An Informal Conversation with Pedro Noguera
Following his Opening General Session, Pedro Noguera held an informal conversation session with attendees. Educators from around the country and outside the United States asked Noguera specific questions about how they can change the conversation and implement reform in their schools and districts. Noguera was direct in his criticisms and shared stories about how these reforms can be done if we invest in the right things.
Here is the Q&A from the session.
Q: This morning you mentioned using student voices to drive change in our culture and schools, what's an effective way to do that?
A: Students see things that adults do not. If you ask them who the best teachers are, you can follow them to see what they see. In Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools, I devote a chapter to engaging students in reform. When students participate in the surveys and the analysis, teachers are so much more engaged and receptive, even to the criticism. They ask lots of questions.
In “Transforming High Schools,” I highlight that schools that use student voices to reflect what needs to be reformed to see the greatest success.
Q: Could you elaborate on the role counselors should play in providing security in school?
A: Safer schools invest in counselors rather than security guards. Counselors training is rooted in child development. This can be particularly effective when advisory groups are established. Too often, however, these advisory periods become study halls for students rather than true times for advising students. Good ideas implemented poorly never work.
Q: What do you see in other countries that are more successful than in the United States, in terms of education, that you don't see here?
A: Although you can’t generalize about what countries like South Korea, Finland, or Canada are doing, they do have some common characteristics:
- They regard teaching as a high-status profession. They recruit teachers from the top 25 percent of their college students; in the United States, we draw from the bottom 40 percent.
- These countries have universal preschool and health care; those things are taken care of and schools don’t have to worry about them.
- These countries have equity in funding, so students have equal access to facilities, support services, and teachers. This is a huge issue in this country. We talk about the achievement gap, but we never talk about the allocation gap that exists.
In Curacao, the average person speaks four languages; here, we pass English-only laws. There's a lot we can learn from other countries.
Q: You mentioned teaching English language learners (ELL). I want to say that many children in the United States do speak two languages. What can we do to recognize that?
A: Immigration—legal or illegal—is an education issue. People have always come here in pursuit of a better life. We have many undocumented people in this country, and their children need to be educated. Proposed federal legislation such as Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (The "DREAM Act") attempt to address this, but politics continue to get in the way of that. What many people don’t realize is that many states, such as Nebraska and Utah, already have laws that provide for education of undocumented children because they realize that having an invisible population is no good for our society.
Q: I teach in a district that has very low-income students as well as fairly affluent students from the suburbs. How can we better address the poverty issue in this country as it relates to education?
A: Poverty is an education issue. Research shows that family income is the strongest indicator of a child’s chance of success. Also, a parent’s level of education, particularly the mother’s level of education, is a strong indicator of how well a child will do in school. Mothers are their children’s first teachers.
Q: In terms of preparedness for school, what can we do to close that achievement gap?
A: Research shows that middle-class children start school knowing hundreds of words more than children from an economically disadvantaged background. The achievement gap in this case is a preparation gap. We actually were closing the achievement gap, or at least narrowing it, in the 1970s and 80s. So why did progress stop? We stopped investing in eliminating poverty. Good early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, were having an effect on the achievement gap.
Q: When discussing equity, how do you feel about the level of competition that has been introduced by Race to the Top funds? Won't that just increase the achievement gap?
A: I have to say that I’m disappointed by the lack of focus on equity by this administration. States without resources will start off with a disadvantage when competing for these funds. Funding should focus on need, and quality needs to be evidence-driven. There’s no evidence to support that introducing the element of competition for funding will increase quality in our education system.
Noguera then shared with attendees a model of a turnaround school—Parks City Middle School in Atlanta, Ga.—via a DVD. "This is an example of what can be done to reform schools, and it starts with changing the culture first, then the schools," he said.
Noguera, P. (2006). Unfinished business: Closing the racial achievement gap in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Noguera, P. (2004). Transforming High School. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 26–31.