A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 27 2010

Education, Viewed from Many Altitudes

What does a teacher do with winter break? In many jobs, a fortnight vacation is elusive. Teachers, then, might be “lucky.” But no matter how “lucky” it might be to have an extended break, the truth is that it is sorely needed.

If anything, the break is a time for reflection. Though I’m surrounded, at home, by millions in the packed Hong Kong metropolis (~8,000 miles from DC), I’ve consciously chosen to isolate myself this break, to give myself room to think. But about what? Nothing in particular, really.

Inevitably, however, my mind begins by thinking about my students and my classroom and what the year ahead will bring for both. After all, I’m returning from a 5-week jury duty term. What can I do better, now that I’ve finished a truly extended break? How can I end the fall semester with a bang and transition into a strong spring semester–with new students, new beginnings, new opportunities?

I begin with the classroom, but then my mind roams free, to other places. I’ve thought a lot about education, broadly speaking. Three quarters of the way through my TFA commitment, I’m reconciling my daily struggles with the broader problem of education in our country. I’m also thinking more generally about the work that I want to do once I, in June, am no longer a current corps member. Do I stay in the classroom? If not, what other role can I play in promoting equal educational opportunity? I don’t know.

What’s truly beautiful is that time away from the hamster-wheel of teaching permits “big picture” thinking. Freed from the stress of (a) yesterday’s discipline problems, (b) today’s mistakes in lesson execution and (c) tomorrow’s lesson plans (or the lack thereof), I can grapple with larger issues.  Like the Achievement Gap. Or, like, maybe, like, world peace?

To fuel this thinking, I’ve been reading–lots. This break has provided me ample opportunity to catch up on education news articles, blog posts, reports and books. Indeed, there’s nothing like prescribing myself a healthy diet of (a) rest, (b) food, (c) exercise and, of course!,(d) books.


If you find yourself with as much free time as I have now, I’ve created a concise reading list on education, viewed from many altitudes, that you might try reading. Given that 90% of a teacher’s regular energy is devoted towards his/her classroom–at the micro level–it helps to zoom out and examine education from another perspective. Indeed, if we want a fair and just society, where opportunity is afforded to all, we need to see the problems, not only at the ground level, but also at the atmospheric and space levels. Here are my top picks (it is by no means comprehensive, but, since I love stories, I’ve favored narratives) at half a dozen levels:

Stop 1, the classroom level: Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, by Doug Lemov.

Clearly, teachers are on the frontier of education reform. At the end of the day, it’s what happens in the classroom that changes students’ life paths–and gives them opportunities. This is an absolute essential, not only for teachers, but for anyone interested in understanding why teaching is so hard these days. I’ve already given my critique, here.

Stop 2, the student level: A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, by Ron Suskind.

Though what happens in a single classroom is important, tracing the arc of a student’s education across time and space can provide insights into how our education system can better serve those it is intended to help–students. Here, Suskind traces the struggles that Cedric Jennings, a graduate of DCPS’ Ballou Senior High School (supposedly one of America’s worst?), faces as he accomplishes the extraordinary by getting into Brown University.

Though the narrative was, at times, overly-detailed, the overall impression is that it takes more–much more!–than one good teacher to ensure a student will succeed in life. What can we do to ensure that former students like Mr. Jennings can traverse the educational road with fewer obstacles? This story is instructive in this regard (Sidenote: I met Mr. Jennings recently. Last year, I took some of my robotics students to testify, about the impact robotics had had on their educations, in the DC Council’s monthly youth hearing. Chairman Gray’s Chief of Staff, whom I conferred with to schedule my students’ testimony, happened to be Mr. Jennings!)

Stop 3, the “school” level: Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change, by Paul Tough

Geoffrey Canada–whose Harlem Children’s Zone Tough examines–is one person who has a grand, though at times self-contradictory, theory of how to make the road to success for students from unfavorable environments less rocky. And, criticisms about funding and scale aside, it appears to be working. HCZ is not a “school”; but it essentially functions as a full-service institution that a child passes through, from cradle to (high school) graduation. Canada’s whatever-it-takes approach, which is now being replicated nationwide as “Promise Neighborhoods,” inspires further hope in the unseen. (Note: if I could make another stop at this level, it would be at Work Hard, Be Nice, by Jay Mathews, which essentially chronicles the rise of the KIPP charter school network–a quick, inspiring read from, hands down, my favorite education writer).

