** A Vision for Our Schools: What We Should Want

The school committee (SC) should be applauded.  For the first time in my memory they are having a hearing on the budget early in the process, when it is possible for the public to actually weigh in on priorities for how our $15o+ million are spent in our schools.  This year they seem to be asking parents and others: What are your priorities?  What do you want us to focus on?  We want to represent you.  The hearing will be on Tuesday, October 21, 6:00 pm, at the SC meeting room at CRLS high school.   As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is showing up.”

Let’s start here:  Imagine if we threw away the old budget and started new.  We have 6,500 students attending 17 schools.  As recent CPS parent Leslie Brunetta says: Let’s think from the inside-out, not the outside-in.  What happens in classrooms and schools every day, and how can we spend our dollars to make sure that every student has 185 days of meaningful learning next year? That every child gets his or her needs met.  Let’s start with the elementary schools.  What do those 3,000 JK-5 students need?

They need relaxed teachers who feel respected, have a sense of their own power and responsibility as teachers, have enough time to plan and meet with colleagues, and feel that they can get to know every student in their classroom. Let’s ask the JK-5 teachers what they feel is the maximum class size they can teach well, whether they want to try co-teaching models in some targeted schools or grades, how many reading specialists they need, and so on.  Often our classrooms have interns, student teachers, and volunteers coming and going, which is great. But that is not the same as having stable staffing over the course of the whole year that ensures low student: teacher ratios and ensures that every child gets the amount of  individual attention he or she needs, which differs by child and by learning task.

The students need to be in school every day.  This is a neglected issue.  Too many students are missing a lot of school, and this can have a big impact on their learning, particularly in grades 1-3.  It also doesn’t just affect the kids who miss school.  Absences reduce the sense that a classroom is a stable learning community and kids feel anxious when their classmates are absent.  Kids who are frequently absent feel anxious about what they’ve missed.  And parents whose children who are frequently absent have their household routines disrupted, can’t go to work, and so on.  Attendance is a major school climate issue in our schools and a mental health issue for families.

The students need engaged teaching that makes them feel that they are being treated as individuals and not as labels.  I actually don’t believe that having a district-wide curriculum matters that much, particularly in elementary school.  Kids are interested in everything, and the main purpose of elementary school is for children to learn basic math and reading and “how to learn” in the setting we call school.  It makes little difference whether they study the Renaissance or Ancient Greece in 4th grade because they are going to forget most of the decontextualized content anyway.  What they will acquire are research skills and historical imagination, and what they will remember will be the learning activities that really grabbed them—those that were  fun,  intriguing, alarming, comforting, difficult, surprising, enjoyable, or disturbing.  What should be standardized across our schools is not the content of what kids learn, but how they learn: through activities that are meaningful both to the students and to their teacher.  

Every child needs activity-based learning that has opportunities to practice skills such as reading, writing, speaking, listening, doing math, formulating questions, gathering evidence, creating things, and solving problemsThe only way to ensure consistency across schools and classrooms is to make sure teachers have time to meet with other teachers to share what they doing and thinking.  That’s where consistency comes from: communication across teachers.  Gaps in the curriculum?  That’s how we learn, by filling in gaps.  The gap is called curiosity. “Oh, that doesn’t make sense, I better learn more about that so it does make sense.”  Consistency and coherence don’t come from the world around us, which is incoherent.  Our brains create consistency and coherence, and that cognitive activity creates brain growth. “Learning” is the brain filling in gaps and creating connections between bits of knowledge that otherwise make no sense.  A teacher’s  job is not to make the world coherent for students, but rather to “make it strange.”  To make it less coherent so kids will ask questions about what they see everyday and take for granted.  Learning requires first disrupting coherence, and then recreating it with a different configuration.  Good teachers don’t present a coherent world to their students: they teach them how to disrupt coherence, how to cope with the frustration and confusion of the incoherence that surrounds us, and then how to recreate coherence with new knowledge and understandings.

“Culturally-attuned” teaching.  Teaching is relational.  That is why “cultural proficiency,” though it is becoming a buzzword and losing its meaning, is so important.  It’s not an add-on.  Curriculum isn’t taught, it emerges from the daily interactions between students and teachers.  And this “learned curriculum” can differ radically by student depending, in part, on how the student and teacher relate to each other.  Like many city school systems, we have a student population that is two-thirds black or brown, many of them from other countries, and a teaching staff that is 80% white, middle class, and from the U.S.  Our central office teaching and curriculum department is probably 95% white Americans.  Our staff is also overwhelmingly female at the school and district level, particularly for the elementary grades.  Yes, we are trying to diversify our teaching force.  But in the meantime, our teachers need a lot of help learning to teach across color lines, particularly when their students are boys, not from middle class families,  or come from other countries.  Not because our teachers are uniquely racist, but because they are human and because they live in the United States.  We have some white teachers who are skilled at teaching across the color line, but it isn’t easy.  These lines are sunk deep into U.S. history and culture, and it takes a lot of training, experience, and reflection not to be controlled by them, and not to act out of guilt.  Our white teachers need to be given time to talk with their white colleagues and colleagues of color about race, to listen to students and parents of color, and time to work with professional development educators with expertise in this area.  These issues are true for all white people in the CPS community, including parents.  I don’t exempt myself.

The color line is an issue for every black and brown parent I’ve spoken to in Cambridge, and for every white parent of a black or brown child: “The teachers do not understand my child, they don’t understand students of color, they don’t know how to teach students of color, they are afraid of black boys.”  (Issues having to do with boys of color and girls of color are very different.)  It often gets expressed as: “The teachers have low expectations of students of color.”   That may or may not be the best way to characterize the problem, but it doesn’t change by shaming teachers and telling them to stop being racist. This is not about idiosyncratic character flaws that teachers need to exorcize on their own.  We need to give teachers the time and training that everyone requires to put aside socially powerful stereotypes in order to connect with their students as individuals with distinct interests, strengths, and weaknesses.  This is an issue in every school because our society isn’t willing to acknowledge how powerful issues of skin color, race, and social class are in this country due to our distinct history. As Faulkner said:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

I am not sure the administration and school committee understand this to the extent that it needs to be understood. When hundreds of thousands of dollars are earmarked for training in teaching and curriculum, with most of that going to educational consultants who are white, but only $25,000 is earmarked for “cultural proficiency training,” that suggests to me a problem.

In the meantime, more and more parents of color in Cambridge, particularly African American parents, are opting out of the public schools and going to charter, denominational, or private schools.  Because they don’t feel that CPS can teach black children.  I wish CPS would address this head on when they think about next year’s budget.  If two-thirds of our students are black and brown, this should be question number #1:  Under what conditions can a predominantly white teaching force best teach a population that is one-third white and two-thirds black and brown?  When some of the students are poor, some are in the middle, and some are wealthy.   Some from the U.S., some not.  Some speak English at home, some don’t.  Under what conditions can our teachers teach every single one of those students as both an individual and as a member of multiple cultures?  What do our teachers need to be able to accomplish that very difficult task?

Emily Dexter

Recent CPS

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