Do Conversations About Race Belong in the Classroom?

The Atlantic

Two decades ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a bestselling book on the psychology of racism. Now, with the release of the book’s second edition, she reflects on its relevance to schools today.

A blurry photo of students in a school cafeteria
Eric Gay / AP
In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the psychology of racism, answered a recurring question that surfaced in her work with teachers, administrators, and parent groups: Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? The result was a critically acclaimed book of the same name that gave readers—numbering in the hundreds of thousands—a starting point to demystify conversations about race, better understand the concept of racial identity, and communicate across racial and ethnic divides.

Basic Books

Now two decades later, the black kids are still sitting together. And Tatum has returned with a revised and updated 20th-anniversary edition of her national bestseller that publishes today. One aspect that has changed dramatically since the original release of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race are America’s demographics. Latinos and Asian Americans are the largest and fastest-growingpopulations of color, respectively, with children of color for the first time outnumbering white children in public schools. Additionally, the backlash against the election of the first black president, the continuing segregation of schools, and highly visible incidents of police violence seem to belie the claim of a “post-racial society”—making Tatum’s perspectives on effective dialogue about race and racism especially relevant.

Tatum recently shared some thoughts with The Atlantic on why conversations about race remain vexing and what can happen when educators and parents avoid those conversations. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.


Melinda D. Anderson: Has your perspective changed on anything you wrote in the original edition of your book?

Beverly Daniel Tatum:  In 1997 my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger, and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. … I still have that goal, but in 1997 we were a nation at peace and the economy was expanding. Today we are a nation at war, suffering from economic anxiety and the combination of “post-racial” rhetoric, simmering racial resentments, and an increasing 140-character culture of communication that has made productive conversation more difficult to have.

That said, it is still the case that in a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. I still believe that an understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference.

Anderson: In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia—where members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marched through the city last month—many educators are grappling with how to help students understand and contextualize America’s history of racism and current racial divides. What would you say to teachers and administrators struggling in this area?

Tatum: I like to begin my conversations with educators by talking about why it’s so hard for people to talk about race. I often ask them to think about their own earliest race-related memories, and without exception what I find is that many people have [these] memories—and if you ask how old they were, they’ll often tell you 5, 6, 7 years old. Then I usually ask what emotion is associated with that memory. And they’ll mention things like embarrassment, fear, anger, sadness, shame, [and] sometimes confusion. Most often it’s some uncomfortable feeling.

[Finally] I ask: When that experience happened, did you speak about it to anyone? Did you talk to a parent, or a teacher, a caring adult about this experience? And almost always, the majority of the people in the audience will say they did not. There’s often just this understanding that you’re not supposed to talk about it. And I start there simply to say …  now you’re 35 or whatever age, and you’ve had a lot of lifetime experiences that have told you, don’t talk about this.

You can’t solve a problem without talking about it. And certainly if we think about educational environments and experiences, it is in the classroom where you can create the space for a conversation about the meaning of the Confederate flag and [discuss] those statues [and] when they were put up. There are resources that teachers can use—provided by organizations like Facing History and Ourselves—to inform themselves, and then bring that information into classrooms in an age-appropriate way. [Also,] if I were in a classroom talking about what happened [in Charlottesville] I’d want to lift up not only the horrific things that we all know about, but also the solidarity of the people who came out the next day to remember the memory of Heather Heyer [a 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting the white-supremacist rally]. I think that it’s important … in these conversations, to always leave space for hope.

Anderson: You delve deeply into the racial-identity development process for black youth—from their early years through adulthood. One anecdote brings the specific role of black teachers to the forefront. Can you tell me about the role black educators—who make up just 7 percent of the public-school teaching force—play in black children’s lives?

Tatum: I often use this analogy: If you and I were in a room together with lots of other people and somebody took a photograph of us, and I handed you that photograph at the end of our time together, and you took a look at it, what would be the first thing you would do? You’re going to look for yourself in the picture.

If you think about classrooms or workspaces or conferences, wherever we are, we go into these spaces and we look for ourselves. You want to see yourself represented. In that sense, when young people walk into a classroom, they want to see someone who they identify with, maybe because they’re the same race. It doesn’t always have to be racial identification. [A student] can identify with a teacher because she likes music [or] identify with [educators] because they are into sports. But to the extent that kids of color walk into classrooms and rarely see someone who looks like themselves in that environment, that’s a missing link.

