Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library

It’s easy to be grim about the state of public education in the United States. Every week seems to bring fresh news about how American students are lagging behind brainier kids in Europe and global upstarts like China. Add to that the litany of reports about “failing” schools, identified by the failing No Child Left Behind Act, and it’s enough to make you want to–as many conservatives argue–wash your hands of the idea of public education all together. 

In our Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue, Utne Reader takes a look at how to reengage citizens in the effort to revitalize our schools. Part of that is not falling victim to the negative news cycle. “Americans have become accustomed to a debilitating media diet of negativity and cynicism, especially when it comes to education,” Hannah Lobel writes. “It’s time to refocus on the success stories, for inspiration and replication“.

Luckily, Utne Reader‘s got a library of 1,500 alt-press publications that routinely highlight stories of success and innovation. Here’s a sampling of some of the bright ideas that we’ve come across over the past several months.  

One of the best ways to improve a school is by getting parents involved in their kids’ educations. So how can we encourage parents to buy in? Have them run the schools themselves. That’s the idea behind the parent-cooperative preschools profiled by Next American City (excerpt only available online). At these preschools, numbering about 1,000 across the nation, working parents can defray tuition costs via oversight and a little “sweat equity.” Next American City explains what families put into and get out of the deal:

Co-op families bond over floor scrubbing or late-night teleconference calls–or over complaining about both–and become something more than parents who share drop-off and pick-up times. They become a free-floating neighborhood and de facto civic group, planting gardens, picking up recyclables from local businesses, agitating for cleaner streets. Parents often start co-ops when they find there’s nothing locally that emphasizes economic and racial diversity–a powerful model of voluntary integration for parents as much as children.

It’s not just the media that’s focused on the downfall of kids today. Sociologists share a similarly negative myopia. Peter Benson, the president of the Search Institute, argues for a different approach that puts the emphasis on promoting positive youth development (pdf). In Sockeye, Benson talked to Jay Hutchins about how to create environments where young people don’t just get by but thrive:

A focus on optimal development should begin with seeing each life as precious and filled with potential. It recognizes that all citizens have responsibility and capacity to nurture this potential. It calls for schools and communities to know each of its young so well that it can nurture and benefit from each child’s spark. It recognizes that governmental policy requires deep transformation, moving from a preoccupation with preventing problems to a proactive investment in promoting human potential.

There are many paths to education reform: community activism, statehouse action, individual lobbying, and nationwide legislation. John Taylor Gatto, writing in the July/August issue of Designer/Builder (article not available online), throws his weight behind a different tack: outright protest. Outlining what he calls the Bartleby Project–after Herman Melville’s scrivener who rejects mundane copying assignments with the simple mantra “I would prefer not to”–Gatto calls on young people to steadfastly refuse to take anymore of the standardized tests that have turned schools into testing centers instead of places of education.

That may, at first, sound like the pleadings of a fanciful radical. But consider a couple of incidents earlier this year. In May, South Bronx 8th-graders refused to take a practice exam for a statewide social studies test. “We’ve had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year,” 13-year-old Tatiana Nelson told the New York Daily News. “They don’t even count toward our grades. The school system’s just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams.” In Chicago, students didn’t balk at exams but they did skip class and truck over by the bus load to try to register at the infamously posh New Trier Township High School (of Breakfast Club fame) and another North Shore school. The idea was to highlight the drastic funding disparities between the largely black schools in Chicago and the predominately white schools in the suburbs.

Standardized tests are supposed to measure what students know about subjects like math and science, though more often than not they just tell us how well students have been “taught the tests.” What they definitely don’t measure is what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence–social and emotional skills like empathy, self-awareness, and the ability to manage stress. But studies show that these skills can play a crucial role in students’ success. Writing for Greater Good, Goleman argues for implementing more school programs that develop these crucial life skills, especially for “at-risk” kids. “It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s a trend backed up by hard data,” writes Goleman. “[W]hen schools offer students programs in social and emotional learning, their achievement scores gain around 11 percentage points.” Researchers look to brain science to explain why. According to University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, data shows that activating the brain’s distress centers can hinder other areas of the brain responsible for memory, attention, and learning. “In other words,” writes Goleman, “because of the way our brains are wired, our emotions can either enhance or inhibit our ability to learn.”

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