Updated, 10/20/2011: Sondra Samuels, NAZ’s Chief Executive Officer and a member of its board, thinks the controversial film, Waiting for Superman, has important messages for education reform. Like many voices in that film, Samuels is an advocate of a “whatever it takes approach” to turning schools around, and shares Waiting for Superman’s stance on teacher unions and public schools.
Samuels says that she continues to be moved and inspired by a quote she keeps near her desk. It captures some core ideas behind her thinking, and the thinking of others who advocate a community engagement approach to solving what’s commonly called the “achievement gap”:
“How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” — Ronald Edmonds, Harvard University (1982)
When asked why we, as a nation, have yet to reach that point of successfully teaching all children, Samuel explains that, “We lack the will to do whatever it takes to ensure that all children learn and succeed in school.” This is frustrating, she adds, because, “We know it can happen, because it is happening. There are models across the country of schools where kids who have been labeled ‘un-teachable’ are routinely being educated and going to college.” Asked if the United States has ever had the will, Samuels responds, “Hell, no! Historically, this country has been committed to a select group of white men being educated.”
In Samuels’ view, what’s positive about No Child Left Behind’s focus on accountability and testing, as well as the term “achievement gap,” is that both bring a “persistent chasm,” rooted in class and race, out in plain view. Now school districts are required to aggregate data, something they did not do when her husband, Minneapolis City Councilmember Don Samuels, was a single father, trying to find suitable schools for his son, Andre. Parents are able to see if schools are failing their children.
Still, there is an aspect of focusing attention on an “achievement gap” that Samuels does not like. It’s that it pits groups of American children against one another. What we, as a nation, should be invested in, she argues, is seeing that, “all of America’s children are excelling,” prepared to succeed in a global marketplace. “White kids aren’t doing well (on tests) if you take a global perspective.” She quotes President Barack Obama: “The countries who out teach us today, will out-compete us tomorrow.” This is a central theme of Waiting for Superman.
Samuels is also a proponent of longer school days and school years. “The school year in the United States hasn’t changed in 150 years,” she says. “It’s based on an agrarian society. We’re no longer an agrarian society. We haven’t been for some time. We’re now a society of knowledge workers, so why are we still operating like we’re not?” Those countries that are out-competing us have made those changes, she observes.
Samuels says that her background in the corporate world—she worked in marketing for Ford Motor Company—has shaped her thinking about what kinds of outcomes schools should strive for. “When another country started kicking our tail, Ford didn’t blame that country—Ford didn’t blame its customers either.” Instead the corporation asked what it was doing wrong, what it could be doing better, and then made appropriate adjustments. “That’s how things work in this country,” she says, “except when it comes to education—then there’s something wrong with the customer and the customer’s community.”
High performing schools take a different approach, according to Samuels. They analyze demographics, make assessments, and then decide what changes are needed. In NAZ’s case, one key finding was that only 26 percent of children were prepared for kindergarten. “In the business world, you’d say, ‘O.K., what do we do if they’re not ready?” The answer was to “beef up early childhood education, and to consider that maybe kids need more school time.”
One way that NAZ strives to enhance early childhood education is through engaging parents and neighbor-leaders in its Family Academy. A 12-week program, in partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools, Family Academy was developed in 2007 as part of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development’s (CEED) place-based project Five Hundred Under 5, designed to promote school readiness in North Minneapolis. In 2010, the Family Academy was handed over to NAZ.
According to Samuels, Family Academy’s intent is to draw mothers and fathers who want to see their children attend and graduate from college, and offer them social support and information through a family-focused curriculum. Samuels says she especially likes seeing African American fathers taking part. Children accompany their parents to these weekend sessions, with those ages three and under going to classrooms for early childhood education. Recently she assembled a list of “future college graduates” comprised of names of all of the babies, those ages three and under, and their graduation dates. She contends that these are the kinds of steps needed for parents to see that their kids are in the “education pipeline,” and “part of a village, a cocoon, that wants them to succeed.”
Kristina Lemmer, Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board’s Early Childhood Policy Manager, who leads the Family Academy, reports that to date there have been three 12-week sessions. The first occurred in fall 2010 (Sept. 11-Dec. 18) with 15 families recruited. Ten completed the program. The second took place in spring 2011 (Feb. 19-May 21). The number of families recruited for that session rose to 25, with 17 completing the program. The current session began on Sept. 10, 2011. This time 15 families were recruited, and 10 have been attending on a weekly basis.
Note: Family Academy is currently under review and assessment by CEED through the University’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC). The research is intended to determine whether plans are being implemented as intended and whether NAZ is making the difference it aims to. Read about other programs NAZ has developed to support children and families from prenatal care to college.
While Samuels offers examples of local schools that are “beating the odds”—Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Academy are two standouts—one of her favorites is Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati. The lowest-performing school in its district, she says, Taft’s performance turned around within five years, under the leadership of its principal, Anthony Smith. Graduation rates went from 21 percent in the 2000-01 school year, to 95.2 percent in 2009-10. Seniors proficient in math rose from 25 percent to 95 percent during that period, and in reading from 42 percent to 95 percent. In 2010 Taft won a National Blue Ribbon award, the first Cincinnati Public high school to do that in more than 25 years.
Samuels likes that Smith hammered away at the idea that “businesses are our customer,” and that schools therefore need to produce students who are attractive to potential employers. A partnership with Cincinnati Bell assigns each student a tutor who meets with that student every week for the entirety of their high school education. Tutors counsel students on skills they need, classes they should take, and appropriate behaviors for getting good jobs. There are also incentives in place—including laptop computers and cell phones— for maintaining a 3.3 or higher grade point average. In Samuels’ opinion, Taft is a shining example of a school “that doesn’t make excuses,” but instead is structured to meet students’ needs. “We have to stop making excuses and pointing fingers,” she says emphatically. This pertains to her performance as NAZ’s C.E.O. as well. “If academic performance doesn’t improve, then no excuses, I shouldn’t have the job.”
As for those who say that small classes are the answer, Samuels says, “I’m not convinced.” “What we need,” she argues, “is great teaching, and more of it.” Education historian and author Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush, now a vocal opponent of that approach, is among those who question the emphasis on teaching, noting research that shows that “nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. “According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber,” she writes, “about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income.” Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, also notes that research shows that children may not be greatly helped if there are no strategies in place to boost employment and incomes in these “zones.”
Regarding innovation and choice, Samuels claims that Minnesotans are fortunate. She points out that Minnesota was the first state in the nation to offer charter schools as an option. According to Samuels, one of the key ideas behind charters is that they’re better able to experiment and innovate, because they can do so on a smaller scale. “It’s harder to turn a big ship (school districts) around.” Now, Samuels says, we see that most schools on the annual “beating the odds” list are charter schools. Not that all charter schools are doing well or achieving their missions, she adds.
Critics have observed that charter and magnet schools have mixed achievement outcomes and are often highly segregated. A study by Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice concluded that: “Minnesota’s charter schools are not performing better than demographically similar schools. Rather, the charter schools in Minnesota are performing at levels that are similar to or slightly worse than demographically similar non-charter public schools.” Diane Ravitch has observed that Waiting for Superman, the film that champions charter schools, glosses over the fact that “only one in five charter schools is able to get the ‘amazing results’ that it celebrates.” Why, she asks, did the director, “pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money?” She adds that, “today, charter schools are promoted not as ways to collaborate with public schools but as competitors that will force them to get better or go out of business.”
Getting better is what the district’s public schools should be doing, argues Samuels, so it would be wise for them to look at schools like Harvest Prep that are excelling. However, “Instead of asking, ‘What are they doing at Harvest that’s creating that level of excellence?,’ I keep hearing, ‘Oh, you can’t compare charter schools with district schools.’” The thinking, she explains, is that parents of children in charter schools are more involved in their child’s education, as indicated by their decision to enroll them in one. In her mind, this is simply another form of excuse. Now that “the curtains have been pulled back,” and we have a clearer idea of the depth of the chasm that exists when it comes to achievement, “we need to continue re-thinking and re-imagining what’s possible,” she says.
In Samuels’ view, this re-visioning process means doing “whatever it takes” (the title of a 2009 book about Geoffrey Canada), which translates into her endorsement of charter schools, vouchers, reassessing the roles of teacher unions, and moving away from an education system that protects teachers based on seniority, rather than the quality of their teaching, or “last in, first out.” Samuels also serves on the board of MinnCAN, alongside former Gov. Al Quie, attorney Michael Ciresi, former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, and Hubbard Radio president Virginia Hubbard Morris. Among other things, MinnCAN supports alternative teacher licensure, developing evaluation systems to measure a teacher’s impact on student learning, and a statewide rating system for early childhood education institutions.
Samuels recognizes that her positions on reform often make her unpopular, even within many of the circles she travels, but she vows to continue being part of the ongoing dialogue about what works and what doesn’t in the field of education.
“We have only two choices in Minneapolis. Either we do whatever it takes so that ALL kids learn regardless of family background by incorporating the proven practices of schools like our own Harvest Prep, or Taft High school in Ohio or Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, just to name a few. OR we need to resolve to dig more graves, build more jails and pay more taxes for the welfare benefits and social programs we’ll need to exponentially extend. This has always been our choice. My belief is that we will and we are choosing differently this time.” – Sondra Samuels, C.E.O., Northside Achievement Zone
CORRECTION: Sondra Samuels agrees with much of what Waiting for Superman says, but was not featured in the film, as the article originally said.