Our communal bonds have been increasingly divided over wealth, ideology, race, education and religion. An elemental response to this divide is an obligation of public institutions, most especially public schools. In the coming decades, students will need collaborative skills that will be rooted in their own self-awareness and reflected in cross-cultural experiences. Our nation is rapidly becoming increasingly multi-cultural, with the year 2040 targeted as a tipping point of the majority of the United States' residents hailing from a current minority group. Tony prep schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy can select a student body at will and intentionally craft one that is diverse in race (43% of students are student of color), religion, and income to serve all their students in granting an exposure and perspective gaining setting. Adults and students in schools must be cognizant of the need to develop the knowledge and skills needed in more diverse setting.
Educational institutions and communities would be wise to recognize the need to provide greater access to equitable educational outcomes. There continues to be a concrete correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement, locally, nationally, and around the world. Research notes a 30 million words gap between low income children under 4 and their higher income comparison population-this uneven experience prior to formal schooling has a profound negative legacy on future school performance. This unevenness educational ecosystem continues for student out in terms of quality of teachers, rigorous course offerings in future academic settings. Many local districts have attempted to bring greater resources and purpose to addressing these outcome gaps. The sense of urgency locally is in contrast to the national landscape that is witnessing lessening of support for students that have been historically marginalized. Noting that while we have made progress which is promising, we have much work to do to ensure all students have the chance to use schooling as an engine of social mobility. Our clear and compelling charge to be an excellent institution of public schooling can only be achieved if it is a shared result that advances our collective civic and economic experience forward. It would be helpful to make the case of continued inaction: greater divide on outcomes and greater expenses as time advances as society bears the cost of more expensive services when it fails to deliver on others. As Dr. Martin Luther King noted, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny" (King, 2). Others might not see that perspective and we must allow for discourse, debate, and advocacy. We need to acknowledge their perspective as well and do the work to demonstrate our thinking. Schools not only must be committed to an inclusive and intentionally supportive community, but must demonstrate how and why diversity is a source of strength and vibrancy and not serve to divide.
King, M. L., Jr. (1963, April 16). Letter from Birmingham jail: why we can't wait [Letter to Fellow Clergymen]. Birmingham Jail, Birmingham, AL. Retrieved from http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf
The past week marked the 25th anniversary of a tragedy: my
best friend and his family lost his cousin Chris Street as a result of an auto
accident. Chris was a small town Iowan
that went on to star at the University of Iowa in basketball as an
enthusiastic, driven, throwback player that looked like he walked off the set
of Hoosiers. During the half time
ceremony of this past weekend’s game, the team marked the remembrance by
acknowledging his parents and coach, Doctor Tom Davis (chronicled in a story
carried by the Washington Post). This
picture captures the legacy of pain and loss both have carried for over two
decades. That is Chris’s mom comforting
Coach Davis while being weighed down by her own grief. The loss of Chris coupled with the funeral
this weekend of a college teammate of my own causes me to reflect on the
purpose of the athletics, the connections we make as coaches/athletes and their
In my own athletic career, I had the star-crossed fortune to have played football and basketball for two hall of fame coaches and outstanding classroom teachers. Steve Stahl and Terry Hollander both overtly and consistently believed and challenged me in ways that others did not or could not. Both have been touchstones for me as a college athlete, a beginning teacher/coach and were among the first I notified when I successfully defended my dissertation. Cleary they had a transformational impact on my trajectory as an athlete, a student and a person. I am certain that was a similar experience for countless of young men for decades that came into contact with either of these men.
Both have the school competition facility for their respective sport named in their honor and both have changed a community for the people they helped construct. The former students and athletes occupy the region as responsible, compassionate, persistent adults
At the funeral of my SMSU (Missouri State) teammate Chuckie Calhoun, both his high school football and basketball coach were in attendance. Their presence bought both cherished recollections and support to a beleaguered family and Lutheran North community. Those men, like many other men and women, provide encouragement to their charges and work to embed a belief of confidence that comes from preparation as well as careful balance between challenge and support. More than any win or championship, coaches support the vision of a greater self that seeks a more evolved state of being. Thanks to all that engage in that work.
How good is a school? How likely will the people engaged in education have a lasting impact on the young people that are entrusted to them? Well, that greatly depends on what you value and think is the mission of schools. As it stands in Missouri, we value many conveniently measured aspects of schools that miss the essence of the work of educators. While MSIP 5 if being revised, it currently measures: attendance, ACT scores, EOC scores (at the high school) successful completion of advanced courses, college and career placement, graduation rates and subgroup achievement. While many of these metrics are important in that they support school accountability and are considered predictive of student proximate success, many are linked to parent educational and income levels as much as quality instruction in the school. Further, this process of school measurement has too much influence on the classroom by narrowing and shallowing the students educational experience by moving test prep in to a hierarchal position to larger issues such as community service, character development, and learning to think deeply. Students in Missouri must pass a U.S. and Missouri Constitution test that can demonstrate understanding of names, terms, and dates, not action aligned with civic life. These data points attempt to quantify complex, still emerging work with young people that is removed from the greater and historical purposes of common schools. The purpose of public schools is to build and sustain the public, not game a multiple-choice test that has little to do with 21st century skills.
