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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

Rewriting the Script in Urban Schools

    We constantly hear about the poverty and other social problems that challenge urban schools. But there's another story—one of promise and progress. Yvette Jackson, chief executive officer of the National Urban Alliance, and Veronica McDermott, a regional director with the alliance, talked with Educational Leadership about their vision for transforming urban schools.

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      What does the work of the National Urban Alliance show us about the kinds of change needed in urban schools?
      YVETTE JACKSON: We need a new vision and belief in the students in urban schools. Right now, reform policies and mandates are putting the focus on looking for student weaknesses, so students' strengths have been ignored, and their potential for high intellectual performance has gone unnoticed.
      Labeling urban schools as failures causes real stress and fear. It inhibits teachers' creativity and their ability to bring forth the potential of their students. So the most important change should be adopting a pedagogy for urban students that's like gifted education—where you design all the practices and structures with the purpose of eliciting students' potential, first identifying strengths, using the strengths to build underdeveloped skills, and then providing enrichment and opportunities for students to apply their intelligence. We call this the pedagogy of confidence.
      We have to flip the script. When you have a strong vision that articulates belief in the capacity of students, the students go beyond minimal growth and basic literacy to actually thrive and flourish in school and out of school.
      What has created that focus on student deficits?
      YVETTE JACKSON: The focus on weaknesses started many years ago with myths about the intelligence of students of color—that they're just not capable of doing as well. And the emphasis on "closing the gap" has actually perpetuated these myths. When people talk about "the gap," they're talking about a gap between races. I've literally heard people say, "Oh, those are gap children." That is just horrifying. In our work in schools, the gap we prefer to focus on is the one between students' potential and what they're actually achieving.
      When Title I was passed, its goal was to bring resources to schools to enrich the lives of children who are challenged by poverty. But what happened was that schools applied for Title I funding on the basis of identifying students' weaknesses—not just poverty, but low academic performance. As a result, people started focusing on the weakness, which really wasn't the point of Title I.
      No Child Left Behind (NCLB) brought even more attention to weaknesses and resulted in mandated instruction that was more remedial than enriching. We've worked in schools where, after we've talked about enrichment and high operational practices, teachers came to us and said, "But because of NCLB, we can't do these things. We have to use more remedial types of programs." Teachers begin to believe that they don't have the capacity to elicit the giftedness of students. And that feeling gets passed on to students. It's a vicious cycle that gets perpetuated by terms like turnaround and low-performing schools or challenged schools. When we talk about urban schools, the students and the teachers upon whom they depend, we should be referring to them as schools of promise.
      What's wrong with the concept of school turnaround?
      VERONICA MCDERMOTT: The turnaround model, unfortunately, is not a hopeful or empowering one. It suggests deficiencies. The label turnaround school feels like punishment. And in fact, people can turn around 360 degrees and end up exactly where they were before.
      Rather than turnaround, we work with schools to achieve transformation. We encourage schools to build on the potential that's already there. It's a metamorphosis that starts with the raw material a school possesses—the students, the community, the teachers, everyone. So it has a different flavor to it. Our bold, audacious vision is to eliminate the crime of squandered potential. There's lots of potential in every school and every community; our work is to find out how to make that potential grow.
      Turnaround can be externally driven. Someone can physically come to you and turn you around, but it doesn't mean you really want to move or go in the obligatory direction. Transformation is internally driven, and therefore it has much more power. It's something that people embrace as opposed to something they feel has been imposed on them.
      Do reforms from outside have any positive role in school improvement? How can schools deal with those reforms positively?
      YVETTE JACKSON: Imposed mandates can have positive effects if we direct them with the goal of developing student potential and not for punitive, marginalizing practices. One positive effect of No Child Left Behind has been to draw attention to underperformance that has happened because of a lack of resources. We could use it more positively by looking at assessments not from a punitive perspective, but as a diagnostic tool, recognizing areas of weakness as "underdeveloped" as opposed to deficits, and also using the assessment equally for identifying strengths and to direct resources where they're most needed.
      Another example is the Common Core State Standards. The standards say that students should be college and career ready, and what's beautiful is the underlying belief and assumption that all students can be college and career ready. That's a very positive statement. And if we use that as the guiding light, then we have to say, "Then what are the kinds of practices, strategies, opportunities that we're going to put in place in school that produce the higher levels of thinking, dispositions, and skills for learning how to learn that will enable students to thrive in college and career?"
      You've said that urban students can be "school dependent." What does that mean?
      YVETTE JACKSON: We know that the students who do well in schools are those who have access to enrichment. They have the kinds of tutoring and support they need, and they have opportunities to engage in explorations and deep conversations about those explorations. Well-off children are considered "well-off" because they get these things outside of school. Urban children, so many of them, depend on school to give them the enrichment, access to resources, and deep dialogue that other children get outside of school.
      When teachers say to me, "You know, many of these kids don't have enrichment, or they haven't been exposed to things," I say, "Well, that's the whole purpose of school. That's why they're here."