Anderson: Your writing on the development of white identity was a revelatory look into the current cultural and social dynamics in the United States. Please talk about the process of redefining whiteness from “just normal” to a more nuanced conception of what it means to be white.

Tatum: If … you live in a neighborhood where everybody or most people are white, you grew up in a family where all the members are white, and you go to a school and most people are white, [chances are] you [see your white identity as] the norm. And you probably don’t think much about it—that’s not the part of your identity that you’re focused on. But when you enter into a space, a classroom or a workplace, where you are now in a racially mixed environment, and there’s conversation about issues of race in particular, you may start to have a greater awareness. You start to learn what whiteness means, in some ways, because you start to see what racial-group membership means for other people. Or maybe [that awareness comes through] … reading a book, or taking a class.

However that awareness starts to happen, what I’ve found is that [white] people start to realize that they’ve had some advantages. … They’ve had some benefits as a result of being white that they’d never really paid attention to, but have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And when they start to notice or when they learn the history, it’s upsetting … There are often feelings of guilt. It’s usually at that point where it can be really helpful [to join] an organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which helps white people support each other in their growth and learning around how to become anti-racist.

[Figuring out how to turn that guilt into action] is a learning process, and it’s not as linear as I’m describing. It often requires re-educating oneself or learning things that you never learned in school, simply because it wasn’t [taught]. Talking to people you don’t usually talk to. It’s not like it happens instantly.

Anderson: Interestingly, you expand on the conversation—shifting beyond black and white—to interrupt the frequent resistance to talking about racism in non-black communities of color. What are some of the complexities surrounding identity development for students who belong to those communities?

Tatum: Well, I think the basic principle goes back to that picture analogy. If we want to affirm the identities of our students, the first thing we have to think about is: Do they see themselves represented? One of the points I talk about is that the representation of Native Americans is always in the past. There’s a Native educator I quote who says Native youth, who have a very high suicide rate, need to see themselves as having a future, not just a past. It’s thinking about how students will find themselves in the curriculum, not just who’s teaching, but [also] how are they being talked about? If you’re Native American, do you see yourself represented at all except perhaps as the mascot of the football team?
The common stereotype for Asians is that they’re academically successful, particularly in science and math. But what if you are a young Asian person who is interested in journalism? Are you able to express yourself fully or are you being categorized so narrowly that your options are being foreclosed? In the case of Latinos, language is important to identity. Familism [prioritizing family relationships] is an important cultural value; you want to preserve your language so you can speak to [your] grandmother. But if you’re in a school where you feel your language is perceived as a liability—not an asset—that has a direct impact on how you feel about being in school.

Regardless of your group membership, the questions of identity are at the heart of the adolescent experience. … Each group has its own particular social context … but at the fundamental core of each young person’s [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.

Anderson: You admit that you’re an optimist at heart, but for some the prevalence of racism in American society can seem all-consuming. What fuels your sense of confidence?

Tatum: Sometimes you have to work at feeling hopeful. Social progress tends to be two steps forward, one step back. I’m old enough to know that change is possible. I was born in September of 1954, several months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. … If you think about the sense of urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, those young people who are out in the streets are asking: Why are we still having this conversation? Why are these things still happening? It’s a difficult moment, there’s no question. Charlottesville and the President’s response have reminded us how difficult it is. But that said, there are a lot of people who want change.

And it’s only because I have seen that change is possible that I believe it is again possible. The dialogue is critical. That’s why I always put the word “conversations” in my book titles, because you can’t move forward without talking to people. Talk isn’t something that comes easily [and] talk by itself isn’t sufficient; you want to have those conversations because you want to inspire action.

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Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

A Brooklyn Charter School Looks Past ‘No Excuses’

Photo

Dhara Patel teaches math at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Ascend is retraining teachers to focus on social and emotional development.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Four years ago, while reporting on the difficulties of life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, I met a school administrator named Marsha Gadsden who worked for the Ascend Public Charter Schools network. Ms. Gadsden had grown up not far away, attended prep school on a scholarship and later went to Georgetown and Harvard, and she told me she worried about the unforgiving disciplinary codes used by her employer and so many urban charter schools around the country.

