A Final Thought

Fixing Education

During the long winters of the northeast, many of my friends tend to travel south, hoping to extend the summer and avoid the perils of snow and ice. While I enjoy warmer weather, it’s been a long time since I’ve gone south. Instead, I tend to sit in front of a warm fire and spend my time reading books and magazines and the daily newspapers.

I’m not a book reviewer, but I did enjoy “Dead Wake,” by Erik Larson, the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1916 while the United States was maintaining neutrality. I was also absorbed in Steig Larsson’s trilogy (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl who Played with Fire” and “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,”) all played out against recent history in Sweden.

But it is not just books I read. As a product of the 20th century, I still read local and national newspapers daily, always with an eye towards education news and policy. Very recently, I came across two articles that had nothing to do with one another, but that, to me, illustrated both a problem of our education system and the start of a solution.

Stand but not delivered

The first was in the New York Times, and concerned a young man who had been working as an executive at a nonprofit organization that placed minority children in elite private schools. His name is Ed Boland and, according to the article, influenced by movies like “Stand and Deliver,” he decided that the time had come for him to get into the trenches and begin using his knowledge and skills as a teacher to reach at-risk students.

It did not work out. Assigned to teach ninth-grade history in a low-performing New York City school, Boland found he did not have the skills and the knowledge to deal with students who for various reasons were not ready to learn. He has written a book about his experience, “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School”. I have not read it yet, but what I took away from the article was a feeling that the fault lay not in the students or the teacher, but with the district policy (New York is not alone in this) that puts least experienced teachers in the most stressful situations, and with teacher training institutions that do not prepare prospective teachers for real-life situations.

A winning approach

On the same day, I received a copy of our local weekly newspaper with an article about how the Mamaroneck, N.Y., Union Free School District, 25 miles from New York City, is dealing with the effect of income disparity on educational success in a district where, as Assistant Superintendent Annie Ward put it, “we have families with $10 million houses… and several hundred homeless students” including a large population where English is not spoken at home.

District leaders had become aware of an increasing achievement gap between low-income students, whose test scores and grades were tending to go down, and students who came from more affluent backgrounds and homes, who were not only succeeding but were working at a very high level. Using technology, the district instituted a program to identify low-income students who could benefit from extra support and is creating programs at each of the district’s four elementary schools and its middle school to reach those students.

The emphasis is not on providing more instruction but on “enrichment,” including trips, visits to the public library and providing internet access. As one participant put it, “we’re trying to give them an opportunity to experience things that they might not usually be able to do.” The program has been in effect for just a few months, but so far it seems to be working. If nothing else, regular attendance has increased, an indication that students are finding a reason to be in school.

Significant differences

There are many significant differences between the two approaches. In one, a novice teacher is thrown into a high school classroom without the necessary preparation, training or support. Moreover, he is dealing with students who have already gone through nine years of insufficient education. The twig has long ago been bent.

In Mamaroneck, groups of administrators and experienced teachers are working together to reach students early in their academic careers and planning to stay with them as they go through the system. The program is just starting and there are bound to be hiccups along the way, but a path has been set, the leadership is in place and the support, too. It will be interesting to follow its progress.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."

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