      Even in the poorest schools, there are ways to provide the kinds of enrichment that push students toward the frontier of their intelligence—for example, virtual field trips and project-based learning geared toward investigating world trends and problems that pique their interests. We want schools where children come into that building and believe that it's their oasis, where they will get the kind of education that is going to enable them to not only thrive and flourish, but also be able to contribute. They are dependent on school for that to happen.
      What school practices effectively recognize and nurture student strengths?
      VERONICA MCDERMOTT: One thing that some schools do is start off the year by data mining for strengths. You can do that in any number of ways. One is to actually have students write down what strengths they possess. I mean, why not ask them? You might have students do a personal self-assessment consisting of broad, positive categories: What are my interests, hobbies, talents? What ideas are important to me? What positive adjectives describe me? Then, working with another student, they compare their responses. Where are the similarities? Where are the differences? At the end, the students report on their partner: "So I discovered some wonderful things about Wayne, and here they are." This public affirmation of one another's positive qualities creates a different atmosphere in the classroom and works wonders on everyone's psyche.
      YVETTE JACKSON: Having students and teachers identify strengths is also a culturally responsive teaching strategy. First it's validating their capacity for developing strengths. Second, it's emancipating. When you get students to identify their strengths and then ask them how they developed those strengths, it's an invitation for them to open themselves to share their cultural references, the things they have been exposed to and participated in that have been meaningful and important to them. What people in their lives have helped them develop their strengths? What they have been exposed to? What are their deep interests?
      When teachers hear students give responses to that kind of reflection, they realize, "These students can be very motivated." The teachers learn more about who these children really are, and they start thinking about how they can build on that.
      You've also emphasized that schools can make students active participants in transformation. How does that work?
      YVETTE JACKSON: You start with a vision that articulates belief in the capacity and gifts of the students, the staff, and the community. Then you invite everybody to come to the table in different ways. In the schools we work with, we call it creating a "mediative learning community": that is, staff and students have equal agency, and this agency is mediated to elicit strengths, meaningful input, and a shared culture in which all are represented.
      In many schools, we have students participate in professional learning experiences with teachers—particularly when they're learning about cognitive research and neuroscience. A shared language of learning develops in which communication becomes real discourse. Teachers and students are able to sit around a table and start planning how lessons can be different; the teachers might know the content, but the students can articulate and identify the activities and connections that would help prime them to learn the information. Students learn to talk about pedagogy. They can describe to you what their needs are. The whole environment of the school changes; teachers become students, students become teachers, and they learn and teach together.
      We've done that at all grade levels. We've even included students with teachers on classroom walk-throughs to look at student engagement. We call it the mediative analysis process. Students and teachers look together to see where students are more engaged and what's inspiring the engagement, or where they're not engaged and what's causing barriers to the engagement. And then they talk together about what they saw and ask what would be needed to get students more engaged and how they can work together as teams of students and teachers.
      It's really powerful to see. It's transformative. We actually have schools where students run parent training sessions—they're learning about learning, and then they help the parents learn more about learning. That brings more parents into schools because their children are actually giving these sessions.
      Changes like these require effective leadership. You've written about the importance of an urban leader acting as a soul friend. What does that concept mean?
      VERONICA MCDERMOTT: The more I think about this notion of a soul friend, the more I recognize its power. Soul, of course, is the heart of things—touching the inner spirit. And a friend is somebody who's on an equal plane. A relationship with a soul friend is not a power relationship; there are elements of trust and working together.
      We've all worked with somebody who has an ability to capture and name what's really going on and to get people to see things differently. That's what a soul friend does. A soul friend looks around and says, "Hmm, organizationally, here's where we are." They affirm the reality, but they do it in a nonjudgmental way that invites people to say, "You know what? You may be on to something." That begins a process of transformation—of people looking at themselves, looking at their organization, and saying, "We can do better. We can build on what we have. What we've done up until now is not working."
      Sometimes that's a difficult thing to say. But a soul friend can get people to say that without feeling threatened, challenged, or punished. It's the ability to have a trusting relationship and an open and honest discussion.
      We worked closely with one principal in Bridgeport, Connecticut—a deep pocket of poverty in one of the richest states in the nation and in one of the richest counties within that state. This new principal came into a school that had been labeled in need of improvement years before No Child Left Behind was enacted. So this school was suffering from a very bad reputation.
      She embodies what it means to be a soul friend. She looked at the school with a different set of eyes and said, "Wait a minute, there's another story going on here. And we can change this. Our kids can do this. You as teachers can do it." And then she put in the structures and the supports that allowed people to use the strengths that were there.
      A concrete example: The school had a large number of Spanish-speaking students. Most of the faculty did not speak a word of Spanish. Therefore, most school events were not welcoming for the parents because the teachers couldn't communicate. But the kids possessed a strength—they knew how to speak Spanish. So the school started using the students as docents during curriculum fairs, to explain the instructional practices that were guiding the school. That's a very empowering thing for students—to be standing side by side with their teachers explaining a display of their work for the past month. Think of the vocabulary that the students had to develop to do that in an intelligent, deep way!
