by Author Published in a Nationally Relevant Publication
It’s a bright and sunny (or cloudy or rainy or whatever) day as the first bell rings at Underprivileged School. Ms. Teacher’s class is starting their day, and there’s a lesson of some kind to be taught. At this point, an event occurs that would elicit some kind of expectation from the reader: either the teacher starts her class, causing us to expect all the students to sit quietly in rows, or maybe a student acts up, creating the expectation that he will be firmly rebuked and punished. Or, alternatively, we might expect the Ms. Teacher to ask her students to open their textbooks, or any of a countless number of things.
But then, the teacher does something unexpected.
In this paragraph, we learn about how tough things are at Underprivileged School. We learn that most of the students are on free or reduced lunch, and that a lot of them come to school behind grade level. We learn that the school itself has struggled to meet tough state standards, and that its test scores (until recently) were always abysmal. We meet Ms. Principal of Underprivileged School, who has been working at this school for x years and struggled with these problems the old-fashioned way, but nothing she tried was working.
And that’s why she knew something needed to change. Luckily, she had heard about an Earth-Shattering Idea.
This is the paragraph where we meet Mr. Educational Researcher. He is introduced as having some sort of quirk that vaguely reminds you that he’s an academic, and maybe behaves like one of your favorite professors in college. Perhaps he has an unkempt mop of gray curls that he keeps brushing out of his eyes. Or maybe he has a penchant for wearing tweed blazers in 90 degree heat. Or perhaps he speaks rapidly, changing subjects every two sentences, leaving the reporter gasping to keep up. Once the reader finds him sufficiently humanized, these descriptions can end.
Here we learn that Mr. Educational Researcher has come up with an Earth-Shattering Idea. The Earth-Shattering Idea occurred to Mr. Educational Researcher while he was conducting his research–mostly small-sample studies involving mostly white undergraduates who filled out surveys or completed puzzles in a lab somewhere. Whenever Mr. Educational Researcher discusses his Earth-Shattering Idea with his peers, he’s very careful to include words like “may imply” and “our results are suggestive.” If you read the “Results” section of his published papers, you’re likely to find lots of stuff about p-values and the like. Luckily we’re spared all of that.
In this paragraph, we’re given a cartoon version of Mr. Educational Researcher’s Earth-Shattering Idea. One that paints his results with the broadest possible brush, leaving out any discussion of context or shades of gray about his conclusions. If there is any controversy amongst his peers about the validity of his conclusions–whether it’s concern within peer reviewed journals about how he calculated his results, or how he gathered his sample, or problems replicating his results in experimental settings–it is ignored in this description. If there are any concerns at all that Earth-Shattering Idea will scale successfully in a school system as diverse and locally-controlled as schools are in the United States, those definitely aren’t mentioned. Instead, his results and conclusions are treated as though they are gospel truth, infallible in every way, and are going to Change Everything We Thought We Knew About Education.
At this point in the article, we go to Opposite School, a school that is as different from Underprivileged School as it is possible to be. Opposite School is either in an affluent, mostly white suburb, or is an elite private school. As far as this article is concerned, these are the same things. At Opposite School, we meet Mr. Principal of Affluent School, who is confronting the problems at his school using Earth-Shattering Idea.
We follow Mr. Principal of Affluent School as he goes about his business in his school, radiating an air of quiet confidence as he greets his students by their first name and asks them about things that are important to them. “How was the game last night, Bobby?” Or, “Hope that recital went well, Jane!” But never: “Is this Marijuana in your locker, Mr. Jones?”
We learn that Mr. Principal of Affluent School is working hard to implement Earth-Shattering Idea school wide. He leads regular Professional Development Meetings with his staff at which they discuss Earth-Shattering Idea, with teachers sharing their experiences. Some of them are experimenting with using Earth-Shattering Idea in one way, while some are experimenting with a different way. They all report their results and share what works and what doesn’t.
Back at Underprivileged School, we find that teachers are also implementing Earth-Shattering Idea with unmitigated success. Test scores that once were falling are now on the rise; attendance and behavior problems have also improved. There are real hopes that Earth-Shattering Idea might make a real difference for schools like Underprivileged School that are trying desperately to improve in the face ever-rising accountability standards with ever-harsher penalties for failure to comply.
At this point there might be a quote from Mr. Educational Researcher about something or other. We might also learn that Mr. Principal of Affluent School is friends with Ms. Principal of Underprivileged School, and that they do something charming together on a regular basis like meet for lunch, or play bridge. The fact that they are friends helps us feel like their two schools really are part of the same system working towards common goals, and helps alleviate our anxieties that education might be another example of the separate-but-economically-unequal society we live in.
Things that certainly aren’t mentioned at this point in the article: the number of teachers who quit teaching every year because the workloads are too intense and the pay too low; the school-to-prison pipeline; the fact that public schools’ funding model means that the poorest students also attend the poorest schools, thereby guaranteeing that class differences persist for yet another generation; the fact that no teaching methods have been tested in large numbers in actual schools with actual students; and so on, and so on. These things are probably ignored because they are thorny problems without easy solutions–if they have solutions at all.
At this point in the article, the author might give some nod to the uncertainty surrounding Earth-Shattering Idea. They might say that it’s still an experimental idea, and no one knows if it’s actually going to work–even though the rest of the article is devoted to explaining how it’s pretty much guaranteed to work 100% of the time. But then the author might mention how our schools are failing, and we have to try something. That’s why it’s so good to know that, somewhere, somebody is daring to innovate.
And then there’s a snappy conclusion that ties it all together.
Author of this article is an Education and Public Policy Reporter for Nationally Relevant Publication. She spends most of her time talking to politicians and businesspeople, with the rest of it spent talking to researchers. She doesn’t get to go into classrooms nearly as often as she’d like.