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Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

I arrived at Liceo Domingo Santa Maria unannounced and was greeted with a sort of excited confusion. After explaining myself to several administrators around the enormous Pre-K–12 campus, I ended up in a high school English classroom. The room was noisy. Most of the 30+ students chatted casually with unmarked worksheets in front of them. Occasionally the teacher would step out from behind his desk, pace impatiently, and then speak over the chatter to remind the students that this work was important, and they should be taking it seriously.

I spent most of my time talking with a group of boys by the windows who were wearing straight brimmed baseball caps. They asked me about music and said that they liked American rap music, especially Wiz Khalifa. When I said I was more interested in Chilean music, they smiled and made me a list of bands to listen to. I asked them if students at the school were always like ‘this’ and gestured to the chatter around us. They laughed and explained that students pay more attention in classes that they like but that no one likes English. I turned the conversation to their blank worksheets (they were supposed to be describing pictures of people’s faces) and I discovered that they all had several pages worth of English vocabulary copied into their notebooks. I realized, at some point, this class must have been quietly and diligently copying these notes from the board. Having students silently copy notes is a favorite management strategy of teachers in working-class schools. It brings order, but unfortunately, not much thinking.

International Education School Facilities

Liceo Domingo Santa Maria is a large school with nice facilities

Around the room, a handful of students seemed torn between the noise around them and the confusion of their worksheets. They ended up staring blankly forward, pillars of stoicism in a loudly social scene.

When class ended I walked up to the teacher, Javier, who was obviously embarrassed by his class. The first thing he said to me was, “These kids, you wouldn’t believe the problems they deal with at home. Drugs, violence, hunger…”

International Education enrollment sign

An advertisement for the school’s special program for students with speech problems

Javier got me a sandwich and a coffee from the school cafeteria, and we talked for the better part of an hour. He’s a 10-year veteran teacher and he explained that he enjoys it because it makes him be creative and keeps him sharp. When I asked about obstacles, he mentioned the focus on standardized tests and the amount of time it takes to design lessons, “There’s no time to create activities and so you have to do it at home and then you spend this time working at home but the students don’t care. Neither the students nor the bosses care about the teacher’s well-being. It’s run like a business. It’s all about results.”

Javier told me that the test scores in Arica are the lowest in the country and hypothesized that part of the reason could be that a large percentage of the population has been exposed to unhealthy levels of lead. He lamented how frustrating it is when students don’t pay attention and again connected it to their home lives, which he described as ‘heart-breaking.’

Education - Teacher with paperwork

Javier working on paperwork. Paperwork is so onerous, the school offers bonuses for having it completed.

During our conversation three things became very clear to me:

1) Javier works very hard over long hours,

2) He is emotionally invested in his students, and

3) He is not a very effective teacher.

And this is an important point to realize about education: many ineffective teachers’ work and care just as much as effective teachers. A teachers’ effectiveness is less a function of how much they work or care and more a function of what they believe their students are capable of achieving. Javier expressed what in the U.S. we would call a ‘deficit-based mindset.’ For him, the barriers his students face outside of school predicts a negative attitude toward school. The difficulties in their lives eclipse any more ambitious vision of what they could be capable of. As Lisa Delpit (amongst others) has pointed out, this kind of mindset is attractive because it frees the teacher of responsibility for their students’ learning.

Of course, the stresses Javier faces are severely exacerbated by the fact that he has more work to do than hours to do it in. Remember, Chile and the U.S. require teachers to spend more time in front of students than any other country in the world. And at least in the U.S. we have computers to help with paperwork.

After our conversation, I walked around the campus glancing into windows. I saw a wide variety of student engagement. A room of nearly 40 students was transfixed on a teacher who paced and smiled while tossing an apple into the air. Another class quietly copied notes from a PowerPoint.

Students in math class - international education

Students in math class

I ended up in a math classroom. There was no lesson, students were to get straight to work on their packet. I stepped into a familiar role, floating and trying to help students with math. But, while my Spanish is good, I often had difficulty decoding what the questions were looking for. After a short spurt of effort, I would give up and suggest we work on a problem that was more pure algebra. It gave me an experiential glimpse into what it’s like to struggle with text heavy problems.

In this class, students were more attentive to their worksheets, but there was still a lot of confusion, and they worked very slowly. After about 20 minutes, I realized I should be going.

