Cultural Connectedness As a Buffer Against Chaos

“In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother.

—Julie Sedivy, “The Strange Persistence of First Languages” on Nautilus

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Words are Important: Notes from an improved ‘gapper’

This post is brought to you via Louisiana professor and education-improver, Dr. Michael Hicks, continuing the exploration of the language that we use to describe education.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

This quote from John Dewey is how I introduced myself to the students in my fall semester Intro to Education course.

The quote served as a challenge to students to think deeply about the word “education” and what it really means to them, to their families, and to the perspective schools, communities and students that they will ultimately serve.

It challenged me, too. Always has.

But (pardon the opening preposition) it challenged me to think about other words and their relevance in my everyday use. Words like reformer, which I know makes me feel a certain way when I am described as such, has a different meaning when I embrace the introspection of it. Reform, which by most accounts means to make changes in a particular structure of things (typically a social, economic, or political institution or practice) in order to improve it, has evolved to take on new meanings. Not everyone feels the noble tinge that I do here in Louisiana when I hear the word.

To me, education reformers are engaged in the not-so-popular work of calling things not as they are, but as they could be. They are engaged in uncovering the completely obvious—but seldom articulated—educational plights of poor and underserved students. They are the Sally Field-type whistle-blowers of practices and people within our own profession of public education who embrace the status quo and blame lack of school progress on the demographics of the students. They are brave, intelligent, and have the best interest of all students at heart. They are educators – public, virtual and online, private and parochial. Yes, some are politicians and preachers, but most are principals and parents whose connection to what happens in the classroom is real and unescapably personal.

But, this is my definition.

Within and without the great state of Louisiana, education reform has several meanings and connotations. Whitney Tilson, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and many, many others have formed their own variant of the word which has lead to many other strains, producing diverse meanings and equally diverse feelings and followers. This is life itself, and like life, education is personal and intertwined with our own distinct interpretations of humanity.

I now prefer education improver over education reformer. Some of the improvements that I advocate align me with the more modern meanings of the word reformer, but some do not. Some of the improvements that I advocate are pro charter schools, and some are not.

Some of the improvements I will fight for are Louisiana-centered, and some are not. Some of the improvements that make sense to me address refocusing the purpose and viability of traditional neighborhood schools, and some address the technology and structure that students might require in the next century. The word “reformer” limits me, and I want to know no bounds in my advocacy for students.

This conversation that I’m having with myself (of which you are now a guest) reminds me of when I stopped being a gapper. Early in my educational career, I became a poster child for calling out and trying to decrease the achievement gap between Black and White students. I studied authors who helped me articulate the statistics. I wrote blog articles on how to fix the inequalities. When the achievement gap fire began to wane, I jumped to the opportunity gap, then to the exposure gap and next the expectation gap. Gaps, gaps everywhere, and not a spot to think! I was gap obsessed.

Words are important. Real discrepancies do exist in public education, private education, pre-K, K-12, higher ed, and in everything, when you look deep enough. This is life itself. The deficit language I once employed in order to address and “fix” these discrepancies was weakening my efforts and limiting my effectiveness.

I now prefer strength based educator over achievement gap specialist. When I’m invited to speak to or engage faculties in school climate and high expectation culture topics, I rarely mention the gaps I once waved the flag for.

At times, I wish I were a bird paleontologist – I’m intrigued with their research methodologies and their findings about our winged friends; but I am not. I am a professor of education and my words are important. When I ask my students how they will improve education, I get robust visions of the future of schooling from sharp young minds. When I ask who will be an education reformer, I’m met with blank stares. When I speak about the uniqueness of Black and Brown students and how to address underserved communities, I see excitement. When I talk about the gaps between certain NCLB groups, I get confused glances. It’s not what ideology you agree with more that I’m interested in, it’s much more personal than that. It is who will you serve as an educator, why will you serve them, and what will you do when you are blessed with the opportunity to do so.

I want my students to be engaged in the current happenings of American and global education. I want them to be informed. I want them to have very strong opinions. I also want them to know that words are important and that education, which per Dewey is also life itself, should constantly challenge them to examine the words they use to describe themselves and their very noble work of teaching other people’s children.

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.

Word of the Day: Efficiency

The language we use when we talk about schools– or really about anything political– can be confusing. Terms as basic as “innovation”, “success”, and “learning” represent such different things to different people that it’s pretty much impossible to know what they mean within the context of education.

This morning, I’m interested in the word efficiency. The Oxford Dictionaries define “efficient” as a word commonly used in reference to a system or machine that has achieved “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Maximum productivity with minimum waste sounds pretty good. Certainly, when people attack the public schools as inefficient, they’re suggesting that these schools achieve little and waste much. These attacks are often used in support of privatization. The argument is that the private sector operates according to principles of maximum efficiency.

In Chicago, this logic was deployed earlier this year to justify the privatization of public school custodial services. According to The Washington Post, the Chicago Public Schools awarded two contracts totaling $340 million to private companies Aramark and Sodexmagic. The idea was that these companies would keep Chicago school’s cleaner for far less money than the public sector’s inefficient custodial services.

Today, Chicago’s schools are infested with rats, roaches, and garbage, according principals from around the city. Despite this mess, Aramark is now laying off more than 15% of its Chicago school custodians.

There are lots of problems here, but one of them is that companies like Aramark (which, not coincidentally, has a long history of labor abuses) have vastly different conceptions of efficiency than most good-hearted people. In Aramark’s conception, the classic private-sector conception of efficiency, achieving minimum waste means eliminating whatever cost-bearing services it can without exposing itself to legal action, no matter what impact this might have on student learning or the school environment. Exposing students to pests and filth is thus acceptable if this exposure is accompanied by decreased spending on employee compensation.

To those of us who care about the people who spend their days in public schools, productivity with regard to school cleanliness would mean maintaining school environments that are not just bearable, but are actually comfortable. Efficiency would then mean employing enough custodians to achieve this. Unfortunately, as long as the people in charge of our schools and cities subscribe to the private sector definition of efficiency, students and teachers will have to share their classrooms with rats and roaches.

Inoculate Children Against Future Behavior Problems

“. . .  one way to ‘protect’ young children from developing behavioral problems later on is supporting their oral language development early.

Although this sort of strategy may not appear to address early discipline disparities directly, it is likely to help mitigate the problem. We know that poor children (who are also disproportionately black and brown) start kindergarten already behind; Bornstein and colleagues’ work suggests that by providing extra support for these kids’ oral language development, we would not only be helping them academically, but also we would be “inoculating” them from developing behavioral problems down the road.”

–Esther Quintero, “Not All Discipline Disparities May Be The Result Of Implicit Bias” on Shanker Blog