An Interview with Joe Johnson, University of Texas
Our efforts must be directed at increasing both the commitment and the capacity of schools to improve the academic achievement of all students, especially of those who live in areas of high poverty. I entered education because I believed that there was so much more that schools could be doing to ensure success of students. The project I direct shows this hunch to be correct. We are looking at schools with a high percentage of low income students but also a high percentage of students who are successful in mathematics.
Principals set the tone by providing a sense of relationship, of caring and of family that is omnipresent in these schools. However, it is not principals alone who make things happen. They also build capacity for other individuals to carry that spirit forward--by finding teachers, counselors, parents, and others, who can play a powerful role. But it starts with principals.
These issues are interlocked. Part of the environment is the assumption that every child will be successful in mathematics. By success, I mean nothing less than what I would expect from my own child. Expectations provide a strong link with what is built into the curriculum and instructional strategies. If students in schools that expect high levels of achievement don't reach them, it creates unacceptable dissonance. This leads educators to get together to create situations where all children will successfully meet their goals.
To whatever extent mathematics is about solving problems, mathematics can not be culturally neutral, because the understanding of problems can not be isolated from the experiences of our lives.
Only when necessary to ensure that all groups of students attain the same high standards of academic performance. A central challenge is to create a fundamental belief that the system can produce something different than is currently being achieved. My evidence that the differences in achievement levels of different kids don't have to exist is isolated schools around the state that show it doesn't have to be that way: Scott Elementary in Houston with low SES and poor homes, yet the same percentage of students who pass the math TAAS as much richer schools; or Los Fresnos where students live in homes being held together by miracles, yet these students achieve at the same level as affluent school districts. So if it can happen at these schools, why not at every school in Texas?
Yet even more important than belief is experience. You can't directly change everyone's beliefs, but you can change teachers' experiences. Then as a result of these changes in experiences, beliefs will begin to change. This often happens after a powerful leader comes in and sets the parameters within which to work, parameters that lead to new experiences in which students that the system gave up on begin to learn. Then teachers will believe.
As support for affirmative action erodes, policy makers who care about the future of democracy in our country must address and reverse the negative actions that persist in systems of elementary and secondary education throughout the nation. The "savage inequalities" in fiscal resources and opportunities to learn must be vigorously redressed. All sectors of the public must recognize their common interest in preventing the deepening of the schism between haves and have-nots.
As authority shifts from federal to state to local agencies, there must be clarity around what is negotiable and what is not. For instance, local education agencies should have considerable flexibility in determining how instruction will be delivered. In contrast, such flexibility is inappropriate when state or local agencies take actions that define which students will be taught well and which ones will not. There must be accountability for consistently high academic standards for children from all populations.
As authority is decentralized, it is important also to recognize that years of centralization have deskilled thousands of educators: they have lost the ability to lead. If local educators are to use their new authority in ways that improve teaching and learning, there must be intensive and sustained efforts to rebuild in educators their commitment and capacity for high quality decision making focused on challenging academic goals for all children.
Our concept of equality of opportunity has long been bizarre. We've assumed that if we put two runners at the same distance from the finish line and signal both runners to start at the same time, we've provided equal opportunity. In fact, we have provided equal opportunity to race, but not equal opportunity to win. We've neglected to notice that sometimes one runner has new Reebok's and the other is barefoot, or sometimes the other is without a leg. If equality of opportunity means equal opportunity to attain the same high standards of academic performance, then, clearly, our response to students in different situations must reflect different interventions.
Governmental and business leaders must powerfully assert the inherent value of a diverse workplace. As the public comes to understand that the workplace contributions of individuals of various cultural backgrounds add real value (even as much value is as provided by a high SAT score), the whole issue of affirmative action may take on different meaning. Similarly, the ways schools respond to the linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity of students may change substantially.
Part of the agenda has to involve providing opportunities for principals to work with their staff to create schools that respond to the special strengths and needs of their students. Give principals the opportunity to hire high quality personnel, resources to offer flexible professional development opportunities, and a high level of accountability for continuous improvement. Flexibility is essential to allow districts to use their resources wisely under a strong system of accountability. Without an appropriate balance of accountability and flexibility, the system will never achieve the growth that is possible.