Despite a culture that emphasized aspiration — pennants from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Louisiana State lined the walls at Ascend — opportunities for failure abounded. The schools held to a “no excuses” philosophy, the notion that poor children are best taught in highly regulated environments. A child could accrue demerits and suspensions for a wide range of infractions; there were strict protocols for speaking and walking in the hallways. What if you were so excited by a discussion of “Animal Farm” in your English class that you wanted to continue talking about it on your way to science? You couldn’t, because certain transition periods demanded silence.

A 6-year-old could be dinged for failing to wear a part of her school uniform or arriving late, mishaps that are nearly always the fault of a harried parent who has misplaced the keys or forgotten about the laundry. White, privileged children are, for the most part, groomed for self-expression, and Ms. Gadsden feared that a generation of poor black children would be shaped for something different: a reflexive compliance that would leave them unable to question authority.

In 2015, two separate studies were released that put the problems of “no excuses” education in high relief. One, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, tallied the disproportionate severity of school suspension and expulsion on black students in 13 Southern states. In 132 districts, black children were suspended at a rate at least five times as high as that for others in the student population. A second study by Joanne Golann, a sociologist, argued that “no excuses” schools produced “worker-learners,” children who might do well on tests but who were constantly self monitoring, held back their opinions and had, in effect, little chance of becoming the next Steve Jobs.

By this time, Ascend’s founder and chairman, Steven Wilson, inspired by the Black Lives Matter phenomenon and the national conversation around mass incarceration, was also questioning the network’s approach and had begun to make changes. Some other charter networks were starting to move in this direction as well, but Ascend, according to James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center, remains the only one in New York City to have formalized an entirely new and progressive system of managing behavior.

Borrowing from the practices of a program called the Responsive Classroom, Ascend began to retrain teachers to focus on social and emotional development. This provided the framework for creative problem solving to help prevent conflicts between students, or between teachers and students, from escalating.

Photo

Students leaving Hannah Young’s math class at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

A few weeks ago, for instance, two high schoolers got into an argument in the cafeteria and threw food at each other. Under the older disciplinary model they would have been hauled straight off to detention. But under the new approach they were encouraged to burrow down and explore the root causes of the fight. Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño, the network’s high school director, said that instead of asking students in a situation like that, “What did you do?” the closest adult will ask, “What happened?” These nuanced shifts in language are crucial to keeping children from becoming more angry or defensive. The two boys talked things out, apologized to each other and on their own came up with an appropriate penalty: They volunteered to clean up the lunchroom for several days.

On the day I visited the Ascend high school in Brownsville, a number of 10th graders were grieving for a former student, 15-year-old Rohan Levy, who had been shot to death on a street in East Flatbush not long before. A 10th-grade advisory group, which meets every morning under the direction of a young science teacher, Dan Sonrouille, was seated in a circle and talking. Some of the students were going to Rohan’s funeral that evening, and Mr. Sonrouille told them that everyone processes their grief differently and cautioned them, as he put it, not to “judge the journey.”

In many ways, the most visible change at Ascend is the presence of a school culture that has become intensely therapeutic; teachers are instructed to be warm and present rather than distant and controlling. The chair circle is a regular feature. Often, Mr. Sonrouille said, students will pull him aside when they are on the verge of an ugly dispute and ask him to lead one. Just before Christmas a group of girls who were arguing over boys and accusations that had been made on social media asked him to convene a circle. He told them, as he often does, to “attack the situation rather than one another.” When it’s over, he has the students pose for a circle selfie.

So how has this all panned out? Across the network, suspension rates dropped to 4.2 percent of the student population during the 2015-16 school year, from 9.5 percent in 2012-13. That figure is in line with the statewide suspension rate, though the state has a much lower percentage of children from struggling communities. Of course, suspensions can be reduced simply by refusing to dole them out, but certain transgressions, like physical fights, are still likely to get you suspended at Ascend. The goal, which the network appears to be meeting, is to reduce heated conflict over all. Ascend has also tried to move toward in-school suspensions, to remove children from their peers, but not, counterproductively, away from the process of learning.

For the most part, the students I spoke with felt energized by a new system they perceived as loving and self-directed.

Prianca Pal, a 10th grader, talked about how demoralizing it had been to get detention for missing a homework assignment.

Around the same time that Ascend was transforming its culture, it put in place a new curriculum, more closely aligned with progressive schools, that focuses on intellectual inquiry rather than received knowledge. At Ascend’s lower and middle schools in Brownsville, passing grades on the annual state English test increased to 39 percent in 2016, from 22 percent in 2014, while the rate on the math test increased to 37 percent, from 29 percent. It’s hard to isolate the cause for the improvement, but it is likely to be a combination of both the academic and cultural changes, which makes Ascend a bold testing ground for the theory that children from low-income homes can be educated the same way as children from affluent families.

