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Teaching Today Is Just Impossible -- Isn't It?

In its report "Dispelling the Myth Revisited," the Education Trust identified 4,500 high poverty and/or high minority public schools that are also top performing schools. How did those schools do it? They did it simply by accepting their inability to change society, by facing facts about the obstacles today's society places in their students' educational path, and by working to overcome those obstacles. Your school can do it too! Included: Discover the characteristics shared by the most effective schools.

"We can't fix our schools until we fix society." How many times have you heard that mantra recited in defense of our schools' increasing inability to educate so many of our poor and minority children? Do you believe it? I did.

As an educator, a parent, and an education writer, I've spent countless hours in countless schools; teaching, testing, tutoring, and simply observing. I discovered very quickly that there are essentially only two types of schools -- successful schools and unsuccessful schools. And, in the past few years, it's become easier and easier to tell the difference.

Successful schools are typically suburban; primarily attended by well-dressed, well-cared-for, well-prepared students with involved and motivated parents. Successful schools exude an aura of excitement and optimism, a sense of order and purpose. The buildings are bright and cheerful -- and everyone is smiling.

Unsuccessful schools seem to be predominantly urban or rural. Students are overwhelmingly poor, members of minority groups, or both. Their parents often are under-educated, under-employed, or unemployed; many are alone, exhausted, and uncertain about how they can contribute to their children's education. Unsuccessful schools exude an aura of resignation and defeat. Teachers are harried; students are disorganized and inattentive. Even the newest buildings feel dark and close -- and everyone appears afraid to smile.

In the most successful schools, parents expect their children to get a good education. In the others, parents hope their children are getting one.

As a former teacher of a certain age, I've watched in recent years as many of my friends and former colleagues, many of whom had taught for years in (primarily) urban schools, took early retirement. Each one lamented the societal changes that make teaching today "impossible." And I bought it. These were good teachers, experienced teachers, dedicated teachers. If they couldn't teach anymore, I knew something was very wrong. I assumed that the fault lay in our society and not in our schools.

There's some truth to that assumption, of course. More students than ever come to school from single parent homes, from neglectful and abusive homes, from non-English-speaking homes, from poor homes. More children than ever arrive lacking basic care, basic skills, or minimal parental expectations. Teaching -- anywhere -- is harder today. In many urban and rural schools, educating those students can often seem impossible. But is it?

In "Dispelling the Myth Revisited," the Education Trust identified 4,500 high poverty and/or high minority public schools that are also among the top performing schools in their states. These are some of the poorest schools in their states. They are also the best. The bad news is that we can't, in fact, "fix" society. The good news is that apparently we can fix our schools.

How? We can do it simply by accepting our inability to change society, by facing the facts about the obstacles today's society places in our students' educational path, and by working to overcome those obstacles.

We can do it by looking at the characteristics of successful schools and emulating them.

Effective schools have strong principals who demand the freedom and flexibility to hire and fire, to set curriculum and school policy. Effective principals provide instructional leadership. They support teachers' efforts to excel through training and mentoring. They find ways to help parents support their children's academic achievement but demand that students take responsibility for their own education -- regardless of the level of their parents' involvement.

Effective schools employ teachers who support and mentor one another. Effective teachers concentrate on academic achievement. They recognize that all students need to master a set of basic reading, math, and English-language skills. They teach those skills first, and they consistently measure their students' performance through standards-based testing.

Effective schools have a clearly defined mission, supported by specific measurable goals. That mission and those goals are communicated to staff, parents, and students, and everyone is expected to make a commitment to promote them.

Effective schools expect students to excel and maintain a culture of excellence.

Yes, it is harder to teach today. It is harder still to teach in schools with a preponderance of poor or minority students. Kids have changed. Parents have changed. Society has changed. Educators, however, cannot throw up their hands in defeat because they are no longer greeted each morning by students who are ready and eager to learn. Schools have to change too. Some already have.

We can't "fix" society, but maybe -- just maybe -- we can improve society by fixing our schools.