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More Than Just Good Teachers

August 24, 2011
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by Dorothy Siegel

A good teacher is the most important factor in a child’s academic learning”

Every time I hear this statement, my blood pressure goes up. I usually respond by saying that yes, a child’s teacher is very important. But teachers have a relatively small effect on children’s academic success when compared to the effect of out-of-school factors like economic insecurity, poor health care, unhealthy diet, homelessness and all the other ills of society. Educational “reforms” that ignore these factors are tarnished silver bullets, doomed to fail. Years of this type of wishful thinking has diverted Americans from having the undistorted, fact-based conversation we must have before educational outcomes can improve.

There are three sets of factors that predict a child’s academic success: the child’s teacher, peers and other aspects of the school environment; the human and financial resources expended on behalf of the child; and the out-of-school factors I summarized above. Ignoring the latter two, while blaming low-income families for their children’s poor educational outcomes, is not a winning strategy if we’re serious about producing better educated children. Low-income and minority children are – and always have been — the least likely to have the best teachers, adequate resources or the out-of-school support all children need to succeed. What’s more, children with disabilities from low-income, minority families are virtually guaranteed to not graduate from high school with a meaningful diploma; very often, they end up in the criminal justice system.

It seems that every industrialized country except America understands this inconvenient truth. Even Mayor Bloomberg seems to be catching on, albeit offering too little, too late. American education will continue to fail our low-income, minority and disabled children until we honestly confront the reasons for that failure and commit ourselves to providing EACH AND EVERY CHILD with the schools and supports they need.

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I believe a good urban public school system must have these four elements:

  1. Comprehensive neighborhood support systems: In low-income communities, all schools should be part of a “children’s zone,” similar to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), where children (and their families) are nurtured and supported from prenatal existence through college graduation. Mr. Canada eloquently argues that before he created HCZ, too many of Harlem’s children were not succeeding – educationally or in life. HCZ spends about $5,000 per student more than the average public school to begin to compensate for the tremendous disadvantages faced by low-income minority children. If Mr. Canada, a darling of the charter school movement, believes that significant additional spending is necessary for children in Harlem to have a shot at success, shouldn’t the similarly-situated children in East Harlem, Central Brooklyn, the South Bronx and other areas with concentrated poverty and its concomitant ills have a similar opportunity? How can Americans expect children living in low-income neighborhoods to succeed without the kind of additional support that so obviously is needed?
  2. The same education as the children in Great Neck: Armed with good prenatal care, eyeglasses if they need them, routine well-child care, basic dental care and good quality early childhood education, our children should attend a neighborhood school that would have developed the kind of expertise needed to successfully educate about 85-90% of the neighborhood’s children. How should that happen? NYC’s schools should provide the same kind of learning experiences enjoyed by the public school children in Great Neck – an affluent NYC suburb that spends close to $30,000 in taxpayer dollars every year on its children’s education to ensure excellent results. All schools should have small classes, a talented educator-principal, teachers with great training in content and pedagogy and ongoing mentoring and professional learning opportunities. All schools should provide a well-rounded curriculum with extensive exposure to the arts and to stimulating intellectual pursuits, similar to suburban school districts known for their great schools. What’s good for Great Neck’s children should also be good for NYC’s children! They deserve a good education, too, not one defined by test prep and a narrow curriculum. NYC’s children deserved to be prepared for a meaningful career, and not consigned by their education to tedious, unfulfilling work.
  3. “Nest” schools for our more challenging children: Children do not benefit from attending a school that does not have the wherewithal to meet their needs. I believe that about eight or ten percent of all children have such significant learning difficulties that most neighborhood schools are simply not up to the task. These children might have, for example, emotional problems, an intellectual disability, or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

However, most NYC neighborhoods do have at least a couple of well-run, instructionally effective public schools whose expertise and dedication are such that they can succeed with many of these children, if given the resources and support to do so. These top-tier schools should be asked, as an acknowledgement of their excellence, to become “nest” schools that specialize and develop expertise in one type of learning difficulty – e.g., intellectual disabilities, emotional issues or high functioning autism.i

Every neighborhood should have two or three nest schools, each specializing in meeting the needs of one specific group of children, thus enabling children with significant educational challenges to attend a good neighborhood school – not a failing school with available space on the fifth floor or the basement.1 Nest schools should, of course, receive the resources they need to succeed, such as pre-service graduate-level training, in-service professional development, on-site support, small class sizes and weekly team meetings to collaboratively study their students’ needs and determine what actions to take. No additional funding would be needed –relying on highly trained teachers who have the support and resources they need, rather than relying on “crisis” paraprofessionals, is a more cost-effective (and successful) approach.ii

  1. Programs for children with severe disabilities: The most severely impaired children, comprising roughly 2% of NYC’s school-age population are served by many dedicated individuals in New York City’s District 75. They work in a variety of settings — hospitals, private special education schools, small self-contained classes and part- or full-time inclusion settings. NYC must ensure that all children served by District 75 have the opportunity to develop academically as much as possible, and then be prepared for the transition to adulthood, ready to succeed in the world after school.

Until NYC decides to organize schooling around demonstrably successful educational models, the call for “quality education” will ring hollow, and our children’s education will continue to be controlled by wishful thinkers and charlatans, not educators or parents who truly know what’s best for our children.

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1 In a July 2, 2009 report requested by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Garth Harries, the Senior Coordinator for Special Education, wrote that “All schools should be prepared to serve the majority of students with disabilities, across most levels of functional characteristics.” [p.1] “However, in some instances there are benefits to concentrating expertise in educating functionally grouped cohorts of students. Development of targeted expertise can result in remarkable educational gains and is consistent with the statutory and regulatory emphasis on evidence-based instructional methods. The recently developed ASD NEST programs, which concentrate students of specific needs in integrated settings in target schools, are a successful recent example. Also, the presence of targeted and specialized instructional capacity can encourage parents to keep their students in the public system, when they might otherwise be tempted to pursue private settings through impartial hearings. The Department should encourage community schools to weave expertise for targeted groups of students with disabilities into their school-wide programming.” [p.16]

i The “nest” concept is based on the successful ASD Nest Program model — a collaborative co-teaching full inclusion program whose goal is to help higher functioning children on the autism spectrum succeed academically, behaviorally and socially in school and in the community. The name “nest” refers to the nurturing therapeutic environment created in these neighborhood schools for children who might otherwise be consigned to highly segregated environments in a distant “special ed” school.

ii Indeed, none of the approximately 500 children served by the ASD Nest program have crisis paraprofessionals assigned to them.

Dorothy Siegel is the Project Director of the ASD Nest Project of NYU Steinhardt. The Nest Project provides professional development and on-site support for the NYC Department of Education’s ASD Nest Program, an inclusion program for higher functioning children on the autism spectrum that serves approximately 500 children with autism in full inclusion classrooms in 23 schools across the city.

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