“Our big purpose here is to create agency,” Mr. Wilson told me. “Our view is not about grit. Our students have a lot of grit, look at their lives. But if all you have experienced is unrelenting structure how do you emerge with autonomy?”

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success

The Atlantic

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

ANU PARTANEN DEC 29, 2011

The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.finnish-kids.jpg

Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West’s reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.

The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known — if it was known for anything at all — as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life — Newsweek ranked it number one last year — and Finland’s national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

Finland’s schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation’s education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.

So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

And yet it wasn’t clear that Sahlberg’s message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.

* * *

During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed for position with Dan Rather’s TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an “intriguing school-reform model.”

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

The irony of Sahlberg’s making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America’s best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend — not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg’s statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he’s become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.

Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland’s success. Sahlberg’s new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

 

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

* * *

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

* * *

Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

 

Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”

“When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

Scared About the Next 4 Years? Take a Lesson From Improv Comedy

I know yesterday was a rough day for many. Popular words on my FB feed included grief, depression, shock, sadness, disbelief.

When times are tough, it might seem tempting to try to find the “eject” button and apply for Canadian citizenship. Or take advantage of California’s new legalized marijuana resolution to check out on a 4-year high.

But as many commentators have already pointed out, what is really needed is for us to step even further into the ring and do our best to all move forward together.

Which is why I wrote this post. To do my part to offer a tool to navigate your mind and spirit during a paradigm-shifting event such as this election might have been for you.

I have seen many great articles and blogs that have attempted to soothe the depressed spirit with a “it’s not as bad as you might think” message. They logically point out that Donald Trump won’t be able to make large changes in a political system such as ours… or that no matter who won, half the country would have been upset and so why does it matter if it’s your side or theirs… or that this sort of thing has happened before in US politics, and it didn’t sink us then so why would it sink us now?

These are all great arguments that bring a lot of comfort. The perspective that I want to add is how to accept what has happened so that you can build strongly upon it and make your presence in this nation count moving forward.

And we’ll do so with a lesson from Improv Comedy.

You may have noticed that Improv actors use a technique called “Yes, and,” which is the concept that you accept whatever move your partner just made, and build on it. For example, at my improv class last weekend, I was partnered with a classmate Jake, and we were told that we should improvise a scene with a car. I wanted the scene to be one of a girl getting driving lessons from her father. But before I could speak the words to frame the scene, my partner jumped in and had us be two bank robbers fleeing the scene of the crime. Not exactly what I had in mind. I was miffed.

But instead of resisting that plot line, I accepted it. I did my best imitation of a frantic car chase (which, to be clear, I am utterly terrible at. Cross that one off my list of potential careers.). And by embracing the scene I now found myself in, I was able to add the fact that I was a junior bank robber, and I was getting bank robbing lessons from the “big boss.” I ended up introducing the element of paternalistic instruction that I wanted; it was just with a gun in my hand and a sack of loot at my feet. The scene was fun and funny, and a big hit.

Contrast the “Yes, and” with the “No, but” approach. Had I responded to my partner that “we’re not bank robbers! You’re my dad and we are taking a driving test,” then the scene would have come to a screeching, awkward halt. My partner would have been offended, I would have been indignant, and I promise you that no one would have laughed.

The key to the “Yes, and” is acceptance. Acceptance means that you don’t waste your energy trying to resist something that you cannot change, and instead embrace it. Yes, embrace it. That doesn’t mean that you would have chosen it, but rather that you recognize that that is where things are now, and you commit to being fully receptive to what is. I

t’s only in that receptivity that you can really understand a situation enough to plot your “And.” This is something that we learn in the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.”

The “Yes” is the serenity of accepting what is. The “and” is the courage to make a change. And the wisdom comes in linking the two.

So, folks, what has to happen now is that we all must become skilled Improv artists. Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, and what will you build upon it? What will you add to the scene? The future of our country will be shaped by all of our “Ands.” If there is one thing I have learned from Improv Comedy, it’s that some of the best scenes come from those Ands. What will be yours?

Write me a note and share your thoughts!

