Saturday, August 7, 2010

More Thoughts on Education Reform

In Will's previous post, Random Twitter Inspired Rant, he talks about education reform:
Ed reform isn't going to happen from abandoning grades or eliminating standardized testing. It isn't going to happen through a massive exodus to charters or blaming teachers and teacher's unions for every problem. Neither is blowing up the system or running away from accountability. And what will definitely not reform, rather transform, public education is the parade of non-educators selling quick, unproven fixes.
What I love about Will, @peoplegogy, is that we disagree, but we respect each other enough to continue the conversation. Many quit the conversation after a disagreement but I believe debates help us refine our perspectives and beliefs on important issues. We don't all need to agree on every issue. We just have to continue to be passionate about education transformation and believe that transformation is needed. I disagree with some items Will mentions above but do believe there are no quick fixes.

This is where it gets personal...

I've worked in several at risk schools and come from one myself. I grew up in a neighborhood where we couldn't open the windows at night because there were shootings. We were taught not to open the doors to strangers because addicts, alcoholics, and the homeless knocked on the doors daily. We lived across from the projects and didn't live in the projects because we lived nearly rent free in the house my grandfather built. The majority of my friends were pregnant by middle school and in high school many had 2 to 3 children. My high school consisted of over 2000 students. Many of my friends were in gangs. Most still drop out of school and never attend college. This has occurred for generations since before the 1970s. I know this because of research I did for my Masters.

Why are we the exception?

I believe Will can tell you his stories as well. We both made it through the system and have our Master's degrees. Will is getting his PhD and I greatly respect him and what he has accomplished with low-income students. However, we are the exception and not the norm. I'm not sure how Will was able to be the exception. I can tell you it was my father who drove me. My father didn't accept less than A's and often less than 100s. He was very tough on me and I'm so appreciative of this because I wouldn't have survived nor would have my sisters. All 5 of us have degrees and have broken the poverty cycle that has existed in our Mexican American family for generations. I also had many mentors in my life including some that knew what it was to grow up as a Mexican American. I needed to see people with similar experiences achieve greatness. Being mentored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce inspired me to reach for greatness and not settle for less.

We need mentors...

Working with at risk students, low-income students, homeless children, and students at alternative schools I can tell you that they are not as lucky to have parents who push them like my father pushed me. They don't have mentors who tell them, "Hey, I know what it's like. You can achieve the impossible because I did." They don't have mentors who push them and say that's not good enough try harder. The teachers are overburdened at these schools. I've heard many call the kids, "Stupid!" or tell them they won't amount to anything.

I used to do creative writing programs and literacy programs at these various schools so I was able to observe a lot. The students wrote about their experiences and it was overwhelming to read. Their parents were alcoholics, drug addicts, in jail, or worked too many jobs to be at home. Many were from single parents and often had to take care of their siblings. Others had to take of care of their parents.

There are too many schools where this is the situation with many students. Students don't have parents like mine. There are too many schools where they lack mentors for these students. There are too many schools where they lack passionate educators who can't see pass the student as a behavioral problem. And yes, the students can be challenging to work with. It takes a lot of patience when they do things like throw desks in the classroom or steal your stuff. It isn't easy.

Why I am against standardized tests...

Yet, teachers work at these schools and they have to deal with beyond these issues ridiculous bureaucracy. They have to struggle with trying to get their students to pass standardized tests when many of their students don't even want to come to school. When they focus on standardized tests they can't focus on the real issues which are the students and motivating them and pushing them and finding their passions.

This is why I believe we need extreme transformation when it comes to standardized tests. We need our educators to focus on the students and not on test outcomes. Test outcomes will never matter to students who have to deal with the pressures of joining a gang, promiscuity, parents who are alcoholics, or having to be adults when they are 12 years-old or younger.

I'd like to thank Will for allowing me to post this response on his blog! I welcome you to our conversation and to post your views and experiences.

Shelly Sanchez Terrell is the author of the Teacher Reboot Camp blog and tweets @shellterrell.


