Clinical Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California
Access to knowledge is social justice for all children.
The model of education is slowly changing, from the teacher as the transmitter of knowledge to the teacher as facilitator of student learning. This is good—but it is happening slowly, and unevenly—especially in our urban schools. Several things must happen for this movement to succeed—the classroom door must swing wide open, so that teachers may learn from each other about what works best; teachers must also have time to plan, and professional development must be tailored to individual needs just as the teaching act itself must be tailored to individual learners. Technology can play a central role here—but only with a highly trained teacher who understands its use as an important learning tool. I’m convinced that not everyone can teach effectively in this manner—we need to differentiate our instruction, and create different kinds of teachers with different pay and duties.
Constructivist teaching strategies can create learners out of students—however, it takes time, often more time than many school systems are willing to provide. Space for learning must be rethought, as well. Schools need to become more like places of work, where learners can come and go, and receive timely help when they need it, not when the schedule says it’s delivered. I’m familiar with a charter high school where students come and go from early morning to early evening, and meet with their teacher in small groups or alone, as they pace themselves through the curriculum. In order to attend this school, they must have dropped out or have been forced out of a comprehensive high school.
Learning and teaching must be radically different—and soon!
Let’s start by admitting that we are losing the battle regarding the Achievement Gap and, to a great extent, the education of the disadvantaged, especially in the inner city. A dropout rate of 20-40% is a mortgage on our nation’s future, one that will be difficult to pay in a global marketplace. As long as bargaining agreements allow our best teachers to teach our ablest students and our newest teachers to struggle with our most needy and often unmotivated students, we will continue to lose this battle. (When those same agreements place unreasonable obstacles in the way of counseling ineffective teachers into other professions, it’s even harder). Access to knowledge, described in #1 above, must be guaranteed for all students. In addition, a balanced curriculum, including education in the arts, is essential to quality of life for all, and serves as a bridge between cultures, especially in the diverse population of urban schools.
Teachers in urban schools, under pressure of accountability and faced with (in the case of Los Angeles schools) 96 languages other than English spoken in the home, often revert to “drill and kill” in an effort to teach merely the basics. Kids in these neighborhoods need the basics of critical thinking, problem solving, problem-based learning and a rich curriculum—just like everyone else.
21st century skills are more than literacy and numeracy.
I’ve visited excellent schools literally around the world. My students have done case studies of “out-performing” urban schools throughout California, and I have led groups of doctoral students on visits to schools in China and Vietnam. We know how to do school better than we are able to do it in many communities. It’s not rocket science…start with a skilled, committed and passionate leader; give the leader freedom to select, develop and supervise excellent teachers (the right people on the bus); and create ways for the staff to collaborate on ways to deliver a rich, engaging curriculum to every single student, with timely interventions for any student who begins to lag. I’ve seen entire systems of schools where this is happening, in urbanized areas—everyone is on the same page, doing “whatever it takes” for all students to succeed.
I’m beginning to embrace International Baccalaureate (IB) as a model that allows, or perhaps requires, the entire staff to “buy in” to total dedication to the students. I’m aware that there is no cookie-cutter approach to success, but for those still searching, here is a rigorous, well-structured and accountable program which, when faithfully implemented, is very good for students—and it embraces a balanced curriculum featuring the arts, self-expression, and higher-order thinking skills.
Leadership occurs at all levels.
Our K-12 Leadership EdD program at USC enrolls leaders at all levels of responsibility in our schools. We firmly believe that everyone has to have a piece of the action if schools are to dramatically change, and we provide tools and skills (and hopefully courage) to assist them in their work. I encounter students when introducing themselves that say “I’m just a teacher” and I jump them! I remember vividly when I jumped a Math teacher—I embarrassed her, later apologized, and thereafter took a special interest in her transformation. Her self-esteem was always there, but she was reacting to her treatment by others. By the time she completed her degree, she was a highly respected Math Coach, infecting many other math teachers with her passion and competence. She is, and will continue to be a leader—we need to identify and cultivate these leaders…at all levels.
In my experience, too many Principals are doing the wrong job—their job is to be in the classroom, helping improve instruction, and facilitating positive change by removing barriers to excellence. It is easy to succumb to the bureaucracy. Leaders prioritize, and student learning is job 1. That goes for Superintendents, as well. System-wide excellence is possible only if the policy level (Superintendents and Boards) are teaming to support and reward progress toward clearly stated goals for student performance.
Teachers are at the heart of our future prosperity—an investment in public education is an investment in national defense.
For a variety of reasons, our schools are currently seen as part of the problem, not the solution, to our nation’s economic ills. There is no question that we have contributed to that image—poor judgment re: personal relationships with students, corruption among leaders, and fiscal failures have tarnished an image which, at best, has never equaled the esteem that educators are held in some countries I have visited. We must earn the respect we deserve as custodians of the next generation—but we need and deserve help.
Teachers and schools deserve community support—they can earn it by opening their doors to the needs and aspirations of the parents and community, and engaging them in the affairs and goals of the schools. Technology can be a useful tool as teachers’ roles move to facilitators of learning—indeed, the world can be brought into the classroom with the assistance of forward-thinking community resources. This is especially important in neighborhoods where students rarely leave their immediate surroundings. Finally, a concerted effort must be made to attract highly capable, energetic and committed young people into teaching as a career, and pay them according to the critical work they will do in educating our next generation.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Stu Gothold is Clinical Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California. After a career of 38 years in California public schools, the last 15 as Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, he joined the USC Rossier School of Education. He served as co-chair of the EdD development committee, which created a radically different doctoral program, currently being studied as a model by the Carnegie Foundation. He is in his 18th year of his second career, teaching courses in Leadership and directing Thematic Dissertations on high-performing urban schools.