools that have not produced enough students attending college. Although, poverty continues to plague our neighborhoods, and we may not be able to control all the outside factors, we can definitely control what our schools look and feel like once a child enters the doors. Let’s discuss concrete solutions that schools can implement in their classrooms to create a school culture where students expect to attend college. Then put them into action. I’m ready to work!

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The Best Chicago Strike Op-Ed!

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Tonight, as I sifted through tweets checking for articles on the Chicago Teachers Union, I found a gem. In my opinion, the best Chicago Teachers Union Strike op-Ed by far. Posted in The New York Times, the author Alex Kotlowitz asked a serious question, “Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers?” This is a question I asked myself earlier this year as I made the difficult choice to leave the classroom.

Fueled by my passion to create better schools for all public school students, I started teaching giving it 100%, even when that meant putting my life on hold as I struggled to manage the individual life circumstances of each of my students. You see, I never intended to be a career teacher. Being a teacher was just my first step in a lifelong journey to help bring innovative solutions to the most ailing problems facing our nation’s most poverty-stricken communities. I hope to one day be at the table where major decisions are made to benefit our
students. I believe that teacher voice is critical at that table.

Moreover, as my teaching days went on and years passed, writing objective-driven lesson plans aligned to standards every day wasn’t all that would deem me effective under DC Public School’s IMPACT evaluation system. I had to create Girls and Boys Day to introduce my scholars to positive mentors that look like them and had gone to college. I did home visits to build relationships with parents. I brought volunteers into the school to help get it ready for the first day of school. I wrote Donors Choose grants to get more resources into my classroom. I did everything in my human power to try to circumvent poverty’s impact on my classroom.

Nevertheless, late nights and early mornings entering student data in a computer taught me (the hard way) what I knew all along from growing up in an poverty-stricken city in southern NJ–just being an effective teacher alone cannot solve poverty, and I could not stress myself out about it. Because stressing myself out about my some of my students living in homeless shelters, not having food on the table or proper clothes to wear will break a person down–especially a teacher who comes to school every day garnering all hope possible to challenge this reality head on.

Now do not get me wrong. I agree that teachers must teach the best they can while knowing that we’re working against negative neighborhood environments that can suck our children into a tornado of negative choices that limit their life’s positive outcomes. I know that great teachers in every classroom will ensure that a student can be strong enough to believe in their future more than the dark reality that they live. I know that great teachers make a difference, but what Mr. Kotlowitz sheds light on is that teachers alone cannot rid our country of poverty. Putting so much pressure on schools does not serve our children or communities. Schools must also be supported by economic policies at the local, state and federal levels that create more sustainable and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods that produce more equitable schools.

While so many people have the luxury of never stepping foot in an impoverished community, teachers in our most troubled schools don’t. It’s easy to be on Capital Hill and never come to Southeast DC, but make sweeping generalizations about all the teachers who work in the “failing” schools. It’s easy to work in Chicago Public Schools’ Central Office and never fully empathize with a student who asks you every day to see his incarcerated father, but you have to tell him it’s okay and help him stay focused on the lesson. When we dare teachers to be on the frontlines, having the audacity to fight poverty in they see and feel, we better have their backs every step along the way.

More than likely, Chicago won’t be the answer to Mr. Kotlowitz’s question–just like schools alone cannot heal our nation from wound of poverty. However, when we bring thoughtful dialogue and perspective in the conversation, we allow a better product to be produced. Here’s to a quick end to the strike, but to continued conversation. Thank you for Chicago for sparking the dialogue. We can either use this as a time to point fingers or to really begin to ask the tough questions that help us create systemic solutions.

Mr. Kotlowitz, I applaud you for bringing depth to the conversation. To read his piece that inspired my post click here