In care,

The School of Wants and Needs — and Wood-Fired Showers

IN THE HILLS ABOVE SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A day in the life of Matias Barrera looks a bit like that of many other private-school students. There is the rigorous college preparatory curriculum. And a dining hall with local organic beets, plus a cook who whips up fresh salsa.

But at 9 o’clock on a recent Sunday morning, he and some classmates stuffed themselves into the back seat of an aging pickup truck cab and set out to gather a week’s worth of firewood. Later, other students chopped some of it.

Then, at the appointed shower hour, several others built fires to heat the water tanks that do (or do not) ensure a comfortable bathing experience for the 81 students who live in unheated cabins here.

Finally, at a chapel meeting in the early evening, Mr. Barrera regaled the students and faculty members with a talk about how he wondered if the place was a rehab facility when he and his family arrived.

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Midland students gathered for afternoon assembly, where roll is called and announcements are made.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

At the Midland School in Los Olivos, Calif., $49,900 buys a school year’s room and board and a shot at Stanford and Harvard, just as a fee in the mid-five figures would at Andover or Exeter. But at Midland, it also gets teenagers a lesson in wants, needs and the slippery continuum stretching between them. It is the very lesson that many grown-ups wish we’d gotten long ago.

Staggering as that price is, it would be a whole lot more if the school required janitorial services or a larger fleet of kitchen aides. But it doesn’t, since the students more or less run the place. And that is fitting for a school where the founder, Paul Squibb, declared back in 1932 that he wanted to create an institution free of the clutter that comes from affluence and the need to keep up with whatever everyone else has or does.

Eighty-four years later, that philosophy manifests itself in a campus that would almost certainly make the Top 10 list for most spartan among the nation’s private secondary schools. And when it comes to the most elemental needs — food, light, heat — the students play the largest role in providing them.

“Working to meet basic needs, and not just having those needs met, is itself an essential human need,” according to the dean of studies, Lise Schickel Goddard, who channeled the legacy of Mr. Squibb in a history of the school this year.

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Elizabeth Chamberlain, 14, left, and Eliza Merrall, 16, chopped wood they collected for the fires that heat their afternoon showers.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

Midland students are among a shrinking number of California residents who don’t have to worry too much about where their water comes from, since the school sits atop an aquifer that is ample to supply its needs.

Power, however, is a central concern, and a curricular one, too. Each year, the sophomore class is responsible for a new solar installation intended to draw another 3 percent of the school’s electricity needs from the sun.

As for food, about 50 percent of the produce that students and faculty members eat comes from the 10 acres of land that they farm organically. Most of the meat comes from pigs and cows they raise. Students work in the kitchen, too, along with the cook and a few other employees.

And then there’s the matter of warmth. The cabins have only basic wood stoves. Upperclassmen often do without them, given how much space they take up.

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Sayer Johnston, 14, built a fire before heading off to an afternoon shower at Midland School.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The shower fires, however, are perhaps Midland’s best-known ritual, the thing that many visiting college representatives want to see. It doesn’t take much to get one going as long as there is plenty of wood at the appointed hour. But if the day’s six fire-starters shirk their duties, it is their classmates who suffer. They can, and do, give a form of demerit to one another (resulting in additional work duties) when necessary.

“What I need now is directly correlated with what everyone else needs,” said Duncan McCarthy, a senior. “It’s not that I need a shower. Everyone does. That was not the case at school before, where all I needed to do was homework.”

Faculty members maintain a loose oversight on the various work duties and will hear appeals when there are disagreements among the students. “But with showers, there is no faculty supervision whatsoever,” said Lynda Cummings, the director of college counseling, who also lives on the school grounds but does not have to have to fire up her own shower. “If a kid doesn’t do the job and everyone gets a cold shower, do I care? Not really.”

Midland does not value suffering per se. But turning teenagers loose with axes, fire, kitchen knives and live animals in the service of heat and food is, to its leaders, no different from nudging them into an Advanced Placement class. “All of us are pretty poor judges of the limits of our ability,” said Christopher Barnes, the head of school. “So we try to push them past the limits of their experience while staying within the limits of their ability.”

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Phil Hasseljian, left, in his classroom at the Midland School, where students can get help after hours.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The trick is doing so without being reckless, which entails its own complex calculations of wants and needs. The cabins have sprinklers mainly because of those wood stoves, but no other running water. Students who ring the bell that wakes everyone up and rules the schedule wear ear protection, but they also may ride around on their bikes without wearing helmets.