One of my guiding principles for this trip is to avoid comparison: to let each place be what it is. But I can’t shake the similarities between Liceo Domingo Santa Maria and many large working-class schools I’ve been to in the United States. In the absence of a strong school culture, teachers end up creating unique cultures within the walls of their classrooms. The quality of these cultures nearly always a product of the disparate expectations they have of their students. The result is a wide, wide difference in how students behave and engage each hour of their day.

It’s interesting… I didn’t know what to expect from schools in Latin America. Still, I guess I assumed that there would be some clear difference in quality compared to working-class schools in the United States. But so far, that’s not what I’m finding at all.


Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

When people in the US talk about how to improve education, there is an underlying assumption that the way our education system works, overall, is ‘normal.’ When the struggles of schools in low-income communities are addressed, poverty is generally identified as the culprit. But after a year of research, and another year of traveling to excellent schools around the world, I can confidently say that there is nothing ‘normal’ about the education system in the US and that our reaction to students in poverty does as much to impact their potential than the poverty itself.

The five realities below are all rooted in data and they show that fundamental shifts are needed if our education system is to start preparing our children and supporting our teachers in the ways they deserve.

Reality #1 – U.S. Students Don’t Like School and Aren’t Very Good At It


This chart was created with the OECD’s PISA test data by Jake Levy, a data analyst at Buzzfeed. The scores are an average of math, science and reading. The x-axis is how students respond to the question, ’Are you happy in school?’ Economists have found a direct link between PISA scores and GDP growth and PISA scores have also proven a more accurate predictor of whether or not students will go to college than report cards. (Source: Amanda Ripley’s reporting in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way)

As you can see, the United States falls into the ‘sad and stupid’ quadrant. Not only does our system fail to educate our children, but in the process, it turns them away from the idea that learning can be fun. Great. Why aren’t people unnerved about this? Are we, as a nation, resigned to ironic acceptance of our educational inferiority?

Maybe more interesting than what this chart tells us directly, are the questions it can spur. Like, ‘What’s the difference between Korea and Singapore?” They both score in the top 5 for performance but Korea has the least happy students in the world while Singapore’s students are some of the happiest. It turns out that while, South Korea is known for its high-intensity school system with near industrial size tutoring industry, Singapore’s education slogan is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ and their education school emphasizes the central role of values and critical thinking.

Reality #2 – U.S. Teachers Spend More Hours a Year in ‘Performance Mode’ Than Teachers in Any Other Country

OK, so that’s not completely true. For elementary school teachers, we’re #1. For secondary school teachers we’re #2, behind Chile. But still…

We know what teachers need to be more effective. They need: time to plan interesting and rigorous lessons, time to give meaningful feedback to students (multiple choice tests are most tempting when you don’t have time to grade), time for collaborating with other teachers, quality professional development, direct coaching from mentor teachers, etc… In higher performing countries like Switzerland and Singapore, all of these practices are central priorities. When I say they are priorities, I mean that they actually have time dedicated to them and they are seen as a fundamental part of a teachers job, not ‘something extra’ like it often seems in the US.

A High School teacher in the U.S. averages 1,051 hours in front of students per year. Compare that with the average of 656 hours for OECD countries. That’s almost 400 extra hours per year for all that good stuff I was just talking about! And that already takes into account the fact that we’re in school two weeks less per year than the OECD average!

Let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great.

There literally aren’t enough hours in the day for U.S. teachers to do all of the things that correlate with better instruction. Teachers in the U.S. often complain about mandated collaboration but not because they don’t want it. It’s because they’d rather be planning or grading, and they don’t have time for all three. It’s also common for U.S. teachers to give up the limited planning time they do have, to do individual tutoring, which is noble, but it shouldn’t be necessary. That reality plays into a ‘teacher as altruist’ expectation that we would never hold to other professions. I hope that most doctors get into the profession to help people, but as a society, we don’t expect them to stay after hours to consult the uninsured.

There’s a very dangerous sense in this country that teachers aren’t ‘really working’ unless they’re standing in front of a group of students. How would you feel if I told you, you had to give 30 separate presentations next week, and not only did you have to deliver them, but you had to execute them so well that each of the 100+ people in the audience would be able to recall over 80% of the details at the end of the week and, by the way, they’re teenagers. How much time would you like to prepare for something like that? How much individualized management would you need to do to make sure people were track? How much stress would you feel?

