Ironed Shirts or Gang Signs: We Must Create Safe Communities That Care Before We Can Create Effective Classrooms

The fourteen year old and his mother saw their former principal, the student raced up to him, “See my shirt is ironed and tucked into my pants, you taught me and I check every day.” His mother smiled, “Thank you; he learned how to be a real student.”

The New York City Department of Education collects gigabytes of data. Data about kids and teachers: standardized and regents test scores, interim assessments, teacher-driven in-school assessments, demographic data, teacher experience, teacher education, and, has the ability to manipulate the data in endless formulas.

Does the ability to analyze data make for more effective schools? Maybe.

We know which schools are “A” schools and which schools are “well-developed” and which schools are both “A” and “well-developed.”

What we don’t know is why?

We can jump to conclusions, with some validity; the double high achieving schools are schools with middle class kids and lower numbers of Special Education and English Language Learners.

To some extent that is true: the number of schools in Bayside (District 26) with “A” grades far outnumber the schools with “A” grades in East New York (District 19). One is a district of lovely homes on tree-lined streets and the other the mean streets of East New York, a district with high numbers of children living in shelters, the police precinct which leads the city in handgun violence and high levels of foreclosures. One has senior, experienced teachers, the other newer teachers with high teacher turnover.

Bucking the trend are schools that according to their demographics should be struggling, however, they are receiving “A and “well-developed” grades.


Why are some schools succeeding in spite of the odds?

The cynics among us, and there is much to be cynical about, scream: they must have cheated!

In some cases the accusations of cheating have proven to be correct.

Is it possible that they have not cheated and they have found a “formula” that leads to success?

Are schools managing data better, or, pursuing instructional practices that are producing better scores and passing rates or creating cultures of learning, or, do they have charismatic leaders who understand kids and the community?

Some failing schools spend enormous amounts of time preparing for tests without results.

It would be nice if schools are adopting instructional strategies that are resonating on standardized tests, and, that might be the case in some successful schools.

Maybe some networks are providing both managerial and instructional supports that lead to more effective instruction. Again, it would be nice.

We don’t know.

Strangely while the department is preparing one PowerPoint after another, one initiative after another, training the network leaders and teams; they have not attempted to answer the core question: why are some schools/networks working while others aren’t?

The twenty-four turnaround schools have been “collected” into one network, the partner support organizations continue to do what they have been doing since the beginning of the year – has classroom instructional practice improved? Would the school/network leadership even know it if it did?

I asked a high ranking young man at Tweed the same question, “To be perfectly honest, we don’t know.”

Recent brain research explains a great deal to us about how the adolescent brain functions and we can adapt our teaching strategies,

” … inquiry or problem-based learning (Kwon & Lawson, 2000; Montgomery & Whiting, 2000), which teachers can use by encouraging students to ask questions that interest them after initially engaging in the problem of the unit. Using essential questions to frame the unit, incorporating the senses and emotions to focus the learning, and then facilitating students in finding multiple ways to solve problems can focus adolescent learning while building complex neuron connections within the brain.”

If we know how adolescent minds learn why aren’t we adapting instruction to the research?

Teachers are afraid to lose control, worried that a problem-solving approach, facilitating in lieu of lecturing or asking low Depth of Knowledge questions allows them to control the discipline. School leaders who “order” them to adopt other strategies are resisted.

What the Mayor and Tweed fail to realize is successful strategies do not begin at the classroom door, they begin at the school building door and beyond.

The essential question: when the kid gets up in the morning is he going to iron his shirt and tuck it into his pants or decide how to display his “flag.” (Gang Sign)?

Schools are both communities and part of a larger community. Effective school leaders create a culture in which kids feel safe and respected and teachers are willing to experiment, willing to try new approaches, willing to take risks to become better teachers.

Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors:”Kasserian Ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “And how are the children?”

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place.


3 responses to “Ironed Shirts or Gang Signs: We Must Create Safe Communities That Care Before We Can Create Effective Classrooms

  1. Sue Ruskin-Mayher

    Let’s not forget that not only do students need to feel safe, but teachers need that safety too. That is why we had tenure to begin with. In a climate in which there are witch hunts against teachers, and heads, Inquisition style, are publicly displayed, who has the courage to take risks and do it differently? If we are to truly honor the learning community, change has to take place at all levels, this takes vision, time, and sentiment to change. We might better ask how to bring this about, then to, once again, blame the problems in education on teachers.


  2. “I don’t know why” is simply NOT an acceptable answer from the educrats at Tweed. They are helping to make policies to shape the education of more than 1.1 miliion students. If you don’t know why, take 6 months and learn why, then factor this knowledge into educational policy/decison making. The alternative as a management team is a loss of credibility, and, in the meantime, doing a startling disservice some of those 1.1 million students.


  3. Retired- No longer Public Enemy Number One.

    Sue and Andy share great concern for the success of the students, but both utterly fail to appreciate the depths to which the malevolent tyrants of Tweed have fallen. Tweed’s three apparent purposes include spending vast sums of money for consultants, waging battles for policy change through the media instead of by working with teachers in classrooms, and accelerating the demise of public education in favor of the phony for-profit “academies.”

    Pleasse look at the “big picture.” Recent comments in the NY Times regarding parental efforts to bolster some public schools through PTA contributions are caustic and dismissive. Why? Has everyone lost sight of the importance of the children? Does anyone still care how well children learn besides scapegoated teachers, terrified about the test score results? Is that all there is to our future?

    Clues to what has happened are hiding in plain sight. While the hedge fund gorgons greedily suck the life out of public schools, our last hope as the “great equalizers,” the wicked fools of Tweed help gladly hold the gorgons’ straws to make sure that the suckers get every last drop of goodness!

    Until parents sincerely take responsibility for the success of their children and publicly insist that those at Tweed make at least symbolic efforts to recognize the teaching staff as possibly having some wisdom with respect to what needs to happen in the classrooms, no progress will ever be made.

    So long as the “average man in the street” resents those parents who go the “extra mile” while condoning “other” parents who take no responsibility in promoting education as a priority for their own children, nothing will help our children and nothing will overcome the Mayor’s and Tweed’s deep disdain for their teachers.

    In this brave new world, the kids always lose. What a crime!


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