Jose Juan Ibarra, a graduate of the school and now a faculty member, still has a scar on his shoulder from an aggressive bout of teenage wood gathering. And in an accident in 2002, a student who was riding in the bed of a pickup truck a few miles up the road from the main part of campus was killed.

As always, most discussions of wants and needs (and Midland grown-ups do not shy away from any of them) eventually come around to the following question: How much is enough? How much risk to take? How much dessert — which is a want and not a need, but it’s something that Maggie Tang, a junior, nevertheless whipped up for everyone 47 times during the last school year.

How much internet? Not much or just enough, depending on whether you’re a teacher or a student. The school confiscates phones, but service signals are nearly nonexistent anyway and the school’s Wi-Fi network steers clear of the cabins. Still, the outside world intervenes via Amazon.

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Jamie Borghesani, 14, spends his free time strumming his guitar in a hammock.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

“We have a handful of students who are very affluent and who don’t think anything of just ordering anything they see,” Mr. Barnes said. “It has transgressed this boundary that Paul Squibb tried to create by being five miles up the road.” After one particularly egregious $400 fashion purchase arrived, the head of school gently asked the recipient about its appropriateness.

And finally, how much, for lack of a better term, fanciness? Over the years, grateful alumni have inquired about sprucing up the place, perhaps with a tennis program or a swimming pool. But the school wants nothing to do with such things, which are neither simple nor cheap to maintain. Better, it believes, to put money into the financial aid budget, which serves 56 percent of the student body, with an average scholarship of $33,553.

Even so, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Midland gestalt wasn’t all so much rich hippie pablum, what with the dogs that some students bring to school (who must pass their own admissions test) and buildings that are partly open to the elements. Recent Stanford and Harvard admissions aside, is it mostly a place where parents send their children for a sort of spiritual delousing?

Midland faculty members and administrators have heard it all before. Mr. Barnes, who is new on the job this year, says he believes he may have a different problem. The place is so serious about living its truth that it may be scaring off some families. It is not quite at capacity, and he would like it to be.

But when he was running the hiring gantlet and talking about all of that, he received a clear message that he was not to fool with the bathing ritual. Midland students are very protective of their shower fires.

Mr. Barnes and his family spent a few years on a small sailboat with no shower before they came to California, so he was pretty sure he knew how those teenagers felt. “If you can narrow down your sense of need,” he said, “you can buy yourself an incredible amount of freedom.”

Do teacher expectations matter?

Researchers, policymakers, and education professionals alike tend to agree that it is important for teachers to believe in their students and to maintain high expectations about their students’ educational attainment. This is a key motivation underlying arguments to diversify the teaching workforce. However, little research has been able to show whether or not teacher expectations actually matter for student outcomes outside of specific experimental settings.

In a new IZA Discussion Paper, my co-authors and I demonstrate that teacher expectations do matter in that they have a causal impact on students’ educational attainment. We also show evidence that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in ways that put black students at a disadvantage.

…teacher expectations do matter in that they have a causal impact on students’ educational attainment. We also show evidence that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in ways that put black students at a disadvantage.

To understand our research, it is helpful to start with a simple observation: teacher expectations tend to line up with student outcomes. In other words, teachers tend to report high educational expectations for students who end up attaining college degrees.

This correlation could arise for two reasons. One possibility is that teachers accurately predict which students will be successful in school and which students won’t. If so, teacher expectations don’t necessarily matter for student outcomes, but are simply accurate forecasts.

Another possibility is that teacher expectations have a causal impact on student outcomes, functioning like self-fulfilling prophecies. In this case, high expectations about a student could translate into more school and teacher resources being devoted to the student or more effort on the part of the student. As a result, the student might achieve more, and in turn, the original expectations align with the student’s ultimate educational attainment. A bleak picture forms if we consider the opposite case: teachers could have negatively biased expectations about a given student, which could lead to fewer resources being devoted to the student and/or the student internalizing these low expectations and exerting less effort, with the ultimate outcome of lower educational attainment.


IMPLICATIONS OF TEACHER BIAS AS SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
Negative teacher biases functioning as self-fulfilling prophecies are particularly concerning if beliefs are negatively biased for certain groups of students, e.g., racial minorities. In fact, in earlier research, my co-author and I discovered a striking pattern regarding teacher expectations. If a black and a white teacher are asked to report their expectations regarding the ultimate educational attainment of a white student, they tend to agree. However, if a black and a white teacher both form expectations about a particular black student, their answers diverge quite a bit.  The black teacher tends to have far higher expectations than the white teacher.