Reality #3 – Our Most Privileged Students Aren’t that Great

Education reformers in the United States tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘Achievement Gap’ – the fact that poor and minority students in the U.S. perform tragically worse than their more privileged peers. A built in assumption to this focus, is the idea that our most privileged students are being educated just fine. The problem in the US isn’t with the fundamentals of our education system, it’s with the consequences of poverty.

But, what if we just look at the most privileged groups in each country, including those who attend private school? How do our most privileged do against the most privileged of other countries? It turns out, not so well. When we look at just top quartiles in the PISA’s socio-economic breakdown we come in 25th out of 39 countries in math. And remember, our most privileged are even better off than most of their counterparts in other countries.

We should certainly be working to close the gap in performance between demographic groups, but let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great. If we’re truly going to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy we’ll have to rethink how our best schools operate too.

  Top Socio-Economic Quartile Only Bottom Socio-Economic Quartile Only
Ranking in Math Scores Country Socio-Economic Index Score* (How advantaged are the most privileged) Country Socio-Economic Index Score (How disadvantaged are the least privileged)
1 Hong Kong-China 0.50 Hong Kong-China -2.00
2 Korea 0.92 Macao-China -1.91
3 Switzerland 1.29 Korea -0.97
4 Japan 0.85 Japan -0.99
5 Belgium 1.27 Liechtenstein -0.89
6 Poland 1.08 Switzerland -1.00
7 Germany 1.42 Finland -0.68
8 Netherlands 1.15 Canada -0.75
9 Liechtenstein 1.42 Netherlands -0.82
10 France 0.95 Poland -1.22
11 New Zealand 1.04 Germany -0.99
12 Macao-China 0.28 Iceland -0.34
13 Canada 1.44 Australia -0.84
14 Finland 1.28 Ireland -0.97
15 Czech Republic 0.93 Denmark -0.70
16 Austria 1.19 Belgium -1.05
17 Australia 1.18 Norway -0.56
18 Portugal 1.21 Austria -0.97
19 Luxembourg 1.41 Latvia -1.39
20 Ireland 1.20 Czech Republic -0.98
21 Slovak Republic 1.06 Italy -1.29
22 Denmark 1.44 Russian Federation -1.10
23 Hungary 1.01 New Zealand -1.05
24 Spain 1.16 Sweden -0.82
25 United States 1.35 Spain -1.50
26 Latvia 0.90 France -1.10
27 Iceland 1.71 United States -1.14
28 Italy 1.24 Portugal -1.85
29 Norway 1.35 Luxembourg -1.42
30 Russian Federation 0.82 Hungary -1.46
31 Sweden 1.25 Slovak Republic -1.25
32 Greece 1.22 Greece -1.34
33 Turkey 0.07 Turkey -2.74
34 Uruguay 0.69 Thailand -2.72
35 Thailand 0.27 Mexico -2.66
36 Mexico 0.61 Uruguay -2.23
37 Brazil 0.39 Tunisia -2.86
38 Tunisia 0.42 Brazil -2.64
39 Indonesia -0.28 Indonesia -3.09

* Since income and poverty measurements don’t compare well across countries, the OECD and PISA use what they call an “Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status” It takes into consideration things like the highest level of parents education, the types of jobs parents have, if there’s a quiet place to do school work at home, if the family owns art, and other questions that allow for a more normalized comparison of privilege across countries.

Reality #4 – A Country’s Education System Matters More Than Wealth or Demographics

Let’s look at Finland and Norway. They’re both Scandinavian countries with fairly homogenous populations and low child poverty rates. But Finland’s students consistently score as some of the most capable in the world and Norway’s students perform even worse than the United States. What’s up with that?

Let’s look at Poland and the United States. Both countries have similar levels of childhood poverty, and on the whole, U.S. students participating in the PISA have considerably more affluent home environments than their Polish peers. But Polish students achieve at much higher levels than U.S. students. Even more interesting is the fact that that, 20 years ago the U.S. outperformed Poland on international tests.

The least advantaged students in Hong Kong are worse off than the same group in the U.S. but they score just as well in math as America’s most privileged students.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve.

Finland, Singapore, Poland, and China have all dramatically improved their education systems in the past decades while the U.S. has remained remarkably consistent in its subpar performance. Each country is unique, but all of their reform strategies had two things in common. 1) They increased the rigor of their standards. 2) They prioritized teacher preparation and professional development.