Thomas Jefferson and Louis Brandeis, both public thinkers and servants from previous centuries, noted the function of education as an elemental component of democracy. They were aligned in their belief that the ultimate menace to our democracy and constitutional liberties was an "uneducated citizenry" and that "democracy could not survive both ignorant and free." Horace Mann, a 19th century politician and public education champion, advocated for schools to pursue "social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends." We should look no farther than our predecessors in determining what we should establish as our aims of schools. Our schools should dwell on larger, more complex issues and matters that have more impact on their humanity and other citizens. We should be more overt and better at meeting the obligation of creating a more just and civic culture in our schools, ergo our larger community.
Perhaps my greatest professional gift was to have been mentored by the late Steve Platte, the former social studies department chair at Kirkwood High School in the 1990's. I observed his US History and Citizenship classes and his general instructional practice for decades. for over a . All the elemental components were present in his classroom: high student engagement, rigorous scholarship and an egalitarian classroom culture. In addition to supporting me in the classroom, Steve also asked me to co-sponsor the Kirkwood Youth-In Government chapter. This student led organization takes students to Jefferson City to participate in simulated state governance and eventually, grew to one of the largest in the area. This activity allowed Steve to more purposefully engage in the lessons fundamental social studies and central to the mission of public schools: raising the level of civic participation and intellectual depth. His classroom practice was an extension of the Jefferson/Dewey/Brandeis belief that schools must secure the "moral and intellectual development essential to the maintenance of liberty". This common conviction that public schools and democracy are bound together and strengthening one undoubtedly fortifies the other necessitates renewed emphasis in school.
Over 100 years ago, school reformer John Dewey noted the pursuit of self-interest in education was inherently corrosive to our form of governance. "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy." We must reconnect to the concept of a Commonwealth and schools as a "balance wheel of the social machinery", focused on the common good we can know together in a manner we could not know alone.
As I go deeper into my 25th school year as an educator, I am aware that all years are unique in their challenges and triumphs. And while this year marks my first a Lafayette, it is unique in another major way: it is my first year as a parent of a high school student. My son Ryland is on the cusp of completing his first semester as a freshman at Kirkwood High School and I have had a similar experience that many of our parents have found both angst-ridden and enjoyable. The mixture of coaching, nagging, cajoling and fretting has been more than I can justify for a child that has by his mother's accounting done well in school, activities, and life. I have not been immune from the pull to direct and command my child's experiences.
Joe Ehrmann, who graced the cover of Parade magazine many years ago labeled "The Most Important Coach in America" has stated that parenting has become the most competitive sport in the country. We often look to provide developmental opportunities through elite sport teams, lessons, or programing in the arts that have the ultimate goal as resume padding for the upcoming college application process. The desire for the right class, with the right teacher, the right coach that will be an elixir that will provide for the admission into the right school and subsequently the right life. The narrative of a narrow band of right answers can be problematic for students and for parents. The book "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success" by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford's erstwhile freshman dean and undergraduate advisor, touches on these concepts and more. She notes the concern of parenting practices that includes writing papers for their student's class and disputing grading practices, or playing time that can engender dependent and entitled children. Adults transform into "concierge parents"-all in the name of noble intentions.
I have had the good fortune to work in outstanding high schools by any metric, public and private. New Trier High School in Chicago's tony North Shore, has an ACT average above 27, had a post-high school counseling slogan that college admission was a "match to be made, not a prize to be one" in the effort to quell the mindset of defining success as admission to only the most selective schools. Pressuring students to gain admission into schools that routinely admit only 5 to 15% of applicants has ancillary cost of rising student health issues (conservative estimates of adolescent mental health concerns at 20%) and less than enriching school experiences. The high school years are to often driven by more a prescribed "checklist" of resume builders and less by authentic student passions. This focus needs to change both for schools and for families. Now for some counsel from Julie Lythcott-Haims:
Stop doing your child's homework for them or excuse them from household task. This practice shields young people from learning the self-reliance needed to live independently in a post-secondary setting. The laudable rational of allowing more time for academics and extra-curricular activities further removes students from opportunities to be see themselves as contributors to the larger group and the important leadership trait of empathy.
Not affording children the chance to navigate the tough situation-discussion with the teacher, coach, or sponsor after some level of disappointment. The ability to navigate those situations lead to greater self-efficacy as well as skills of self-advocacy. While some direction and coaching can be important preparation for the child by parent, being the "first one on the beach" as one parent stated to me many years ago is undercutting important growth for the student. The conviction in one's ability reach objectives and complete difficult undertakings is grounded in a child's ability, not their parents, to navigate challenges they encounter.
Be less consumed by outcomes of performance. While research encourages high school course rigor as strong indicator of post-secondary success, focusing on results in lieu of the skill and positive habit acquisition course work requires is a short-term win. Further, selecting a path that is void of challenge in order to be risk averse extends the short-term value of grades over learning and misses the opportunity to practice resiliency and the "play grounds of grit" Angela Duckworth championed. Measurements of GPA, ACT, selective admission status and extra-curricular numeracy or statistics too often are commodified. Students should seek rich, deep, experiences in and outside of school that impact on the person your child aspires to become-think eulogy not resume virtues to use a dire but important comparison from David Brooks. Lythcott-Haims points to research supporting less selective schools, which she claimed numbered in the hundreds, provided similar incomes and quality experiences as "elite" schools. Consuming outcome focus allows the ambient anxiety to creep in on young people in ways that are constricting and at times debilitating.
German thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted children should get both roots and wings from their parents. A gradual lean toward the later allows the overall goal of parenting to make the child age-appropriate independent and yourself obsolete. Teach the value of effort and space for constructive failure, and embracing the daily, deep learning experiences that youth can afford. I hope that I will as well.