CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
College and Career Ready Is Not Enough
“College and career ready” is the clarion call of today’s education policymakers. We cite the Common Core State Standards as requiring a greater emphasis on higher order thinking skills for every student, and employers pleading for graduates who are resourceful problem solvers and collaborators.
Yet, there is something that is missing – the higher purpose for public education, that of preparing all of our students to become active, contributing citizens in creating a just and equitable world.
Horace Mann, often considered the father of modern public education, offered a powerful rejoinder of what is missing from today’s discourse about public education: “Every addition to true knowledge is an addition to human power.”
Or, as freedom movements have so often called from time immemorial: “Knowledge is power.”
Knowledge enables those who have historically been denied power to have their voices heard and thus reshape public discourse and policy in new ways. It is no wonder that plantation owners did not want slaves to become literate or that Native American children were often forcibly carted off to boarding schools to be acculturated to a white culture, not their own. Those in power knew that enabling those without power to gain knowledge of their own culture, language, and identity would give those people the will, strength, and tools to successfully challenge the societal power structure, from which they benefited greatly. We have many examples throughout history, in this country and others – e.g., U.S.’s Civil Rights era, South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement – in which gaining knowledge has translated to empowerment, organizing, and action against historical structural inequities.
Rather than embracing the maxim of knowledge is power, in too many of today’s schools students who are historically underserved continue to be denied educational opportunities that are afforded to the dominant culture. Students who are Black, Latino, and English language learners are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and placed into substantially separate special education programs and lower academic tracks at significantly higher rates than their white and Asian, middle class peers. These institutional practices and policies communicate a clear message that certain student groups are not as valued as others, and play a powerful role in student achievement and future aspirations.
What does it mean to design and redesign our schools in ways that break down historical class, culture, race, and language barriers so as to ensure that all students have equitable education opportunities and the needed support to be successful? What would happen if all of our students who are low-income, Black, Latino, and English language learner graduated knowing how to think, problem solve, create, communicate, reason, analyze, and evaluate? My guess is that more of our racially and socioeconomically stratified societal institutions and processes would come into question in ways that are uncomfortable to those who currently hold power.
Horace Mann also stated, “Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.”
What does it look like to graduate students with high moral principles, compassion, generosity, and a sense of social activism to make the world a more equitable, humane place for all to live? To do so will take immersing students in the formal and informal “curriculum” of the world. Students need ongoing opportunities to engage in discourse and debate, to ponder and sift through differing viewpoints, to back up their convictions with evidence on the issues of our time – global warming, police killings of Black and Latino youth, the rising anti-immigration movement, wars on most every continent, to name a few. Most of all, students need opportunities to take action in meaningful ways that make a difference in the world around them.
Teachers and administrators who prioritize the empowerment of their students create rigorous, engaging, project-based curriculum that is relevant beyond the classroom. At Fenway High School in Boston, an in-district Pilot school with freedom over curriculum and assessment, the curriculum often embraces critical pedagogy, or examining problems within social contexts and power structures, taking constructive action, and reflecting. Students engage in a unit on media literacy, extrapolating dominant narratives and creating counter-narratives. In a humanities course, students read and analyzed Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and then engaged in individual and group projects to take action of students’ choice, such as writing letters to police departments encouraging the use of body cameras by officers. At the elementary level, third grade students at Boston’s Young Achievers Math & Science Pilot School engage in a study of the widening circles of self, family, and neighborhood, and write and illustrate books about themselves and their communities. Developing strong identity and voice, which lead to power, characterize all of these examples.
In the end, it is only when we graduate all of our students with a profound sense of commitment to equity, social justice, and taking action in ways that better the world that we will be attaining Horace Mann’s vision of public education. And I daresay that these students will be college and career ready to boot.