March 10, 2017
The Constructive Classroom (or Why Our Schools Aren't Broken)
Teaching is a calling. Many teachers take up the challenge every day to do whatever it takes to provide the best learning environment possible for their students. It's the essence of maintaining what we call a "constructive classroom." But when learning doesn't happen, many claim it's because schools are broken in some way. Schools will never be broken—as long as passionate and dedicated teachers continue to fight to support the needs of their students.
When teachers and administrators are dedicated to serving their students, their schools are not broken. Is it a challenge to teach in at-risk schools and in districts that do not have the same resources found in more affluent districts? Of course it is. However, it does not mean that schools or the educational system are broken.
In fact, challenges spur new educational approaches in the classroom. They inspire a hunt for additional resources to supplement any provided from the state and federal levels and insights on how some schools break through current expectations for students in poorly-funded districts.
Some Thoughts on the “Broken” Classroom
What are the priorities of our nation? As teachers and parents, many of us are well aware of a lack of attention given to the needs of children. Inequitable distribution of resources toward public education can seriously undermine the efforts of teachers to teach and students to learn. This does not make the classroom “broken.” It calls for a need to shed a light on the fundamental challenges faced in less affluent areas when it comes to providing children with the necessary tools to succeed. A feature on spending on prisons compared to public schools highlights one issue that many educators face.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education shows that over the last 30 years, spending on state and local corrections have tripled (324%) when compared to expenditures for PK-12(107%). Data was taken from spending from 1979-80 to 2012-13. The Department of Ed report included the statement:
“Investing more in education, particularly targeted at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that higher incarceration rates impose on individuals, families, and communities.”
The only way to solve challenges faced in underserved communities is to speak about and work on solutions openly, with collaboration from the stakeholders, whether they be the students, the families, fellow teachers and administrators or individuals from state and federal agencies. While waiting for additional funding, there are actionable steps that can be taken to keep children safe and learning in the constructive classroom.
Restorative Practices Build Stronger School Communities
Restorative practices can make a difference. Teachers and administrators are looking to close the school-to-prison pipeline, allowing additional funds to be reallocated into the classroom. Schools that serve poor and minority children could then upgrade facilities, reduce class size and expand needed health and student counseling services.
Spanish teacher Erika Strauss Chavarria advocates and implements restorative justice and believes the effort is worth it. She said:
“It’s all about my students. Restorative justice and other efforts to keep students in school also make good economic sense. Losing even one grade of high school students, the UCLA study found can cost taxpayers more than $35 billion a year.”
Restorative practices implemented in schools help foster healthy relationships and build a stronger sense of community. The practices are used to address conflict, youth behavior, and rule violations. Students take responsibility for their actions and learn how to repair the harm possibly caused by certain behaviors. Allison, a high school math teacher, said:
“While conflicts of which I’ve been part often began with raised voices and closed ears, through restorative approaches they have ended in smiles, handshakes, and hugs. This seems ultimately more healthful for interpersonal relationships and overall school culture than traditional, reactionary disciplinary measures.”
Teachers and administrators are taking it upon themselves to make children more accountable for their behavior, rather than resorting to suspensions, summonses, and arrests. 15-year-old Savannah said:
“Instead of learning from our behavior, schools just force us out without real conversations and interventions. Suspensions don’t work, summonses don’t work, arrests don’t work. Keep us in the classroom, keep us accountable, and build relationships. That works.”
When people say that schools are broken, it is a blanket statement that does little to address the real needs of administrators, teachers, students and families in poor and at-risk communities. The school system isn’t broken; it is underfunded. Teachers are dedicated to finding a solution to serve the children of their communities.
Many students want to learn and have productive and meaningful relationships with others. However, there are many factors outside of the classroom, the state of physical schools and a limited supply of resources that make it harder for teachers to guide the students that want to learn. Detroit schools are only one example of the type of environment that occurs when schools are underfunded.
Schools have become a checkerboard in that those without necessary funding often show less than stellar results when it comes to student test scores and student behavior. Are these broken schools or are they schools that simply show the logical consequences of the resources given to them failing against the current socio-economic factors existing within their communities?
Fundraising Online for Supplies and Projects in the Constructive Classroom
Kickstarter and the like may be used for those with an entrepreneurial mindset. This does not mean that there are not platforms for teachers to get creative and request funds for additional resources and projects. NPR writes of a resource available for teachers that cannot absorb additional classroom costs and students and families that cannot afford to pay for needed supplies. DonorsChoose.org helps teachers “crowdfund” classroom needs and project ideas. Donations can go toward technology upgrades, basic supplies, and field trips.
DonorsChoose.org has helped educators raise over $310 million during the last 15 years. Poorer schools are more likely to receive funding for their projects. They've also assisted schools directly impacted by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.
Basic classroom essentials may be the very first things that teachers and students need. This was the case for Tiffany Smith, a science teacher at H.W. Byers High School in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She said:
“[My first project] was literally for pens, pencils, crayons, glue and rulers. Just very minimal stuff. I never realized schools wouldn’t have these basic necessities for the kids.”
DonorsChoose.org has donated substantially to US classrooms from 2002 to 2014. When divided by subject, the total amount donated for top subjects are $74.7 million for literacy, $37.7 million for mathematics and $32.4 million for literature and writing. Funding makes a direct impact on the classroom experience and what teachers and students can accomplish at their respective schools. When state and federal funds are limited, sometimes it pays to get creative.
Break the Mold
Lynne Haeffele directs the Center for the Study of Educational Policy at Illinois State University. Haeffele has studied high-poverty schools that succeed over many years. She has a number of insights to share on “break the mold” schools—those schools that are both high poverty and high performing. As she describes the work of her team:
“The study that we did went on for several years. It was part of a national study, about 20 states, looking at multiple years of test scores in multiple subjects, and divided them into poverty groups. Then we looked within high poverty groups for the schools that were outperforming everybody else. So we identified dozens of schools that were beating the odds.”
They uncovered five ways that such schools work that help them overcome their challenges. These 5 ways are to:
- Have all local policies aimed at achieving student success.
- Select, develop, and retain an outstanding staff.
- Employ a system to constantly monitor progress.
- Provide attention to rewards and special intervention.
- Combine student-centered learning with a no excuses mentality.
“When you talk about education policy, I think it was Tip O’Neill who said ‘All politics are local.’ I’m basically saying all policy is local. So you can have all kinds of laws and support coming from the state and federal government, but unless those policies actually affect behavior at the local level, they don’t matter. So hence we have all these failed national policies… And those generally get ignored. The most important policies to overcome poverty effects are those that happen at the district and school and classroom level. Policy only makes a difference when it changes behavior and guides your actions. So we have seen schools that have adopted these kinds of polices and done these five main things and they get better!”
Schools will never be broken when schools and districts take on the responsibility of identifying ways to address the unique challenges of their school.