When it comes to inequality in education, it’s not all bad news. There are those committed to turning the system around.
Pedro Noguera is a leading voice on education reform and professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He often speaks on the "opportunity gap," or obstacles that keep kids from learning such as coming from a low-income family or having no one to help with homework. Before he spoke at the University of Washington on Tuesday, he sat down with KING 5 News.
Editor's note: Parts of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
KING 5: At your sold out talk, you’re sharing some stories about education reform. Let’s start with a success story.
Pedro Noguera: Brockton High School in Massachusetts. There are 4,200 students, high poverty, in an urban area, and it was projected 50 percent or more of the students would fail the state exams. That was in 1998. Now, it’s one of the two high schools in the state that gets the highest possible ranking. Over 90 percent of the kids have passed the state exam for the past seven or eight years. What’s the secret at Brockton? It’s literacy. Every teacher is a teacher of literacy. So students learn to read and write well across the curriculum in science and math. But beyond that, it's a place where the staff has the skills to meet the needs of the kids.
K5: And the test scores followed?
PN: The test scores followed. I have an analogy: if you want to lose weight, would you focus on getting a good scale and weighing yourself as often as you could? Ultimately what you want to do is focus on your diet and exercise. In education, the analogy is you don't focus on the test. You focus on getting kids academically engaged, motivated, getting them reading. Doing the problem-solving work that will enable them to do well on the test.
K5: How do Seattle public schools compare?
PN: Seattle is a wealthy area. It should be that any child that needs a tutor should be able to get a tutor. Tukwila, Kent, and Highline have realized is you have to address the non-academic needs. The social services have to be built in. You have to address those opportunity gaps, and you have to address their academic needs. The question for Seattle is do you have the will to ensure all kids get the education they need?
K5: So what is secret to get kids engaged?
PN: It's so easy because they already are. The average 3-year-old wants to know why. They're curious about the world around them. They want to know why about everything. And that's true of all 3-year-olds, not just affluent kids, but what we have to do is nurture that natural curiosity in children -- by stimulating them, by challenging them, by creating environments where that natural desire to learn is fed and cultivated in kids.
K5: Did you pick up any tips on how to do this when you were a kindergarten teacher in Rhode Island and California?
PN: I played football with the kids for the first half an hour to get their energy out and to build a relationship. Kids will learn from people who they know care about them. Kids will learn when learning is fun. Kids will learn when they don’t just have to sit still and listen, but learning is an active experience.
K5: Do ‘Common Core’ standards negatively impact learning?
PN: Common Core standards are actually a good idea. There shouldn't be different standards for different kids. The problem isn’t the standards; it’s using the assessments to determine what we teach kids -- that's getting it all wrong. The idea of using standards is pretty basic. You gotta have some standards.
K5: What is the biggest obstacle facing kids trying to learn?
PN: The biggest obstacle is we look at achievement in isolation of those other needs – the social, the emotional and the psychological. We have to think more holistically about kids. If our kids get high test scores, but they're sociopaths, then we've failed. It means we need to think about an ethical foundation, whether they're going to become responsible adults who know how to vote in an election.
K5: What would we see in a “holistic” classroom?
PN: You might, for example, see parents who work in the classroom with the teacher as volunteers. So now you have more adults present to assist children. And that’s a huge resource many schools don’t tap into.
K5: What’s the difference between how rich kids and poor kids are educated?
PN: All we have to do is look at what affluent kids get in preschool and compare it to what poor kids get. Affluent kids get stimulated. They're learning through play. Poor kids, they get taught how to sit still.
K5: In previous interviews, you’ve said there’s often confusion between privilege and giftedness.
PN: I have five kids, and my 4-year-old can speak well, understand climate change. Other parents will say your daughter is gifted. And I remind my wife, she has two parents with Ph.Ds., kids like that are coming from an enriched environment where they're getting everything they need and more. That's what I mean by privilege. The privilege comes from their families, come from their parents. Many of the kids we call gifted are actually just pretty ordinary.
K5: How does race play a role in education?
PN: Focus on the need. Don’t focus on the race. Focus on the kids who need help. And then you’ll see, there’s Asian kids and white kids who need help too. Race confuses us.
K5: In your book The Trouble with Black Boys, you indicate family make-up may place a role in student success. Some schools are focusing on African American males because there is a large gap in opportunity and achievement.
PN: Sometimes I worry that in the name of helping kids, we are also stigmatizing them. When you single out certain people for extra help, it sends a message that something is wrong with this group. Actually what black students need is the opportunity to be like everyone else. To not be judged, not be scrutinized, not have the first mistake be held against them. That’s what they really need.