Standards Opinion

Schools ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’

By Guest Blogger — February 13, 2014 5 min read
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Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst replies to Deborah Meier today.

Hi Deb,

I found much to agree with in your most recent post, especially your desire for all children to be “in schools that their parents feel comfortable in themselves” (more on that in a moment). Pretty good schools might not be ideal, but they’re more than enough if the alternative is pretty bad schools.

I also accept what you described as the “the existence of constraints.” We educate other people’s children on the public’s dime inside government-owned buildings. But that is another argument in favor of “pretty good schools.” I know this may rub many readers of Bridging Differences the wrong way, but the vast majority of teachers are public employees. We’re not free agents, radicals, or revolutionaries. Of course, there are constraints!

Perhaps this is why I’m predisposed toward common standards, a shared curriculum, and why I find nothing intolerable about the idea that there should be some generally accepted principles and practices that guide instruction. I’m not suggesting being a teacher should be like working at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but I don’t see anything horrifying about the idea that there should be at least some baseline level of comfort and familiarity about what to expect when you walk into a public building called a school.

I’ve been thinking a lot since we started our exchange, Deb, about schools as public institutions. For most of our children, the first and most important relationship they have with a civic institution is with their school. As that relationship goes, so goes the lifetime of active, engaged citizenship that we both prize. The correlation between a person’s level of educational attainment and voter participation, volunteering, and other forms of civic engagement is as strong as any you’re likely to find.

If we want schools to be engines of democracy, if we want citizenship to be the third “c” alongside college and career readiness, then that formative relationship needs to be rich, rewarding, and fruitful. If it’s dysfunctional, coercive, or failed, if it norms and validates indifference, we risk setting children on a path not just for educational failure, but for civic disengagement.

I often argue that those who are concerned about the disenfranchisement of the poor or people of color should consider focusing more attention on it at its source. It starts in our schools. It can end there, too. That’s another measure of a pretty good school: It introduces our children to civic life, builds a bond to civil society, and invests them fully in participation in it.

Here’s a confession (maybe it’s a concession). Even though I’m a curriculum guy, even though I prize the craftwork of good teachers, I would argue that the most important thing for educators to get right is school tone and culture. You bridled at my point that a pretty good school is one that keeps kids in school until they graduate. No, Deb, it is not my desire to “lock kids up until they are 18.” I want schools that keep kids engaged, motivated, and attached of their own free will. That probably has more to do with school culture than curriculum and instruction. (It’s not an either/or proposition obviously.)

We might recognize that a fancy restaurant with a well-trained and talented chef can prepare a world-class meal, but we tend go back again and again to the neighborhood joint where everybody knows your name. Is it not so? Feeling part of a warm, welcoming community may be insufficient, but it’s necessary. The “no excuses” charter schools have done a good job on student persistence, but we have a lot of work to do in ensuring that kids are persisting because they see clearly what’s in it for them.

If we can’t create schools that kids want to attend every day, schools they are proud to associate with, and where they feel valued, something’s missing. I left school tone off my “Pretty Good Schools” list because it’s so hard to define and direct, but it’s something I’m nearly obsessed with. It defines the civic mission of our work. I’ve previously described teachers as “guides to the universe.” I’m interested, Deb, in your thoughts about the role of individual teachers as guides to civil society. As public servants, do you believe we have an obligation to “sell” kids on citizenship and civic participation as clearly as some of us sell, for example, college attendance?

As I write to you there’s a David Brooks column in The New York Times on the “American Precariat,” which he defines as “the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.”

Our American Precariat “seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family, but without faith in American possibilities. [my italics] This fatalism is historically uncharacteristic of America,” he writes.

Brooks cites a lot of evidence to suggest this is so. It troubles me, Deb. While I don’t believe schools created this fatalism, I fear we are not honoring our obligation to address it by offering a counter-narrative. We are not fully investing our children in their communities and their country. We may not even see it as our role.

The Brooks column noted that our young people “are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.” This says a lot of things, Deb. And none of them good.

If I were starting my “pretty good school” from scratch, I’d start interviewing teachers with one question: Tell me how education has been a means to a valuable end in your life. I want smart, conscientious, and committed men and women who can embody “faith in American possibilities,” not as an abstract principle, but as a lived, practical reality. If you can’t point to how education has been important in your own life’s outcome, why would you expect students to value it in theirs?


Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.