Our View                                                  Pages 14-15


School Reform With Good Ears 



At a recent meeting of a Colorado school turnaround task force, a high school student made this observation: “You are never going to fix these terrible schools without listening more to students and getting their buy-in.” The comment elicited token acknowledgment, with the committee quickly returning attention to “more important” recommendations for restructuring failing schools.

This episode illustrates what happens in schools every day, and why education reform needs to be turned on its ear. We are not listening to students deeply enough, and until that happens school reform measures will fall short. Why? Because gaining the commitment of students and spurring their intrinsic motivation are absolute necessities to overcoming the negative circumstances and attitudes found in chronically underperforming schools. As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Sure, educators, reformers and politicians claim to be listening, but a few minutes spent with students in frank conversation dispels that assumption and reveals a consistent refrain that goes like this: “Most teachers and adults have good intentions and want to help us; they just have no clue about what is going on in our lives and what makes us tick.” Students are even more wary of changes designed by “experts” far removed from their lives.

Most of the time when a failing school is closed or reconstituted, it is done with much consternation and news media coverage. Many adults are talking, arguing and protecting turf. Yet rarely does anyone ask the students, the ones who have the most at stake, “What do you think?” The failure to take this most basic step dooms many school improvement initiatives from the outset because the mind-set of the students remains unchanged.

Candid Sharing
The two of us have served in numerous capacities over the past 30 years, including superintendent, state commissioner of education, school board member, principal and teacher. We know from firsthand experience that school reforms will only succeed with a fundamental change in the way that adults perceive and treat students.

For starters, we need to encourage students to honestly share their feelings about life and school. John Wooden, the revered UCLA basketball coach, said leadership demands good ears, ones that are sensitive to the spoken message and the emotions behind it.

Successful school leaders heed this advice. They know the only way to surmount the barriers that keep students from engaging in school is to ask them to talk about themselves. Given that students are skeptical, this process is going to require more patience than generally found in most school reform agendas.

We recently had the chance to see how creating deep connections with students is a powerful reform strategy. Students in the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program at Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas, were asked to prepare before and after wall boards that depicted their lives and academic experiences. The wall boards were spellbinding and described incredible life journeys marked by hardship, struggles to immigrate, violence, homelessness and much more.

With just a few words and pictures, the students conveyed tremendous undercurrents of emotion that their teachers took to heart and absorbed. The resonance the activity created was uplifting and revealed a bond that led to remarkable academic progress. All of the students, with the help of the AVID program, were college bound with the skills necessary to succeed. That is what reform is supposed to accomplish within existing schools, well before it is necessary to consider closing one.

Detecting Insincerity
Programs like AVID work because students are hungry to be heard. Giving students authentic opportunities to express their deepest hopes and dreams ignites the intrinsic motivation that is vital to high performance in school and life. Genuine school improvement begins with listening instead of talking.

America’s young people are smart and very intuitive, with the ability to detect people and reforms that have their interests at heart versus ones that are focused on extraneous agendas. When we truly listen to students, we send the ultimate signal of respect in contemporary society and earn the credibility needed to more fully engage them in school. We understand how difficult it is for school leaders to find the time to regularly meet with students to hear what they have to say. Yet that is exactly what is needed.

There is a nationwide conversation about finding “Superman” to fix the flaws of public education. But Superman has been there all along — students staring at us from their desks waiting to be heard. All they want is school reform with good ears.

Monte Moses, a former National Superintendent of the Year, is an education consultant in Englewood, Colo. E-mail: monte.moses@yahoo.com. Jim Nelson, a former superintendent, is executive director of AVID, based in San Diego, Calif.



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