In the U.S., we’ve also tried to improve our education system in recent decades, but we’ve taken a different approach. We’ve tried to incentivize and manage improvement through a rigorous system of testing and accountability. A focus on incentives and accountability was a respectable idea in 2001, but it turns out that hasn’t worked very well.

Reality #5 – U.S. Teacher Morale is Going in the Wrong Direction

The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” showed that teacher morale in the U.S. is at a 25 year low. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported feeling very satisfied with their job. In 2012 that number was down to 39%. Over half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week. I believe that this dynamic is today’s single greatest threat to our nation’s long-term economic security. The causes of this dissatisfaction are complex but ultimately less relevant than its consequences. The simple fact is that, it’s hard for students to learn from people who are constantly stressed out by their jobs.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve. But across the country applications to teachers colleges are on the decline and fewer and fewer people are applying to alternative certification programs like Teach For America as well. Why would intelligent/capable people want to pursue a profession where over half the people feel ‘great stress’ several days a week? It doesn’t even pay very well.


Maybe this sort of lackluster education system was OK in the second half of the 20th century. Getting out of WWII with our infrastructure intact certainly gave us a good head start. For a few decades there, we were graduating a higher percentage of our people from college than any other country. But that percentage has flat lined at around 25% since the 1970s and the rest of the world is passing us by.

The solutions we come up with need to be uniquely American, but we’d be foolish not to learn from the rest of the world.  We need to act and act big. Education isn’t going to fix itself.

– Will

For the research for this post, I’m indebted to Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” and Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” as well as to several articles by Linda Darling-Hammond, and to whoever compiled the myriad of spreadsheets found on the OECD’s website. Some of the analysis is my own. It’s a skill set I developed during my two years as a policy analyst for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

A special thanks to Caitlin Jordan for creating the featured political cartoon at the top of this post with very little notice.



Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

I met up with Paul Griffin at The Possibility Project’s on West 27th St in New York City. What followed was the most interesting conversation I’ve had about education and youth development in a long time. Paul’s tone is animated and energetic and it’s not difficult to see that he once felt called to pursue his own career in the theater.

But something about pursuing his own career felt off to him. It seemed decidedly self-interested and he wanted something more. In the early 90s he began working with youth in Washington DC. He worked with them to use the performing arts as a way to explore the issues impacting their communities. At first, he didn’t think that he would do this type of work for very long, but he soon realized that the work combined everything he loves to do. Over 20 years later, I asked Paul what keeps him going.

Why do you think you continue with this type of work? Where do you get your energy?

That’s a good question. There are a lot of answers to that. If it were one thing, I probably wouldn’t continue to do it. I think that the thing that keeps me going is that it works, seeing the impact that we make. There’s no greater satisfaction than watching one of our young people, seeing the light bulb go off, and them getting with it and getting out there in the world and being confident. It’s just an exciting process. It’s an exciting process to watch, really satisfying. I think also, just the idea that I never had a moment in my life, in 21 years, where I ever asked myself if what I was doing is important. I’ve never asked myself whether it was making a difference or if I was making a difference. I never ask myself, ‘should I be doing this?’ On just a purely instinctive or intuitive level, from the moment we started, it’s just kind of been that way.

What’s unique about The Possibility Project?

I think it’s a combination of things. Every time we do a show or often when we do a show, someone always says, ‘Who thought of this thing?’ A friend of mine who was Chair of the Sarah Lawrence theater department, he brought me up there to teach, he’s in his sixties, and he came to see a show. He said, ‘you know, I thought I had seen every kind of theater in the world.’ He’s been all over the world, he’s directed everywhere and when he saw the show he said, ‘I realized this is a different kind of theater.’

I think the thing that makes us unique, more than anything else, is the youth leadership and youth empowerment pieces of what we do. They lead the program. They’re not the directors of the program, that’s just not feasible with them being in school and work and all of that. But it’s the fact that the production teams act like a board of directors for the program. The fact that they write their own scripts. The fact that they share their stories and then write their scripts from that. The fact that they do their own community action projects. The amount of responsibility they’re given, I think, is totally different.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems.

When young people walk into The Possibility Project, they recognize very quickly, ‘oh, this is our house. This is not like a bunch of adults telling us what to do. We get to do this.’ The peer-to-peer relationships are huge. I think that’s the most important thing we do.

