It boggles the mind that a solution—maybe the solution—to the intransigent problem of fixing the worst public schools could sound so simple: making connections. Yet these deceptively simple two words are monumentally difficult to achieve and sustain.
In his new book, “So Much Reform, So Little Change,” University of Chicago researcher Charles M. Payne lays out in no uncertain terms how everyone, from educators and parents, district leaders and politicians, education funders and, yes, the media, is at fault for a myriad number of reasons. The most basic is a failure to address what’s really happening on the ground in schools.
“[M]ost discussion of educational policy and practice is dangerously disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools, especially the bottom-tier schools,” Payne writes. “The social dimensions of the problem are still almost certainly the least well appreciated. … Reform after reform fails because of nothing more complicated than the sheer inability of adults to cooperate with one another.”
Payne would bristle, to be sure, at the notion that his argument offers the solution to fixing schools. Problems in the most dysfunctional schools are far too complex and vast for any one solution, and in fact, he says, the quest for a silver bullet is another reason why school reforms remain stuck just past go. Payne has zeroed in on the bedrock for educational success and how it factors into every part of the equation for school success.
Payne’s barriers to school change
- Lack of social comfort among parents, teachers, and principals
- Low mutual expectations
- Suspicion of outsiders, distrust of colleagues
- General belief that programs will fail
- Tensions related to race, ethnicity, age
- General anger and subsequent withdrawal
- Poor internal communications
- Institutional inability to learn from experience
- Negative teachers have most leverage
- Teachers’ inability to share professional information
- Touchiness, emotional fatigue
- Culture of “happy talk”
Trusting, functional relationships matter at every level. Teachers with parents. Teachers with students. Teachers with each other. Principals and all of the above. Principals and district officials. Parents and students. Parents with each other. There are many more combinations of these and other constituencies. Yet these relationships are in crisis at the worst schools—schools which also happen to serve the poorest African-American communities. Here, trust between teachers and parents is the lowest. Payne cites a survey, presented to district brass by researcher John Easton of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found that only 42 percent of teachers in mostly black schools strongly trusted parents, compared to 72 percent of teachers in integrated schools.
In this month’s report, Catalyst In Depth delves into the fuzziest area of relationship-building that schools must do: connecting schools and educators to the communities they serve. Principals who get it are proactive, making this one of the first orders of business. Veteran Denise Gamble, heading into her third year as turnaround principal at Medill, a Near West Side elementary school that has posted the worst test scores in the district, has had an eye on this particular prize from the outset. She knew going in that it would take a special kind of educator to work in a community beset with social ills, where students need an extraordinary amount of support to excavate and nurture their own assets. “Medill is not for the faint of heart,” Gamble says.
Across town, neophyte principal Kurt Jones has adopted his own brand of making connections with teachers, parents and students at Libby Elementary. He decided to confront a whispering campaign that, if left unchecked, could have undermined his leadership. He told parents, “I am white and gay. You are black and poor.” Then he proceeded to lay out the only option that made could lead to children’s success: Get over it and move on. Slowly, and most certainly in fits and starts, he is making progress. One parent, convinced that the school didn’t do enough to protect her son from a fight, has decided to enroll her children in a different school. Another mother, initially ticked off at how a teacher interacted with her son, cooled down and learned another side to the story. That earned Jones and his staff a measure of respect. “We have been good friends ever since,” says Lakisha Branley.
Elsewhere across the city are other signs that educators and communities are gaining respect for the power of solid relationships. Perspectives Charter Schools hired a community liaison who is well-versed in tapping and developing community assets for the benefit of its Calumet campus school and students. Logan Square Neighborhood Association has long capitalized on building solid relationships with schools in its domain, first to get relief from overcrowding, and now to raise the bar of instruction inside classrooms. Their efforts spawned a movement for other areas of the city to grow their own teachers, people who were tied to the community and would have a leg up on understanding where students are coming from.
At about the same time that Payne’s book was released, a group of prominent educators—Tom Payzant, Pedro Noguera and Arne Duncan among them—launched a national movement to reframe public discourse on what is needed to close the achievement gap. The holistic approach they advocate goes beyond the walls of traditional schools and a child’s academic needs. Among the group’s recommendations: more early childhood education, expanded after-school and summer school, in-school health clinics, and a continued push to reduce class sizes and get the best teachers for the most disadvantaged children.
Solid ideas, no doubt. And yet, if the movement is successful in getting some or all of these policies adopted, these reforms will rise or fall on the quality of the relationships behind them.