Defeatist schools

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A recent post by Kevin Carey at The Quick and the Ed highlights one of the essential dilemmas faced by those of us who are working desperately to improve students’ academic and life success: there is a pervasive attitude in K-12 organizations that outputs are dependent on inputs. You routinely hear comments from educators such as "You can’t expect us to do any better than we already are with these kids" or "The reason that [school / district] is doing better than we are is because they serve those kids."

"We believe that we have no meaningful impact on the children that we serve. We are hostage to our demographics. Whatever comes in the door is essentially what’s going to go out at the other end." Those are chilling words to hear, both as an educational leader and as a citizen of the most affluent and powerful nation in the world.

Despite the ritualistic mantra of educators that "all children can learn," there are large numbers of teachers and principals who don’t truly believe it. If they did, they would act in ways much differently than they do now.

Luckily we have (increasingly numerous) examples of schools where this belief has been challenged at its very core, where educators have come together and said "Collectively we can make a difference!" These schools are finding ways to make it happen, despite their challenging demographics. It starts with a belief that it can be done. As Dr. Douglas Reeves notes in The Learning Leader:

Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia has the following demographic characteristics:

  • 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced lunch
  • 68 percent minority student enrollment
  • 40+ languages

Between 1998 and 2005 not a single child in the school system, to the best of my knowledge, has changed his or her ethnic identity. Not a single child has won the lottery. Few if any children have adopted different languages at home. In other words, this story is not about changes in children or their families, nor is it a story about changes in demographic characteristics. This is a story about changes in teaching, leadership, and learning. While demographic characteristics remained the same, student achievement rose dramatically.

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