“It’s a good school, of course, but…”

Ira David Socol
Jun 26, 2016 · 8 min read

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“They’re good schools, I know, it’s just…” and the speaker trailed off. And I’ve heard that so often.

The problem is that when we say, “it’s a good school,” 95% of the time we mean — allow me to be blunt — ”it’s a school filled with white upper middle class or better kids.” That’s good, right? It means the kids come to school trained to be ready for mass instruction. It means homework gets done with parent help (or more). It means the pain and “distractions” of poverty don’t interfere with the school day. It means there’s plenty of money for extras like field trips. Most of all it means the kids will do fine on standardized tests, and will get into universities that will increase the status of their parents.

But… this time when I heard this I thought of Stephanie Passman — one of the brilliant teachers I am lucky enough to work with. Stephanie and I were up in Washington a couple of weeks ago, working with deans and professors of education from universities across America on the question of, “How do we prepare pre-service teachers for the schools we need?

^ You can find our presentation here

It was a great day of conversations, but at one point one professor said, “but I have colleagues who are doing things the old way, and they are great teachers, they are doing a great job.” And Stephanie looked at him and said, “If you think they’re doing a great job you are measuring the wrong things.

And that becomes my response now. “What are you measuring?”

After all, what Stephanie meant was an absolute: while an ‘old school’ professor might be ok in British Lit and serviceable in History, he or she is an embarrassing failure in a school/college of education where the modeling must be about the future.

And if your school is “good” because it doesn’t undo the born-in advantages of its students, it is not “good” at all, but simply a fairly efficient day care operation.

Allow me to step back for a moment — I said above that we meant rich white schools 95% of the time, but let’s look at the other 5%. In those cases we mean ‘compliance academies’ — African-American and Latino kids marching in straight lines wearing uniforms and being routinely humiliated for any violation of whiteness expectations. Whether KIPP or Success Academies or the all-minority school in your neighborhood, these are the contemporary equivalent of British colonial schools or American Indian Schools. They are “good” because they are more under control than the terrible public schools most big cities offer their poor, and because whites imagine that Black boys taught to march in step will be less of a threat on the street.

And if that is “good” we are very much the miserable racists we seem to be.

So, if our definition of “good schools” is painfully illusory, what might we measure to find “good”?

A Few Metrics

Is choice expected? More than a few times visitors to our Albemarle County high schools ask, “so kids are allowed to eat anywhere?” To which I tend to always reply, “of course.” When that conversation extends the objections people bring up tend to sound — to me — as if they think their school is filled with especially sloppy animals. Which is weird, except that kids will always drop to the level of your expectations.

I toured a new high school in Washington, DC once where the teachers had pulled all the new comfortable furniture from student spaces and hidden it in faculty offices — ”the kids,” an Assistant Principal assured us, “don’t know how to use this furniture.” “They don’t know how to use chairs and couches?” I asked. He ignored my question.

To me choice equals trust. And I have never seen a school where kids were really learning anything that didn’t involve a hell of a lot of mutual trust between kids and adults.

I ‘measure’ a few things. How many kids are in the hallways during class time? is one. Kids in the hallways means that kids are trusted — are trusted to be on their own, are trusted to go where they need to go — whether that’s the library, our mechatronics labs, or wherever. Are kids in classrooms sitting or standing in lots of different ways? Really, very few kids are comfortable in classroom chairs, and when kids are uncomfortable they’re focused only on discomfort. We made a rule a few years ago that we’d never buy less than three kinds of seating and worksurfaces for any learning space, but even where we’ve managed to refurnish, kids need to learn to create their best environment. If you don’t let kids choose how, where, or if to sit you are failing to help them prepare for life, and it is not “good.”

Choice in technologies? Are kids using phones? Do they get to really control the one-to-one devices you give them? (Download, add software, change the interface) Are kids in a class using different software or web tools/sites to work? “These are personal learning devices,” my boss Vince Scheivert is fond of saying, “if they can’t personalize them, they aren’t that.”

It is essential — in this century — that kids learn to use the tools of their lifespans, and your kids are going to live their lives in the mid to late 21st Century. Whine all you want about the good ol’ days on your own time, but if you are working in education you must be modeling, you must be helping children learn to live well by making good technological choices. They cannot do that, your school is not “good,” if you ban, lock down, and tightly direct technology use.

A library with a lot of noise, collaboration, tools. About seven years ago I heard it said that, “in this century a library had to become the community kitchen, and stop being a supermarket.” Around that time I stumbled into that Fifth Avenue, New York Apple Store at 2.00 am and came to the conclusion that this century’s libraries needed to be community centers for contagious creativity. The point being that the world needed very few libraries with massive collections, after all Google was already scanning the entirety of the University of Michigan, Harvard, and New York Public Library, creating the incredible database of the world’s words. For ten years already schools I worked in had been using Fordham University’s Ancient History Sourcebook to connect kids to history. We needed our libraries to have tools kids wouldn’t find at home or in classrooms. We needed space for kids to gather, to process information together, to make things, to create.

Our libraries have tools, 3D printers, music construction studios, zones for writing, microcomputers, one has a laser cutter. They are the active academic core of our schools, crowded and noisy and full of invention — though yes, we create quieter zones as well, and rooms for teams to work in.

If your library is not a place that works for today, your school has a problem.

The Corridor Climate supports all kids. I often tell the story of working in two neighboring high schools. One was small (about 300 kids), and was always near the top of the state in test results. The other was large (2,700), far more diverse, with many more “challenges.”

The small school was a brutal place, with constant bullying by kids and teachers. The big school felt very safe for most everyone.

The big one created safety many ways, but it began in the corridors which were carpeted for sound control, had very wide stairways and doorways to eliminate passing time crush points, and had teachers standing outside every classroom doorway during passing times, constantly interacting with kids. The small school had none of that. The big school also gave kids 10 minutes between classes, a long enough time that the typical pressure we see disappeared.

Time, sound control, relationships in action. Those are things you can do. Here’s a test, if SpEd kids sometimes need to leave classes early in order to change classes safely, your school is, by definition, unsafe. And kids made unsafe in your corridors will do badly. In life if not academically.

Remember, ending bullying is all about adult behaviors. Kids imitate adults.

Kids are taking risks, teachers are taking risks. Risk is how we grow. Risk is the essential modus operandi of both childhood and adolescence. If I walk a school and I don’t see kids taking risks, in class, in the library, on the playground, in the halls, I know we have a school that is fighting that essential mode. And that can’t be a good school. But kids won’t take risks unless teachers and administrators are daily risk takers. The teacher who repeats last year’s lesson almost exactly is a problem that needs to be addressed. The teacher whose classroom always looks the same is a problem. And the administrators who don’t encourage and demonstrate risk taking are a problem.

When schools squelch risktaking they stop being educational institutions and become, simply, institutions.

Now, go back over the past year. How does your school do when you change your measuring sticks? “Good” cannot be about either socioeconomics or compliance. “Good” has to be about kids growing, about every kid being ok, about every kid learning the tools and environments they will live in.

In the end, you know. A really good school doesn’t end with a “but…” or a “just…” or a wish that kids would all come even if they didn’t have to.

  • Ira Socol

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Ira David Socol

Written by

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

The Synapse

Authentic voices in education. To join us, tweet @synapsepub.

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