Stop the Bus!

BANG! A student kicks my office door as they pass by in the hall. Why? I wonder after my startled response dissipates. I imagine him answering, “I hate this school.”

I understand. It’s dreary and needs fixing up. Some teachers yell. There are lots of rules and consequences. It probably feels like a prison. It may be better than being home but I can imagine him saying, “at least I get to do what I want at home.”

I was honored to be invited by Nathaniel A. Turner, self-published author of Raising Supaman (2014), to write a foreword to his new book, Stop the Bus: Education Reform in 31 Days (2016). The following is an excerpt of my contribution to this important work.

A middle school teacher told me that it is a long, hard battle to produce a “light bulb” or “a-ha” moment in his students. He said that most of his students come to school to be with their friends but don’t see value in the academics. Our education model is set up to challenge their abilities and most kids don’t appreciate the challenge, mainly because they don’t see where it’s leading. There isn’t anything pulling them forward. Some live in war zones in their neighborhoods. Some live in war zones in their homes. Some are raising younger siblings while their parents work two or three jobs to keep the lights on.

Where do those students get a chance to be a child, to have fun, to be silly, and to run around? Where can they learn to play and learn to dream?

I share Nate Turner’s passion for transforming how we are raising and educating kids. He’s an advocate for all children. This is the road on which we met. We both trained hard to be good dads and to raise our kids better than we were raised. By the time our children entered their teens, we both looked around and understood that raising our own kids is necessary but not adequate. As paying members of society, our responsibility extends beyond our own offspring.

I am honored to fight alongside Nate. He is a fierce advocate for the truth and doing what’s right. I share his passion for the future. We both stay up late worrying about ways to raise the bar for parents and schools, training grounds for the leaders of the future. One of Nate’s greatest features is his ability to challenge the status quo with a smile and unclenched fists. He channels his anger into action and research. In his prior book “Raising Supaman” and his “G.P.S. (Great Parenting Strategy)” program for parents, Nate has employed the concepts of backwards design and reverse engineering to help parents develop their own “life template” to raise their children to reach their full potential.

I have worked in urban schools for over 15 years as a school psychologist. I see the damage that we are doing, with the best of intentions, by following the same course of action over and over again. Teachers, administrators, psychologists, and counselors all fight to keep kids on track for academic targets and graduation. We miss many opportunities every day to help students find a purpose and explore their strengths. My schools are segregated by race and class. Most of the students in my schools are African-American and come from poor families. I have a front-row seat to witness the harm that is caused by the educational re-segregation of poor kids of color.

The parents who have the time and energy to advocate for their children’s future pluck them out of the “broken” public school and enroll them in the “high performing” charter school down the street. The education is still free, because charter schools are funded with public dollars, but parents often have to work hard to get their child enrolled and keep them enrolled, equipping them with school uniforms and meeting the charter school’s expectations for performance.

My public school is an island in a sea of charter schools. Like Indianapolis and many urban U.S. centers, the answer to failing schools has been a privatization effort via charter schools, entrepreneurship on the public dime. They call charter schools “high performing” but research is not showing the benefit. As well conceived as a charter school may be, most are just the brighter, shinier, better-staffed version of the same old school model. They continue to sort students using passing and failing grades, placing the blame for failure in children’s brains by diagnosing learning disabilities and attention deficits. They still extinguish negative behavior and reward positive behavior, a proven method for training circus animals. We have been sorting kids into educational have’s and have-not’s for over 200 years.

Originally, the Industrial Age rewarded this educational model by providing high-paying, low-skill jobs in manufacturing centers like Philadelphia. One reason that I am a school psychologist is that my three-generation family manufacturing business in the northern industrial area of the city had to close, bowing to pressures for cheap imports. Manufacturing jobs are no longer available for graduates of a mediocre school system. The Industrial Age is over and the world is entering the Knowledge Age. Kids need 21st century skills because the Knowledge Age is hiring innovators, creators, collaborators, and communicators.

There are a million “school reform” efforts that fail to think outside the box. The biggest point that they are missing is the student in the center. There is too much talking and not enough listening. Education needs a fresh look. Education needs transformation.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia and Indianapolis and all over the country, while their neighbors go to charter schools, the children who continue to attend urban public schools often struggle academically, behaviorally, and require more support than the average student. They are angry, they have significant learning challenges, they need mental health treatment, and they see a bleak future. In addition, many come from families with significant challenges. Their parents are the working poor and they themselves struggle to provide the upbringing that their children require. They need help. But the surviving public schools are ill-equipped to respond to their needs, understaffed and lacking in financial resources.

This situation is untenable. It cannot last. I share the urgency reflected in this collection of letters. I feel fortunate to find a fellow agent-of-change who understands the importance of knowing where things stand before we can move forward. You can’t change the future unless you know where you are starting from. Nate Turner is more than a futurist. He is a practical futurist. It would be easy to rail against the inequity in the world but Nate is a schemer. He has some grand plans about where we can go once we stop the bus. But first we must stop the bus.

Robert Zeitlin (@DrRobertZeitlin) has dedicated the last 20 years, working in schools, with parents in his community, and through his private practice, to raise the bar for parents. He recently wrote “Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids” and has contributed articles to the Good Men Project, Huffington Post, and Medium publications Safe Kids Stories and It’s Your Turn. With his wife Betsy, Robert has raised two amazing teens who are busy kicking ass and taking names.