We always say in our program, when we’re training Artistic Directors, remember the action in the program is not from you to the young people, it’s amongst the young people themselves. Your measure of success is not whether you have great relationships with them, it’s whether they have great relationships with one another. So, if you walk out at the end of the year and they respect you, and love you and all of that, which they will, they’ll look up to you if you’ve done a good job. If they forget about you two or three years down the road or you kind of fade but, they hang on to relationships they built, that’s ok.

Most people try to manage groups to a result and what we’re saying is, we’re not going to manage you. We’ll organize, we’ll give you this, we’ll help but, you have to do it. They have to do all the work. I think that’s the single biggest difference, and I think that’s why this is very risky and why it works.

What type of program is this anyway? Is it a youth development program? Theater program? Social justice program?

Yeah, youth development social change, combining those two, and the performing arts are the vehicle. That’s how I think of it. And I think the ultimate goal on the youth development side is confidence and on the social justice side, is around leadership and agency. It’s combining those two things, it’s saying, if we’re going to have a better world, we need young people to be on point. They need to be aware, they need to be educated and they need to, over decades, be studying these things so that when their turn comes, they’re prepared for it and know which direction they want to go to.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems. They have to rally around, they have to raise their voices. They need to be empowered, challenged, supported, inspired, motivated, to address all the problems of their community.

I think engaging in social justice accelerates the youth development process. It suddenly brings importance and relevance to their development, and then I would also argue, stepping back from that, that positive youth development, particularly for poor kids, particularly for poor kids of color, is a social justice issue in and of itself.

We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice.

One of the things about the programs we run is that excellence is taken very seriously, and so is integrity and accountability. This is not ‘come in when you feel like it and we’ll play.’ This is like, ‘we have very specific things we want to achieve and you have to get on board with it’ and the demands are quite high. We see that as a social justice issue. Like, they deserve that experience as much as anyone else, do you know what I mean? And they deserve as much room to screw it up. People of color who screw up, sometimes the stakes are very high, a privileged white kid has more room to screw up and that’s a social justice issue.

What’s the relationships between school and community, between poverty and academics?

Let’s take it back. I think there’s a bigger problem than the nuts and bolts of the education debate around this issue. I think that we’re at a point in time where we’re seeing the fruition or culmination of a ‘unique evolutionary moment,’ as I refer to it. We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice, right? I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a positive, and I think what’s happening is that, we’re preparing our kids for the world their going to inhabit and that’s a good change. Because our kids are not going to grow up in communities anymore, they don’t. They grow up as individuals. So, when I was growing up I was raised to be a citizen and a community member. To be a good person, which meant treating the people around me as a good person would. Children today are being raised to be individuals, economic actors and agents who are going to be making choices. Who are going to decide where they want to live in the world. I’m talking about those who have privilege and everyone who aspires to that. So across the board, when we’re talking about young people we’re talking more about choice.

So for me, when we’re talking about schools, they haven’t caught up with that. The curriculum as such and their role hasn’t caught up with that. And what I mean by that is, they’re now being asked to serve a lot of the roles that the community used to serve. The character of young people, their inner life, social-emotional learning. Before that was done at home and in your community, and for a lot of people, in the church. Now we’re asking the school to do all that. Because the community doesn’t exist in the same way, because they’re being asked to make choices now, and because mom and dad are working. And they’re working really hard.

Everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest.

School is a very important place because it’s one of the only places young people gather as a community. If I was running a school, I would extend the school day but wouldn’t have it be school. From 3:30-6:00 run programs explicitly around social-emotional learning (SEL), and over high school it would go from fun to serious to independent study. And not just performing arts as the vehicle, a million other things.

Now, what’s important about doing that well. Because a lot of the time when people talk about doing SEL what they do is…



It needs to be experiential, young people need to be in control of its fate. It needs to have a goal that their working towards, and it needs to be fun, exciting, it needs to be compelling.

What should the impact of that type of programming be? What have you seen the impact be?

Confidence. I want them to be 100% confident that they can resolve the conflicts around them, 100% confident that they can do something about the world, 100% confident that they’re going to be OK. You know what I mean? I want them to feel capable and confident in everything they do. Because I think there’s this mistake…

Young people think, because they’ve been told, that there’s this mastery they need to have of life and then everything’s OK. And I think they need to understand that, there’s no mastery of life. There’s a mastery of confidence, if you want to call it that. The mastery you need is understanding ‘I can deal with this. I can figure this out.’ And that, by the way I think is a function of testing. If you test everyone, if there’s a test at the end, then everyone thinks, ‘oh, I have to master all of this so I can answer all the questions.’ But, do you know how often I’m tested in life, in my job in 21 years? Never. No one has ever made me fill out a bubble hole. So, how is doing that useful? It’s so old school, I’m floored. And to the point about preparing these guys for the world they’re going to live in, we all know that the idea of ‘the test’ is not how it works in the world.

And everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest. That’s teaching them, on some macro level, a very unscientific method, for all of our emphasis on STEM research. And the lack of integrity in education in that sense, is crazy.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty.

I understand why testing is done. Testing is done so they can manage results like a business. But education is not business, it cannot be business anymore than a mother and father can come home and treat their children like their employees. Education is closer to parenting than it is to business. I understand why the system needs to be managed like a business, but the classroom and the individual schools needs to be managed much much much more closely to parent, family and household than like a business. Every teacher knows this.

The payoff with kids is often time a long way away. You don’t know when a kid’s gonna (snaps) get it. And a lot of it is beyond your control. It’s where their brain is, and nutrition, and the social forces that are going on in their lives, and I do believe that the single biggest destructive force in their lives is poverty.

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty. You use education to move up. But I do believe there’s a way for schools to address those forces in their kids’ lives so that they deal with them honestly. And then they need support from everybody else. So, if you go to east New York, south Bronx, Jamaica-Queens, and you have a poor community school. They need more than just being a school and we need to reconfigure that. We need to rethink that.

Internationally, the United States is one of the only developed countries that gives less resources to schools in high poverty areas.

That is so unfair it’s not even funny. That is the most unfair thing in the world.

(The conversation shifts to how adults who work with young people are trained)

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail. Young people can smell inauthenticity and irrelevance (snaps) like that. So a teacher, an adult, anyone working with young people has to be authentic and relevant in their lives, and be bringing something relevant to them as far as a teacher in terms of subject matter. Or make a subject matter relevant for them.

When you start teaching, we call it painting by the numbers, when someone starts teaching by the numbers, and they say something like, ‘what’s my response to that question?’ It’s like OK, pause, the response to that question has to be your response to that question, first and foremost, or they’re not going to buy it. I mean you have to digest the material, but then you have to get in there. And that’s really a theatrical technique. Given a script, digest it and then make it authentic.

How would you describe the philosophy of The Possibility Project?

So, we don’t have ‘a philosophy,’ but there’s a lot of things we’ve learned that we hang on to. So, I’ll tell them to you as we remember them over the course of the year. One is that every time we meet a young person, when we first meet them, we try to imagine them as positive, powerful, productive people as adults, and then we ask ourselves, ‘ok, what do they need to get there?’ We never ever take a pathological or deficit model. We never say, ‘ok so they’ve got these issues or those issues,’ it’s just not how we look at them. We envision them, imagine them as excellent. We know that they’re incredibly capable. They can do amazing things, just period. Not matter who they are. We have kids who have very serious deficits and all that and for us that’s no excuse not to be able to achieve, certainly in our context. I mean, acting, singing, dancing, anyone can do that if they want to, to some degree of success.

We see creativity as the highest form of empowerment.

There’re so many philosophies right, I think another one is that the key to unlocking everything for a kid is social-emotional. It’s not just cognitive. It’s not just educational. In fact, I would argue that it’s almost all SEL. And it’s funny right, because everyone says if we want a kid to go to college, we’ve got to give them tutoring, and SAT prep, and this and that, and the other thing, and I’m like well, if that kid gets lit up, if he gets motivated he’s going to figure out how to do all that for himself, she’s going to figure out how to do all that for herself. Which is one, more efficient. Two, you didn’t need to put in all these new dependencies. And three, it’ll probably stick. If they figure things out for themselves now, they can figure out everything else for themselves in the future, rather than have to find the next professional service for them to hire so they can take the next step in their lives.

Also, we see creativity as the highest form of empowerment. If you live your life reacting to what happens to you, muddling through, that’s one way. If you understand that your life is yours to create, that the future is yours to make, then you’re in a great place. You’re going to get busy making that future happen, confident, motivated, all of those things. But I think how you understand how to do that, is by practicing, studying and creating things.

In our environment, the idea of creativity is not like, ‘ok, here’s some colored scarves and colored paper, let’s create,’ do you know what I mean? That’s exploring, and exploration is a part of creativity, but creativity is a long involved process. It involves discipline and commitment and accountability, and muscle and sweat and tears.

