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Education Nation – “Job One” Panel Reviewed

May 27, 2011

Lisa Alva[edit – see end of post]

NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Town Hall webcast has been the subject of some recent posts here at InterACT.  On Thursday, May 19, when NBC convened a panel of business and community leaders under the banner “Job One” – described on their website as a discussion about “the needs of a 21st Century workforce and how best prepare our students for the jobs of the future.”  I’ll grant that business leaders are qualified to describe the needs of a 21st century workforce.  I wouldn’t agree that preparing workers is Job One, nor would I raise my hopes too high that these non-teachers are particularly insightful about how to prepare students.  I’m interested in knowing what my students’ needs will be, but it’s my job to understand how to prepare them.  So, here we go again – Education Nation talking about education and children from a non-educator, non-student, non-parent point of view.  The nearest exception was LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, whose recent ascendancy to that job was accompanied by the establishment of some lofty goals unwisely presented in numeric form.  But enough introduction.  Here’s what Lisa Alva thought – she was there.  (DBC)

The Job One Panel that convened in Beverly Hills last Thursday night as part of  NBC’s  Education Nation event provided insight from leaders in business and education, however, the discussion only touched on the low-income children of color who represent fully one-half of the achievement gap that is rendering our country uncompetitive.  Although the gaps between our country and others, and the gaps between the states themselves are important, race and income are critical to the entire conversation.  Failing to include these factors encourages educators to fear or demonize the “corporatization” of public education, alienates those who sincerely collaborate with each other to transform students’ lives, and deepens the schisms between races, incomes and educational levels in our country.

The panelists discussed “better teaching,” the lack of skilled labor, the middle-class’ losses in achievement and its unwillingness to participate in taxation. The majority of under-achieving students were left out by statements that revealed where the attention goes: Brian Williams reflected on how students are asked to put away laptops, ipads, iphones and ipods to sit in rows and attend to lectures; banker Maria Contreras-Sweet stated that employers, while engaging in developing solutions, “should issue the specs” that determine quality graduates and, most revealing, Michael Milken passionately argued that American parents and public have “no will” to invest in education, that Americans spend 17 times more on their homes than supplementing their children’s education and we occupy nine times more house-space than the Koreans, who are outpacing America in educational achievement.  The panel agreed as a body that we are inferior, educationally, to all of the homogeneous populations of Asia. The dedication of these leaders and philanthropists is appreciable, but the logical fallacy of these arguments is glaringly apparent to anyone who works with urban students in a standard public school.  According to John Deasy, this is 90 percent of the student population in Los Angeles.

Audience member Jaime Pacheco-Orozco, who is a job developer in Los Angeles and whose children attend school in Alhambra, noted that while the Academic Performance Index (API) of a school can make it seem that a school is “a good school,” there does remain a “differential in how kids interact and how they are treated,” and that both teacher and school must demonstrate belief in students. Pacheco-Orozco makes us think again about what the achievement gap actually looks like, even in “high-performing” schools.  He brought new light to what panelist Byron Auguste, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, implied in his opening comments; the majority of the underperformers are poor, urban, minority students. Teachers in our urban public schools know that while some students are intrinsically motivated or have families who push them, far more are disenfranchised for a myriad of reasons.  Not treating students (and teachers) as individuals only adds to the problem.

When Eli Broad cited the findings of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” he addressed the mainstream represented in the room – the conversation only peripherally addressed the fact that the mainstream approach is not relevant to the majority of students who do not connect their daily decisions to their own prosperous future, nor that of their country, and least of all to the prosperity of those who would have them “meet specs.”  A teacher’s and a school’s belief in students, if systemic and sincere, can create a belief in self that will translate to belief in education and its positive results, but the approach must be overtly tailored to its young audience.  Furthermore, the needs and motivations of the lowest- performing require extra attention.  Teachers and administrators at one very urban Los Angeles high school this week dealt with the fact that not one incoming middle school student who had earned straight A’s in 8th grade elected to attend this “home” school – they were attending private, magnet, charter or school choice schools instead.  Clearly, motivated students exist in the inner cities and may be served by the efforts of those on the Job One panel, but schools that cannot demand enrollment applications and volunteer hours from parents need to be part of the conversation and the largess.

Alexis deTocqueville defined equality in a civil society: “Equal rights may exist of indulging in the same pleasures, of entering the same professions, of frequenting the same places – in a word, of living in the same manner and seeking wealth by the same means, although all men do not take an equal share in the government.”  The Job One leaders and the news network are certainly well-intended and of course they seek to encourage equality through education.  However, too little of the discussion of the Job One panel focused on connecting the children in real, serious need to the fact that their own social and economic equality and future depend on their own participation in the schooling process.  If this is what Broad, Deasy and the rest of us mean by effective teachers, effective managers and effective schools, let us define them this way and stop marginalizing students by doing education to them, rather than with them.

[Note: This blog post was originally posted as an ACT Guest Blog Post.  Lisa has since become a regular contributor to InterACT, and her old “guest” posts have been modified to reflect her authorship, and have had the original introduction removed.  – David Cohen]

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