      In essence, the principal said, "Rather than looking at their second language as a deficit, let's look at it as a strength. How can we bring the entire community into dialogue over what we're doing in a way that's warm and welcoming and nonthreatening?" As a result, more and more parents came to events.
      In short, there are two aspects of being a soul friend. One is to clearly see and articulate the current reality—again, in a way that's nonjudgmental. And the other part of it is to recognize and affirm people's interests and abilities. You make the assets that exist visible and clear, and you build from there. That's a whole different orientation from the deficit model.
      Sometimes the most difficult part of leadership is just getting out of the way. Why is that important?
      VERONICA MCDERMOTT: When I'm working with leaders, and for me that means both administrators and teachers, I often share the results of a Gallup Poll that was done a number of years ago on what Americans think of leadership. It's always an eye opener.
      One of the questions the poll explored was, When you're allowed to use your strengths in your work, what percentage of time are you on task, as opposed to when you're given something to do that doesn't use your strengths? The numbers are significant. Respondents say that they're on task 73 percent of the time if they're working at what they're good at, and only 9 percent of the time when they're not using their strengths. To me, that becomes a clarion call to find out what people's strengths are and to give them the freedom to use those strengths.
      Another poll question asked what qualities people want in their leaders. People are always amazed at the response. It's not organizational skills. It's not knowledge. The first item is trust. The second item is compassion. And the next two are stability and hope. If you put these elements together, it suggests that what most of us want from leaders is to make way for us to reach our own potential—to develop our strengths and skills to the utmost in a positive environment. I think the exact same thing goes on in the heads of students. They're looking for the same environment in which to work.
      The problem is that a lot of our leadership training suggests other qualities as being more important. For instance, being "data-driven." Yes, data's important. But it's not where I would start if I were trying to transform a school, unless I was smart enough to enlarge the notion of data and say, "What are the data I'm going to look at?" Not the data that show people everything they're not good at, but the data that remind people what they are good at.
      The metaphors that have been used to define leaders have limited our ability to tap into the promise and potential that exist among our staff and students and community, to build a school community that is reflective and responsive to the potential that exists.
      How can school leaders strike a balance between strong leadership and collaborative leadership?
      YVETTE JACKSON: We believe that strong leadership is collaborative. If you recognize that leadership is about inspiring and guiding others and you feel competent in your ability to inspire others, you articulate belief in their commitment and ability. Staff responds positively to this vision, so you then feel confident in sharing the leadership to achieve that vision.
      As a leader, your strength comes from helping others find their strengths. It's like adding drops of rain to a pond. Every drop increases the volume of that pond. And every drop of strength that people bring to the school expands what the leader is capable of achieving.
      Teachers often don't even know what the other teachers in the school are good at. When school leaders identify the strengths of others, they give staff opportunities to take on different kinds of responsibilities. Do teachers have a talent for the arts, or a particular passion like photography or sports? Often they don't get a chance to share that, yet offering enrichment classes to students in those areas could be crucial.
      As the appointed leader, you have particular responsibilities for making sure the school is safe and is moving in the right direction. But by sharing that responsibility and looking for the gifts within your students, your staff, and the community, you will have the human capital to make your vision a reality.
      You also write that urban school leaders must choose whether to be fearful or fearless. Why would some educators choose to be fearful? What empowers some to be fearless?
      VERONICA MCDERMOTT: Many educators, particularly in recent years, are almost forced to live in fear as a result of the narrative around what's happening in their schools. You can walk into certain buildings and absolutely feel the fear. Because there's so much at stake, people feel that they're not in a position to speak out, even if they don't believe that the policies are good for students. They're put into a trap of powerlessness.
      If you are a young educator, whether an administrator or a teacher, and your entire future depends on policies and practices and tests that you have very little control over, that can be spirit-killing. Most people go into education because they believe they can contribute something positive to the lives of students and to society. And instead, they're put into a straitjacket and constantly being denigrated. They're constantly under pressure. We know what pressure and fear do to creativity, to the way the brain functions. They shut everything down.
      So what empowers some educators to be fearless? I think for many people, it starts from an inner moral compass they possess. They know something is wrong. They have this nagging sense that things are going awry. But oftentimes they need a catalyst to propel them to push back and say, "No, this is not good for kids. This is not good for learning. This is not the environment that I want to be part of. It's not the culture to which I want to contribute."
      Sometimes that catalyst is a conversation. Sometimes it comes from attending a conference. Sometimes it comes from an article. Sometimes it comes from a book. But it takes a concerted effort for people to recall what propelled them to go into this profession and then to have the courage to say, "We can do this a better way."
      It takes a strong sense of self. And it takes the capacity to say, "I can't do it alone. I need to have allies in the field. We need to work together to resolve the situation." Teachers can practice this kind of leadership in their own classrooms. Principals can do it in their buildings. We've worked with superintendents who've made this their vision for their entire school district. But it takes a lot of courage driven by a sense of fearlessness.
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