We believe in a lot of things I mean there are so many things we believe in.

It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

We also believe in not exploiting our kids’ experiences, and we make sure we never ever author their story for them. We don’t do it in the program. We don’t do it in fundraising. We don’t do it, ever. That’s part of the integrity. That when you peel what we do back to the center, the center holds.

What do they tell you about school?

They don’t like it. We did a three year research project with teachers college at Columbia University, Michael Hanson and the National Center for Children and Families. One of the most consistent responses in the whole survey was how they answered the question about why they like The Possibility Project. They said, ‘because it’s not school.’ It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

Why don’t they like school?

I would say, the reason they don’t like school, God there’re so many reasons. One, they have to sit all day long. They sit in chairs, which I think is crazy. Two, their teachers are not exciting or compelling. Most of their teachers are boring. Three, they don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning. I think the biggest reason they don’t like school is that they have no idea why they’re there and no one’s even talking about that question.

I just looked at a series of evaluations from last year’s program. We ask a question about our program as it relates to school. “Did this program make you more interested or excited about school?” And every single one of them was ‘no.’ On a four point scale, four being ‘a lot,’ one being ‘none at all,’ it was ‘none.’ Now mind you, we’re trying. I just think they’ve given up on it. School sucks.

It is harder to get people excited about solving systems of equations than performing a musical.

Yes yes, but if those are happening in the same community. If the musical community is the same community that’s sitting next to each other in the classroom, it would change. And if the teachers that are teaching math were instructed to make it relevant. Not like ‘ok 3 hos meet 9 pimps. 3 hos and nine pimps makes how many fucked up people?’ that’s not what I’m talking about, not that sort of ‘cool hip-hop relevance.’ I’m talking about, let’s talk about why math is important. Spend the first week just giving them the history of mathematics. When you’re a child, not so much, but by the time you’re a teenager, that question of ‘why’ needs to be answered.


To read about the evening we spent with the teenagers and artistic directors of The Possibility Project click here.

(Young people from TPP’s Foster care program also wrote and acted in a real feature film titled Know How. You can stream it on Netflix.)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education

We were over a year into planning and saving for this trip when Elizabeth turned to me on the couch. “Why don’t we try to visit schools as we go?” she asked. The idea struck as a bolt of epiphany. It really made a lot of sense. Professionally, this would make the trip less of a hiatus and more of a self-funded sabbatical. It would give me a chance to indulge in something like the journalism career I passed over to pursue education. And most interestingly, it would give us an excuse to talk with locals about something they cared about. In the midst of this excitement, the questions began to pile on top of themselves: What questions would we ask? How would we get connected to schools? What would we do about language barriers? What tone should we take when we write? Which schools would we focus on? What could we hope to better understand by the end?

As we’ve sought to answer these questions, we’ve learned a lot about the differences between American education and the rest of the world Many of the foundations of our education system, from the time commitment we expect of our teachers (much more), to the training we offer them (much less), are dealt with significantly differently in other countries. Other factors, like our staggeringly high childhood poverty rate and complicated (to say the least) history with race and systemic oppression, further add to the uniqueness of the American education landscape. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll go into more detail about what we’ve learned in our preliminary research in a later post. For now, I want to focus on what we aim to achieve with this aspect of our trip.

Dos and Don’ts

What we certainly don’t want to do is suggest that we have a clear grasp of what education is like in a certain country just because we’ve spoken to some people and visited a few schools. We also don’t want to give the impression that we’re searching for best practices to be sent back for implementation in the United States. We’re not looking to pass judgement or discover solutions. (Over the years, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the ‘reformer as Dr. Frankenstein’ approach to leadership) Instead, we want to focus on the ideas and experiences of individuals. Curiosity will be our driving force. We’ll ask students, teachers, and administrators what they think the goals of education should be and how they seek to meet those goals. We’ll ask about the obstacles they face as well as the programs and ideas they are most excited about. As the months pass by, we look forward to seeing how the voices of the people we talk with reinforce and contradict one another. We hope that these conversations will stir us to ask more interesting questions and spur us to think more creatively about what education can look like in the United States.

We don’t know what we’ll find, but we hope to add something useful to the dialogue around education here at home. At the very least, we look forward to broadening our own understandings of what is possible.

We hope you’ll stick around for the ride. And of course, your voice has a place in this conversation as well so feel free to comment and share.


Will & Elizabeth