Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Sticking Your Neck Out

I am in Hawaii for most of this week, doing teacher training at a small middle and high school on the west side of Oahu--a school that needs serious help in raising student performance. The school is nestled at the bottom of a bowl of beautiful, lush mountains, with a view from the football field of the Pacific. God knows, I wouldn't have done any school work in such a place.

But distracting beauty isn't really one of their problems. Poverty is. There are ragged tents lined up and down the beach on the west coast--makeshift homes for homeless families. It has to be hard to convince your children to do their homework when you have no electricity. And island culture isn't exactly conducive to academic striving. The weather is beautiful, the surf is up, and there's no one else around for thousands of miles to compare yourself to or compete against. How hard do you really have to work just to get along?

The state superintendent is trying to change that, and many school administrators are working hard to help. They are bringing speakers and consultants over from the mainland to try to break the sense of isolation. Last year, they brought hundreds of Hawaii teachers to Washington, DC, for a conference on where teaching and learning are, and where they need to be heading. They are trying to get their teachers to feel like a part of the larger--and shrinking--world, so that their students don't have to merely "get along" if they don't want to--so that they can be competitive and successful wherever they want to go.

I haven't traveled broadly to visit many schools in the islands, but at the one school where my company is working, it's been a hard sell. The principal certainly feels pressure to raise test scores, but the teachers don't seem to (though they claim that they do). They say that they don't have instructional materials to help them remediate where they see profound skill gaps (one math teacher told me that she had an 8th grader who didn't know what a half was. "Half of what?" I asked. "No," she said, "the concept of half."), but when we bring them an online lesson bank that gives them instant access to thousands of lessons from grades 3 through 11, none of them use it. Not one of them. In five months. Have used it even once. When we offered two math teachers the chance to pilot an intervention program for free, they said yes but then never used it, or contacted us for help, or accepted our offers of training.

Now we're back to talk about the challenges of standardized tests--how students need to understand the ways in which these tests are different from what they get in the classroom; how students need clear, step-by-step methods for tackling different kinds of challenges (in life as well as in school), and useful problem-solving strategies to keep them from throwing up their hands and saying, "I can't do it." This is my company's core business, and something we've done well across the country for decades. It works. It helps. Whatever you think about the wisdom or usefulness of standardized tests, learning how to take them (if you have to take them) is empowering. And God knows, these students need to feel more empowered, more capable.

And the teachers were...polite. I would say "receptive," but I don't think they really received anything. I have no confidence that they will teach their kids these strategies--or, if they do, they'll do it with rolled eyes and exasperated sighs, and an introduction of "I guess we have to do this." They'll communicate with their tone and their body language that a) this is all crap, and b) it's not going to make any difference, anyway, because you're all stupid.

They're not evil people. In fact, many of them are quite nice. They're not mean. They're not child-haters. And they probably like most of their kids well enough. They've just given up hope, that's all. It's a little thing. Unfortunately, it's everything.

You can keep teaching without hope. If you're not in the business, you might not think it possible, but I've seen plenty of people do it. They do their job--or what they define as their job. They teach their lessons. They may even do so with some enthusiasm. But they no longer expect much. They expect to keep getting what they've always gotten, and they've made their peace with it. "There's only so much these kids can do, and I'm not going to make myself crazy demanding more of them." Their benchmark for student performance is whatever level they've always managed to get, not what they need to get from students based on state standards, or college entrance requirements, or modern workplace requirements. This is how teachers become babysitters and entertainers, instead of teachers.

But what can you do? How do you talk to people who have surrendered hope to history? How do you reach out to them and say, "I know, I know, but I need you to hope--just one more time. I need you to risk it, just one more time. I need you to stick your neck out." How do you de-turtle-ify someone who has learned through bitter experience to keep her head safely in her shell?

Because it's easy to criticize teachers for giving up, just like it's easy to criticize the Afghans who allow the Taliban to destroy any hope for building a sane nation. Just like it's easy to criticize the Iraqis for giving in to their bitterest, most sectarian impulses. But we don't live there. We haven't experienced what they have. And what right, really, do any of us have? What right do we have to say, "Come on, guys, try harder. Give it another shot. It might just work this time"?

Except we have to say those things, don't we? Because so very much is at stake. Someone has to say it--and we happen to be in a position to be able to. But words aren't enough. If we're going to say these things, then we have to stick our necks out, as well, and stand by them, and help them. We can't go into schools, sell a bunch of books, say "good luck," and go home. We have to say, "I'm right here. I'm not leaving. I'm going to help you get through this and it's going to work." We have to say, "It's not enough to have chased out the Taliban. We're going to stand by you and help you build up your nation, and we're not going to run away to fight some other, meaningless war, and we're not going to abandon you the minute it's politically inconvenient, or the minute we get bored."

And, of course, for the most part, we don't do these things. For the most part, we ask other people to stick their necks out, and we wish them luck, and we run home as fast as we can. And those who dare to hope get killed for it, and those who do not dare to hope survive, and say, "You see? I told you so." And we say...what? "Poor dumb savages. They're just not capable of democracy." "Poor dumb kids. They're just not capable of doing the work that the rich kids in the suburbs can do. They just don't have it in them."

Revolutions don't occur when things are at their worst; they occur when things have already started to improve. They occur when the people say, "Gee, maybe things can change around here." You need a little evolution--slow, gradual, painstaking--to spark the revolution. You chip away at the edifice, a little bit at a time, and at some point, in a single movement, it all comes crashing down.

I show teachers data from other schools like theirs. I read them quotes from teachers. I say, "They're no different. Their kids are no different. We really can do better." They nod--a couple of them. They think about it. Maybe one or two will give it a shot. It's too soon to know for sure.

I leave the training and say something about this to the principal. I say, "It's hard to ask people to stick their necks out when they keep getting their heads chopped off." He says, "Ha, ha--that's true. I stick my neck out and get whacked so many times, I'm three inches shorter than when I started in this job."

That's the spirit.

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