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Calfee on building great schools: 'Kids not the problem'

STANFORD -- "Building great schools in tough places is possible. In some ways, it's easier, because the problems are obvious," according to education Professor Robert Calfee.

Calfee spoke to fellow educators during Stanford's reunion weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, during a series of School of Education seminars. He also delivered a classroom lecture, "Building Great Schools in Tough Places."

Calfee's research and workshops have taken him to schools in Harlem, Oakland and South Central Los Angeles, where he has worked to implement a new model of classroom learning and school organization. His program, Project Read/Inquiring School, is now used by nearly 100 schools across the nation.

During the hour-long talk, Calfee took on the notion that today's schools are failing and that kids are the reason why. He urged schools to take on the challenge of teaching for "critical literacy," a role that he claimed has fallen by the wayside at least since World War II.

"The boys came home, the girls stopped working, and suddenly there were kids all over the place, especially in urban schools," said Calfee. In response, he said, "factory-model" schools developed a curriculum policy of "basic skills, functional literacy" to process a large number of children through the educational system at once.

"We're in the midst of a paradigm shift. In general, we are moving in the direction of an information age. Not just for our work, but for our society's well-being and the realization of individual potential, this model makes more sense," said Calfee, who advocated schools where students are "active constructors of learning."

"Some people say the jobs of the future won't require high-level thinking, but the nation requires it," he added.

"What you learn in school is diddlysquat, because it's going to change tomorrow. As our president says, we have to learn to deal with change, not just be changed."

Nevertheless, said Calfee, "in the desperate communities, you will still find factory schools in place - lock, stock and barrel. The exceptions can be counted on your fingers. In our schools today, we have teachers with decades of experience in a rote model. They follow the textbooks; they do what they are told.

"The tension of my work is between the people who have all that heritage in their mind and a conceptual view of education that can only work when teachers in a school are working together in teams to be active researchers, thinkers, challengers and critics."

Calfee refuted the notion that schools are doing poorly, noting that "according to the most trustworthy measures, student achievement over the last 40 to 50 years shows that not only are the levels holding fairly steady, but the gap between whatever proxy you use for rich kids and poor kids is closing.

"But the needs of our children have increased incredibly. There's a higher proportion of children in poverty than in any other developed nation - not a little bit higher, but enormously higher."

A number of solutions for schools have been offered, said Calfee, and all have had limited success.

School choice, he said, may be the most "popular" one. "But, in fact, choice has been tried, here and there, since the 1970s." He said California Proposition 174 is "as poorly crafted as Proposition 13." It is based, he said, on the wish for a "quick and cheap way of making a difference - all we've got to do is open up the private school system."

He cited research that shows that "choice was not really choice," particularly for poor parents who were often not as well informed as middle-class parents. "It usually meant this school or that one - but not much more."

Other education movements have called for different programs within schools. He summarized this approach as " 'we need different packages' - and usually the packages are pushed by academics like me. But all the packages lose their punch over time." Others have urged a reorganization of schools, but these changes "have certainly not changed student learning that much."

"Finally, people have been hoping for a technological solution. They have hoped that if you could get a Macintosh [computer] in front of every student, that would solve the problem. But in the really desperate areas of the nation, the Macintoshes don't stay there long. . . .

"A colleague said if you give each of the schools $2 million, test scores will go up.

"I'll bet he's right. It would be hard not to have something happen. But it's not very feasible."

For Calfee, the answer is a "community of inquiry," he said, where teachers "change the way they think about who they are and what they do," and students "use language in all its forms to think and solve problems." These classrooms "teach not only thinking, but thinking within a social context."

At one urban Chicago school where he implemented Project Read/Inquiring School, Calfee recounted how the mayor and superintendent of schools had started a move to put school uniforms on all Chicago students.

"The kids and teachers were really hot on that. The kids were going to write nasty letters. I asked, 'How do you write a letter that's going to change the mind of the reader?' They hadn't thought about that. They just wanted to blast.

"And so we worked out a strategy - comparing the pros and cons, and how you pull it in to make your point. The kids said, 'That's great! He'd probably read that!' "

This example, said Calfee, shows the power of putting learning in a context.

"Teachers don't think enough about how students think. That's why a curriculum that has millions of pieces isn't effective - no one can remember all that.

"Storage is easy; retrieval is the problem. The secret is organization [of information]."

He noted that schools also need the freedom to reflect more upon the learning process.

"Reflection is when you build in transfer. If you think about what you learned and how you learned it, when you get into a new situation you can step up on top of it and look at the lay of the land.

"Most schools don't have reflection, because they don't have the time - there's too much to 'cover.' So nothing really gets learned, except those bits and pieces."

Schools can improve greatly, he said, "but first we have to get organized. Schools are being driven crazy by a lack of organization - the chaos of many programs and textbooks.

"How do you know a school is great? Don't look at newspapers. It helps to go and see the action. Talk to teachers first. Ask about their levels of success with all students. Schools are doing well when teachers can explain what they are doing.

"Ask who or what is the source of their problems. If they point to outside things that they cannot control, I'd worry about that."

But fears about today's students persist. One participant asked Calfee about children who come from troubled families, or homes with drugs.

"I have rarely seen a case where the classroom came alive and these kids couldn't begin to learn," said Calfee. "I don't think the problem is the kids. If that's the problem, I'm moving to Australia."

He recalled visiting schools for children housed in rundown hotels in New York City: "These are some of the toughest school situations in the nation. "Yet I've seen kids in these classrooms do some of the most remarkable academ ic work imaginable.

"In mathematics, there is something known as the Existence Theorem. When you have got a real problem and no solution, the first thing you do is prove that a solution is possible, and then work on that.

"I think we have existence theorems to support the idea that kids are not the problem. It would be nice if we could have all families be what we imagined them to be in 1945. They aren't."

Ten days after the Los Angeles riots, Calfee said he visited the two schools he is working with in South Central Los Angeles, where the riots had taken place. "Not one of the schools was touched by graffiti or damage - that's the story you didn't hear.

"The Monday after the riots, teacher attendance was way above average. They were there because they knew that someone had to take care of the children."

As he walked through the corridors of the schools where he had implemented Project Read, he saw virtually all the classrooms engaged in active discussions about what had happened.

Calfee noticed later that several of these students were interviewed on national television.

"What really felt good was to hear them talking so articulately, so persuasively and clearly, about their perceptions of the problems and aspirations for themselves in all the madness.

"Someone helped them achieve critical literacy - and when the real test came, they passed it."


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