This pattern raises two important questions, which our current researchaddresses:

  • First, if black and white teachers disagree about the same black student’s educational potential, which teacher is more accurate? Perhaps black teachers are too optimistic in their expectations. Alternatively, white teachers may be too pessimistic. It is worth mentioning, moreover, that pessimism would not necessarily mean that white teachers are racist. It may be that white teachers, when viewing the challenges that some black students face, simply over-estimate how these challenges will undermine students’ chances of finishing college, for example. In other words, students may be hurt because teachers with good intentions form low expectations.
  • The second question is whether these differences in expectations matter for student outcomes. In other words, it may be the case that some teachers have unduly high or low expectations regarding some students, but that these biases in expectations do not really affect student outcomes.

Our current research addresses these two questions. In particular, we examine the causal impact of teacher expectations on student outcomes. We examine nationally representative data of about 6,000 tenth grade students in 2002. For each student, teachers are asked how far they expect the child to go in school. Responses include less than high school, high school degree, some college, college completion, and masters or PhD. We focus on whether teachers expect college or more. Moreover, these students are followed into early adulthood, which means we know whether teacher expectations align with students’ educational attainment as of 2012.

We show that teacher expectations largely do align with student outcomes. To disentangle whether this reflects accurate forecasts versus self-fulfilling prophecies, our study relies on a unique feature of these data: two teachers evaluate each student. This allows us to harness teacher disagreements: when two teachers disagree about how far a student will go in school, at least one of them is objectively wrong. We then see if this “wrong-ness” affects student outcomes. [1]

FINDING: TEACHER EXPECTATIONS MATTER FOR STUDENTS’ FUTURES

We find that teacher expectations matter. To put this into perspective, if a student is randomly assigned to a teacher whose expectations are 40 percent higher, which is the average difference in expectations faced by black and white students in the sample, the student becomes 7 percent more likely to complete a four-year college degree. This is a nontrivial effect size for a secondary-school intervention. To put this effect in perspective, it is similar in magnitude to the impact of fairly large  class-size reductionsin early elementary grades and improved teacher quality in late elementary grades on college completion. We also show that teacher disagreements tend to occur on the some-college versus college-degree dimension. This appears to be a large—and largely overlooked—source of educational disparities between blacks and whites, as recent researchshows that the socio-economic trajectories of college dropouts more closely resemble the trajectories of high-school graduates than those of college graduates.

Next, we dig deeper into the basic finding that black teachers have higher expectations for black students than do white teachers. We find that most teachers, across the board, are optimistic.  They tend to expect college degrees for far more students than ultimately obtain them. However, teachers are less optimistic about black students. An interesting nuance, therefore, is that white teachers are more accurate when forming expectations about black students because they tend to be less optimistic about them. However, since higher expectations lead to better outcomes, “accuracy’’ in this case amounts to a selective lack of optimism that puts black students at a disadvantage.

In conclusion, our study offers causal evidence that teacher expectations matter. Negative teacher biases can function like self-fulfilling prophecies that affect college-going. Moreover, we find that teacher expectations differ by racial groups in a way that puts black students at a disadvantage, exacerbating racial achievement gaps. Our results also identify differences in how black and white teachers form expectations as one possible mechanism underlying the well-known finding that black students seem to perform better when they have black teachers. Together, our findings suggest that efforts to combat biases (e.g., hiring more black teacher or “de-biasing” white teachers) could prove helpful in reducing racial educational attainment gaps.

 

 

[1] Much of the paper is concerned with developing an empirical approach to disentangle accurate forecasts from self-fulfilling prophecies.  The aim is to isolate changes in teachers’ expectations for reasons that should not matter for college-going on their own, for example, chance positive or negative encounters.  We exploit teacher disagreements to accomplish this. Intuitively, our empirical approach consists of three steps.  First, we use one teacher’s expectations to “control for” all the important factors about a student that would influence college going. Second, we assess whether the second teacher’s expectations, which are higher or lower when the two teachers disagree, have any effect on the educational outcome via “self-fulfilling prophecies”.  A third and crucial step is to assess whether such disagreements are random, e.g., due to chance positive or negative encounters with the student.  Such encounters could change a teacher’s expectations for reasons that arguably are not important for college-going only affect students through the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecies.