I’ve been visiting a lot of urban schools in Massachusetts these past few months. (The term “urban” in this context is code for a school that is located in a city where many students are poor, black or brown, often recent immigrants, and where decently paid entry level jobs have disappeared).
Many of these schools are in the lowest percentile for performance based on the state’s indicators. They are now labeled “underperforming.” Since the pandemic, students are experiencing serious social and emotional dysregulation. Too many young people cannot focus in school. Studies bemoan “learning loss;” everyone talks about how engagement in academic classrooms has decreased. Teachers say that children lack socialization skills; they struggle to follow directions and work collaboratively and cooperatively with peers. There is broad agreement that today, in 2023, kids are more complicated; their needs are more heightened. Yet, I don’t believe that the ways we measure, label, and sort schools (and therefore students and teachers) will help us improve education systems.
I recognize that there is a lot of growth that must happen in most (perhaps all) schools, but here I want to attempt to paint a picture of one day in one school building, with nuance not accusation.
I walk up the forty or so steep steps of this elementary school–built in the 1930s for 300 hundred children and now home to about 600. There are cracks in the stairs and the concrete yard has puddled deeply after the recent rain storm. The four-square lines and twister colors are faded.
Inside, in contrast to the rather bleak outdoor facade, the floors gleam with recent wax polish and enormous pride and care. This aging building has been lovingly cared for by the custodial staff and the families that come here. The walls of the hallway are bursting with student work. The hum of children engaged in work reverberates everywhere. If students are in the hallways they are moving from one class to another clearly enjoying the chance to move their limbs and chat with one another. There are no rigid lines or dress codes in this school. Children smile at me-a stranger-and some wave shyly.
However, this rainy Monday morning, the principal is despairing. 16 of her nearly 60 staff have called in sick. This is an all too common Monday/Friday occurrence. “It’s not just my school,” she tells me. “Four of my colleagues have the same situation. No one wants to teach. My building sub called in sick.” Teachers feel drastically underappreciated and underpaid. The work is also much more intense today.
Just as we are about to enter a 3rd grade classroom, we see Jackson under a table on the hallway floor. He’s angry, sad, and has tried to tie himself in knots. For the better part of 30 minutes, skilled clinicians will coax him out of this corner and get him back to class, but this pattern will repeat itself again and again. The school is working with the family to find a more suitable placement. “Even if he could go to a school that specializes in behavior modification for just a few months, that would help,” the principal tells me. “But meanwhile he is here. And that is just so draining for the teacher and the other kids. Perhaps if we could get him a one-to-one paraprofessional that would be a bit better. But really, he needs something different. We are not meeting his needs.” She continues, “We have fifteen children with issues as deep as Jackson’s.” This group of students, with such high needs, take up almost all of her time and all of her clinicians time.
“I’m lucky to have a skilled staff, but Jackson will go back to the classroom and the pattern will be repeated. We have made countless referrals for a different setting. The parents need to agree. They are suspicious. They don’t want their kid labeled. And the classroom teacher is exhausted.”
I know it is also exhausting for the principal. Everyone is stuck in an all-too-familiar bind of waiting. The teacher is angry; other parents are angry; Jackson is angry and so are his parents. Her school will not be judged on her ability to meet Jackson’s needs. Rather, her school will be measured by how her students score on a standardized test, including Jackson. The teachers feel that pressure. Right now the school has one of the lowest scores in the state. “It all feels so heavy right now. We have so many behavior needs; so many high needs students, but not enough staff and at the same time the pressure to get all kids to perform better on standardized tests.” The principal sighs sadly.
The experience of Jackson is only one aspect of this building. This school has recently become a dual language school. We go into some other classrooms where students are taught half the day in Spanish and half the day in English. Their language skills are remarkable.
In Spanish class the second graders are learning homophones (words that sound alike but have two meanings). In Spanish many homophones have an accent such as el and él: the first is an article (like el libro-the book) and the second a pronoun (like él va a la escuela-he goes to school). The students have a long worksheet with these homophones and are working to understand when you use the word with the accent, and what it means, and when you don’t. I’m impressed with how they are learning these early grammatical building blocks. They move easily from working in pairs to working on the rug as a big group. Their teacher is passionately invested in their learning.
In math class, second graders are delving into a new curriculum with the help of a math coach. “I love this curriculum,” she tells us. “It’s not just about procedures and getting the right answer, but it’s about figuring it all out. That’s what kids need.” We listen while Angie tells Joaquin how she figured out that x + 34=55. Her process was unique (at least to me). “Just look at the 3 and the 5,” she told her table partner. “What do you need to add to 3 to get 5?”
Joaquin answers her tentatively, “2.”
“Yes,” she smiles broadly and asks him to write it down. “And the next column? What do you need to add to 4 to get 5?” He writes 1. “So what do you put in the equation?” She uses mathematical language. Joaquin writes twenty-one and she nods happily. “Entiendes?” He nods. I ask him to explain what he just did and I, too, nod happily. He does understand.
“This curriculum is all about explaining to one another and about the many different ways to solve an equation. We are having such fun in math.” The math coach smiles broadly.
But the principal tells me that this year’s 3rd graders will all be tested in Math and in English. In this school, math is taught in Spanish. “Our kids will not do as well. Dual language is a terrific investment in language development, but the rewards will not be seen this year. It’s cumulative. It will take a while. I worry that their scores will not be strong.”
We go into an English class where everyone is absorbed in a book. Again. These are all Spanish speaking children. Some are reading graphic novels and others are reading a book I recognize: Brown Bear Brown Bear: What do you see? I ask one little girl about her reading choice since I notice she is reading in Arabic and English. I ask her in Spanish what language she is reading in? “Estoy leyendo aquí,” she tells me and points to the Arabic script above the English.
“Y entiendes arabe?”I ask her
“Si,” she tells me and keeps reading, her fingers tracing the script.
I ask the teacher if the young girl, Vicki, is an Arabic speaker. “Not yet, but I love that she is trying to learn it. It’s all about embracing language in this classroom. I love that they are trying to read in a third or fourth language! That’s when I know I’ve been successful! They are playing with language, embracing language!”
Another little boy shows me the same book in Somali. He tells me he is reading in Somali. This classroom has clearly developed a culture of inquiry. Language is fun, purposeful and asset based. I want to stay in this third grade. The joy and energy are infectious. I wonder if some of these children will become bilingual authors since they have been so exposed to many languages.
On the same day as I observed in this school, a few miles away in Boston, the majority of the English Task Force members resigned in protest of BPS administration decision to put children who speak little English in classes where academic instruction is only in English. “The plans as presented will be harmful,” they wrote in their resignation letter. 
More than anything, I want this school, and so many others like it, to celebrate the hard work of its teachers, to focus on building a culture of risk taking and questioning and to keep asking one another and the students: What is our purpose here? Why are we doing this? And are we finding time for joy?
Instead, this little gem of a school will continue to get judged on one thing: test scores. We must find new ways to tell our stories of successes, areas for growth, and we must capture the beautiful and hard spaces that I observed in this school.
Also, we must acknowledge that this current teacher crisis is not going away without major state and federal intervention. What are the incentives to teach? We must pay better; we must have more support in classrooms. Smaller class size DOES matter.
If we believe in inclusion, how we set up our classrooms, train our teachers and use the time in the school day must all be different. We cannot expect young children with severe behavior issues to just “fit in.” They need something different. And, I would wager, so do most kids.
Let’s ask: how much of the day is seat bound? How much of the day is about moving? How much of the day is about using our hands? How much of the day is about making and doing?
I don’t think school works for too many of our children. Our current solution is to just say that they (and their schools) are failures. How can that be? This isn’t fair to the students, teachers, staff and communities that surround and fill our school buildings.