By Mark Phillips
Many schools are largely out of touch with who kids are today. The lives of students, across race and socio-economic class, are very different than they were even 10 or 15 years ago. But in a time when the stress experienced by children has increased markedly, too many schools appear to be adding to it rather than alleviating it. Educators who understand this are far more likely to be successful.
There is presently an estimated 15-year lag between the latest psychological research and the incorporation of this new knowledge into schools. It appears that many of today's school reformers either don't know about the research or consider psychology superfluous to quality education and student achievement.
Vicki Abeles's film, "Race to Nowhere" , has been very popular here in the San Francisco Bay area and one of the reasons is that it focuses primarily on the emotional lives of kids, not on scholastic performance. Most importantly, it chronicles the price kids are paying emotionally for the increased emphasis on test scores.
Three other "reform" films released in recent weeks ignore these issues. "The Cartel" (may its retro style and sensationalism be granted forgiveness!), "The Lottery," and " Waiting for Superman " all fit the present reform zeitgeist.
While each of the filmmakers demonstrates concern for kids, they remain nearly silent on the psychological realities of schooling and the emotional lives of kids.
The implication is that this psychological stuff isn't important.
My wife is a psychologist and so I'm occasionally privy to the stories of local psychologists who are trying to help kids survive their adolescence. One is Madeleine Levine and her book, The Price of Privilege, captures this very well.
My teaching interns, working in the inner city, report that their non-privileged kids also are experiencing great emotional stress, the sources different but the pain at least as great. Levine and Abeles get it. Our reform-minded filmmakers apparently don't.
As Vicki Abeles notes: "The film has been well received in urban as well as suburban communities, and urban audiences have responded with appreciation for the recognition that these issues don't just affect the suburban communities, but ALL communities. Our schools have become unhealthy environments for most young people. The pressure to teach to the test is being seen in schools in suburban AND urban communities. Our culture is embracing an idea of education reform based on a system that is not working for most students."
To motivate kids you need to reach them emotionally and create emotionally supportive environments. Both kids and psychologists tell us that the best classrooms and schools are those in which there is an easy connection between students and real engagement between teacher and student.
But it's more difficult to measure the quality of human relationships than it is to record test scores. Our data driven reformers appear to be more focused on achievement scores than on the complexities of motivation and human relationships that are the foundation for achievement.
A group of at-risk kids who are now succeeding in one of the better local public schools visited with my interns last year. They were asked why they were doing so much better now than in their previous schools. The repeated answer was, "because the teachers here really know you, care about you, and help you."
Of course that condition alone will not suffice to lift ailing schools. But it is a necessary condition for schools to really succeed.
A stanza in one of my favorite poems by William Stafford comes to mind.
"It is important that awake people be awake or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep. The signals we give-yes or no, or maybe—should be clear; the darkness around us is deep."
So it is as we navigate the tricky road to educational reform.
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