  1. Shelly,

    I am where I am today because of three things: a) My pops told me I was going to college, b)In the 11th grade I found knowledge of self, and c)By the grace of God...

    As I wrote in a previous post,I spent the earliest years of my life in poverty - living in the projects. I lived without a lot of stuff, and I had no worldview. I had no clue what the world had in store for me. But, all of that changed when my brother and I moved in with our father.

    Though he was not an emotionally loving person, my pops made sure we had what we needed and most of what we wanted. We also played little league and were in the band. Those experiences were the first step in me wanting more for myself. That said, what really sparked my curiosity about the world and a whole host of ideas, feelings, people, etc was HBO. Pops had it and it blew my mind! To this day, movies are my favorite outlet. In fact, I love watching them so that I went to film school, with the intent on becoming a director.

    Back to my original point... In the 11th grade, I found knowledge of self. Meaning, I felt a sudden rush of pride and respect for being Black. I read everything I could find on Black History. My favorite books were those on Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. I was so inspired by the struggles and triumphs of my people that I started to work harder in school. I knew that I couldn't be a slacker. That I had a debt to repay them for their sacrifices. My junior and senior years in high school were my most productive, and I ended up going to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) - later to transfer to The University of Southern Mississippi to attend their Film program.

    Lastly, Al-Hamdulillah... By the grace of God, I made it. Somehow the hood didn't leave a negative impression on me. It never imprinted itself on my soul. So, I was able to leave there without carrying any baggage with me. The hood didn't harden my heart. I will always be grateful for that.

  2. Shelley,

    What an empowering post! Our backgrounds are very similar. I also come from a Mexican American family who stressed education as a way to get out of poverty, or in my case, the working class. My parents did not expect anything less than my best and they are my inspiration and push to achieve. However, that same mentality did not exist in my community or schools, where gangs and teen pregnancy remain an issue.

    I'm not totally against having standardized test as a quick measure of what our children know. My problem is that education is placing too much emphasis on "teaching to the test" and measuring what our children know by tests alone. There are so many other ways to do this and I feel that school systems are limiting what their students can learn and do.

    I also hear many education reformers put the blame or pressure on teachers. I feel that this is unfair. Change needs to come from the top- from the state department of education to superintendents and principals. I have seen many teachers limited by what they can do because they are forced to use a curriculum or program that the district has spent so much money on. This is where the problem lies. Because these teachers are required to teach a certain way or in the worst case scenario, follow a script, it sucks out all their autonomy and creativity. Transformation must come from the top and autonomy needs to be given back to our teachers.

    Thank you for continuing this much needed debate.



  3. Will,

    We are similar in the respect of self identity. I also read as much as I could about Mexican Americans, migrant workers, Latinos, and the works of Corky Rodriguez. I, too, felt inspired by the way those before me paved the road so that I would have a better future. I didn't learn about this till much later in life when I was mentored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. For this reason, I think Arizona's law that there can't be any ethnic studies is damaging. Students who don't achieve need an identity. Thanks Will for bringing this point up.


    I agree that we need transformation from the top and autonomy given back to teachers. Unfortunately, I feel that as long as the system is run by those not in the education field things will remain this way. My hope is that our next Secretary of Education will have been an educator working in public schools.

  4. Hi Shell and thanks for one more great post.

    It shows what kids can do if we motivate them and believe in them. I won't get tired of saying that kids can become great people if we help them believe in themselves and realize their talents.

    I will agree with Elle in saying that standardized tests are a way to measure where kids are at in terms of knowledge. Tests should be a means to something rather than an end, nit a way for schools to get more funding or build a rep. We should focus solely on learning.

    I will also agree with you wholeheartedly that people in key positions and education need to come from education, they need to be educators. We cannot have people who have never set foot in a classroom.

    Thanks once again Shell for this post.

    Kindest regards,

  5. Hi Vicky!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I completely agree that belief in kids is a powerful thing. We can overcome many barriers in their personal lives if we get them to believe in themselves. It is such a depressing thing that so many kids are surprised when people believe in them. I used to have teens say this and couldn't believe they had gone that long through the school system without an adult ever believing them.