The special committees convened by President White in January 2014 accomplished important work in a compressed time frame, offering substantive solutions to some of the school district’s most important areas of concern. I was impressed with all of the work of these committees, but am particularly taken with the work of the“Student Achievement” committee and the thoughtful way in which its three primary recommendations interlock with each other. It’s not just the content of these recommendations that are strong, it is the mechanisms for implementation — the way to get it done –that are implicit in the adoption of this potential triad.
I will lay out my understanding and interpretation of the special committee’s recommendations, and add to that a couple of other recent recommendations that have come out of other similarly serious efforts, the Board Ad Hoc Committee on Common Core Implementation and the Latino Education Task Force. I will share my vision on why we should continue implementing all of these modest but potentially powerful recommendations in an interdependent and collaborative way.
Establish an Office of Social Justice
The Office of Social Justice would report directly to the board of education and would be responsible for ensuring that curriculum is“asset based” and that pedagogy is culturally connected. Too often our approach assumes that our students and their families are primarily characterized by deficits. Therefore educators’ primary focus becomes remediation and assimilation into the dominant cultural referents for knowledge and behavior. I understand the “asset”perspective articulated by the committee to assume our students come to school with relevant knowledge, with relevant skills and with important values.
The fact that many of our families live in traumatized communities and many of our students have directly experienced multiple forms of trauma does NOT negate their ownership of valuable knowledge, skills and values. It is just as important for educators to keep in mind that the majority of our students do have stable support systems and strong family role models, and that stereotyping “city kids” as deficient along multiple dimensions is harmful. From this frame of reference a major responsibility of educators is to elevate and assist children in developing the knowledge and skills they bring. It is the job of everyone in school communities to seek to understand what happened to a child presenting with “disruptive” or “angry” behaviors but it is troubling that we easily fall into a narrative dominated by negativity and disruption.
In my view, a social justice orientation demands that educators connect the historic and social context of our children’s real lives,with an assumption of genius and “assets,” to drive teaching approaches that are connected, complex and adaptive. We must ensure not only the acquisition of grade level knowledge and skills as defined by state standards and our own local standards, but even more important make explicit and grow the knowledge and skills each child brings to school so that they own it and our local community benefits.
In order to accomplish a significant shift in approach, so that the district as a whole (rather than pockets of excellence) is characterized by culturally connected and asset based teaching, both curriculum development and professional learning will be necessary. The social justice office would provideevaluative oversight to ensure appropriate access to and productive activity in both of these necessary areas, and would work collaboratively with district experts in the areas of African and African American studies, Latino studiesand other relevant culture and content specialists. Equitable, high quality education will be evident in classrooms more focused on active, inquiry based learning and lesson standardized, scripted teaching aimed at filling up students’ minds with required information.
Create Youth Council on Instructional Improvement
An emphasis on youth expertise in matters of curriculum and pedagogy was long overdue, and I am so glad the Board passed a resolution implementing this recommendation during the April business meeting. In every opportunity I have taken to ask our students about what is necessary to bring about fundamental improvements in RCSD, responses related to curriculum, pedagogy, and how well or how poorly staff engage their students rise to the top. The examples students provide of what would be more engaging and relevant are consistently appropriate and often profound. Many in our community have been filling in the gaps for decades by participating with their families or community organizations in activities that transmit relevant knowledge and skills. But what I hear over and over is that these opportunities are not enough and they are not tapped by the district – if we listen to our students we can create learning opportunities that are responsive to our students’ interests and continue to stimulate the type of intellectual curiosity and persistence that contribute to the unstoppable pursuit of real achievement.
We have failed to support and access the voices of our students, partly because even as adults SAY we want student input, too often we implicitly devalue it by failing to create meaningful mechanisms for input and influence. The social justice office will be important in combating entrenched adultism and with assisting in making sure the Youth Council is broadly representative and well facilitated,as well as listened to and acted upon.
Create an Office of Instructional Change
The vision articulated by the Special Committee on Student Achievement reflects some critique of existing emphases on “one size fits all”teaching and learning that has accompanied the types of “reforms” that have been imposed by federal and state mandates on school districts. Rather than increased uniformity and excessive standardization of curriculum, schedules and high stakes tests, this group argues for more inquiry based instruction, and also more appropriate and high quality differentiation of materials and supports. They emphasized developmentally appropriate approaches in early childhood, especially in literacy curriculum and practices. If we are serious about a different approach, that is more child-centered, more inquiry based and founded on high quality educational research, a conscious change in direction is necessary. The Office of Instructional Change would support change through resource mobilization, coordination and responsiveness to proven and promising approaches.
Create a Director of Latina/o Studies
The Latina/o Education Task Force recommended establishing a Director of Latina/o Studies as one way to address the need for more focused and coordinated work to ensure culturally connected curriculum and pedagogy as well as improved approaches to bilingual and English language education for native Spanish speakers. Culturally rich teaching and historically accurate curriculum are central to high quality education generally, for all students regardless of background. The failure to provide inclusive teaching and curriculum is not only harmful for students of color, who compose the majority of our student population, but for everyone.
There are debates, which we should engage, regarding the best approach to ensuring comprehensive excellence in cultural content and pedagogy. Some argue that the Teaching and Learning Department should be responsible for continuously developing high quality, inclusive and accurate material without appointing directors for specific groups such as African Americans and Latina/os. In addition to the fact that this sets up a framework where multiple directors are required to “represent” the educational needs of various groups (which then begs the question: who is left out?), there is a risk that the desired inclusive content and generalized professional development will not be effectively disseminated or internalized by all educators in our large, historically intransigent, bureaucracy. However since we currently have adopted a model with leaders in African and African American and Native American resources, the addition of a Latino resource component is long overdue given the large number of students in our district who are Latina/o, the fastest growing group in RCSD.
Establish “Teachers Curriculum Councils” or”Teacher/Administrator Curriculum Councils”
Many of the district’s building level teachers and administrators are well prepared and willing to offer powerful, high quality solutions. There are some institutionalized mechanisms for diffusion of expertise such as the Careers In Teaching mentoring programs, the Rochester Teacher Center collegial circles,scholarly presentations and lesson plan development, “model classrooms”associated with one of the study arms of the Teacher Incentive Fund study, and other various professional development programs. However it seems to me that the impact of these various efforts on improvement is diluted, not coordinated, and blocked from systemic application, largely because none of these mechanisms are connected with decision-making power at an institutional level.
The Board Ad Hoc Committee on Common Core Implementation has recommended establishing or strengthening structures and processes for classroom teachers and building level administrators to develop, critique, continuously improve and share effective practices. “Teachers Curriculum Councils” or “Teacher/Administrator Curriculum Councils” or similar structures should be formalized and processes for board access to their recommendations should be clear and continuous. Specific areas that should receive explicit,focused attention include: ensuring that content is engaging and culturally connected; bilingual curriculum development requires dedicated attention; inappropriate content should be rooted out, eg developmentally inappropriate or insufficiently differentiated content and pedagogy should be replaced.
The Special Committee on Student Achievement convened in January 2014 contributed potent support for the development and dissemination of high quality curriculum and pedagogy. The committee’s emphasis on student assets instead of deficiencies, and their insistence on cultural excellence and equity, lay an important foundation for fundamentally improving teaching and learning in RCSD. I commit to support the efforts of this committee and the many parents, educators and students who they represented so well in the intense work they completed over only a couple of months’ time. It is no small point that the recommendations of this committee are overlapping and synergistic with those recently issued by Latina/o Education Task Force and the Board Ad Hoc Common Core Committee, as well as other community based calls for fundamental change in RCSD over the years. The time to act is now.