Stop 4, the school district level: The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial, by Susan Eaton

But we can’t rely on single schools (or “schools”) alone to fix education for all. Regular public schools, after all, function as parts of districts. And districts have their own sociopolitical dynamics that we must heed. Here, Eaton cleverly weaves together two parallel narratives: one focused, broadly, on Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark Connecticut Supreme Court case over equal education opportunity in Hartford’s school district; the other, narrowly, on one classroom in the system set back by its de facto segregation. Though the aftermath of the “win” for equal educational opportunity in CT is still far from ideal, this book is important because it reveals the at-times-ugly reality of the achievement gap.   This book stands at the top of my list of favorite books on education for capturing–in a captivating, compelling and comprehensive way–the “problem” of education in America today.

Stop 5, the atmospheric level: Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America, by Jim Ryan

We’re moving deeper into the abstract now. Though Ryan’s story is still rooted in the Earth-level examples of two schools in Richmond, VA, his analysis ultimately tackles the broader topic of educational opportunity. Namely, how can two schools with comparable origins, distanced a mere five miles apart, offer such a disparity in educational outcomes today? And what does the evolution of these two schools tell us about what it will take to truly provide equal educational opportunity to all children?

Surprisingly, he argues that President Nixon heralded the modern age of education law and policy, by adopting a maxim that Ryan describes as “save the cities, but spare the suburbs.” A compromise appears to exist today: do whatever appears necessary to remedy the problems of inner-city schools–yea, school choice plans! additional funds! incentivizing desegregation! test-based accountability!–but leave the suburban schools alone. This book is a necessary read, not only because it offers an easy-to-read overview of Brown-to-present education law, but because it makes a strong case for approaching educational inequity on the urban-suburban axis. The problem of education is nestled within a larger political framework as well as a distinct demographic context. Consequently, fights for educational justice need to take place in state legislatures and community meetings  just as much as in classrooms.

Stop 6, the space level: In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark by Martha Minow

Now we’ve zoomed far out into space, where we’re dealing with the abstractest principles of justice, rights and equality. Minow, recently promoted to Dean of Harvard Law School, offers her insights into what she essentially argues was one of America’s most important Supreme Court decisions. Interestingly, Minow praises Brown more for what it has accomplished apart from, though parallel to, the race-based context in which it was inspired. That is to say, Brown served as a jumping-off point of sorts for substantial progress in categories other than race (e.g. religion, gender, sexual orientation). In fact, she argues, Brown is often cited internationally in promoting equal opportunity. This is the true legacy of Brown–and one that we should be truly proud of.

Like Ryan, Minow reveals her hope for, and belief in, the ideal of integration. What caught me most off guard was her description of the unparalleled successes of Department of Defense schools–which achieve relatively highly with a relatively more racially-diverse composition–in proving that the race-based achievement gap can be closed. My only quibbles would be that some of the language was unnecessarily jargon-y and it certainly doesn’t make for pleasant holiday reading when footnotes comprise almost half of a book.


One final thought: though each “stop” provides its own nuanced lessons, I noticed that, taken together, the narratives point to the importance of promoting “integration” if we want to produce a better America. Integration not in the narrowest sense of “let’s push blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians into one room and be proud that we’re racially mixed!”; integration in the more abstract sense where, in any given social situation, we can expect to interact with a diverse array of individuals cutting across racial, ethnic, class, sexual orientation and religious lines. This intermingling can help level the playing field for those who currently are left out of the game of life. Furthermore, as the last 3 stops demonstrate, such integration will strengthen America’s foundation, by:

  • tying together, in the name of unity, the fate of fellow citizens;
  • making it easier to empathize with people from other walks of life;
  • allowing us to synergistically combine our talents; and
  • giving us more opportunities to debate what it truly means to be an American–even if, ultimately, we agree to disagree on this very topic.

Despite the challenges ahead, the very act of writing this post renews in me my sense of hope for America’s future.

And, on that note, I’m going to put down my books and return to another fantastic break activity: The Wire.

profile counter

4 Responses

  1. Jin-Soo

    Thanks for this list. These sound excellent. I really like how you broke down the reading by different altitudes.

Post a comment

About this Blog

Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

D.C. Region
High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)