by Joe Camp
Is there a common denominator?
Embedded amongst all the problems we have with education in this country – the low teacher salaries, the inadequate facilities, the continuing debates over curriculum – there are schools that excel when all around them are merely struggling to keep up. Schools which, although surrounded by results well below the norms, are producing test scores astonishingly above the norms, and sending graduates off to college at percentage levels that are astounding.
Even a cursory survey of a small sampling of these schools reveals a stunning focus; stunning because it’s so simple. So easily discounted and tossed aside. A focus that is not particularly scholarly.
Why do these schools excel when so many others do not? The common denominator is… motivation!
We can all accomplish just about anything we truly want to accomplish. There are no chains on the human spirit. But often we get so mired in the structure, the paperwork, the debate over things intellectual, that we forget the very ingredient that can make us fly. We forget to motivate, ourselves and our kids. I know, I know. We want to say it’s just not that simple… but the truth is… it is. Consider these extreme examples. Schools with very little going for them… except the fact that someone decided that stirring motivation was the key to better results:
The Phyllis Wheatly Elementary School…
…a public school in a section of south Dallas where crime and unemployment are high. When I first read about Wheatly, it was populated with students from poor, single-parent households, homes where many of the parents didn’t finish school. But The Wheatly School had a very special principal who made it her mission to motivate her faculty and students, and her passion and strategy for education spelled results. Every assembly began with a question: “Who are you?” The student response, in rousing chorus: “I AM SOMEBODY!!”
“What’s the best school in Texas??”
The kids would scream: “PHYLLIS WHEATLY!!”
And perhaps it was. Student scores and percentages of students passing were ten to fifteen percent higher than the average of the entire school district, which includes the more affluent and better educated neighborhoods of north Dallas! You wouldn’t find this principal in her office. She was sitting in a classroom, or walking with children on the playground, or eating with them at lunch. She’d be involving parents, or exposing children to good books, and recruiting city officials to read to the students. “My reading plans were simple,” she said. “All it took was letting the students and the community know that I wanted to hear them read.” Every week the students vied for the honor of spending fifteen minutes alone with their principal, reading to her their favorite story. The number of students passing reading was ten percent above the district average.
The Piney Woods School…
…an historically black boarding school in south central Mississippi (grades 7-12) with 80% of its students from low income, single-parent families, many from the nation’s inner cities, yet the school sends 95% (usually 100%) of its graduates to college, many to top colleges and universities like Princeton, Williams, Middlebury, University of Chicago, Tufts, Amherst, Duke, Smith, and Northwestern. For most of the students, an environment away from the streets, nestled in rolling pine forests, where people actually care about them, is a new experience. They see hope, many for the first time. They live in an atmosphere rich in love and caring. The president believes that motivation is the key, that faculty must be special, and students must discover their self-esteem. They must believe that they can, in fact, make their lives extraordinary. As with Wheatly, a standing cheer at Piney Woods is “I AM SOMEBODY!!” The Piney Woods motto, which the faculty and staff live and teach by is: We are changing America, one student at a time. And indeed they are. For more on Piney Woods click here.
The Duke Ellington School…
…a high school for the performing arts in Washington, D.C. Like Wheatly and Piney Woods, most of the students are underprivileged and from the inner city, yet this public school sends 92% of it’s graduates to college through motivation of a different sort, but motivation nonetheless. A student proficient and passionate in one of the arts must audition to be accepted, and then can only remain at the school if he or she maintains a 2.0 average or better in core curriculum courses. The desire to, for example, play music, motivates the student to work hard on his or her grades in English, or math.
The Barclay School…
…in Baltimore, a rigorous, structured, back-to-basics public school populated with inner-city, at-risk students. The emphasis at Barclay is on building confidence and laying out high expectations. According to columnist John Leo, the school gets results that elite private schools would be proud of.
St. Philip’s School…
…a private Episcopal school located (is it destiny?) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in south Dallas; teaching African Americans from low socioeconomic backgrounds, age three through grade four. According to the school’s headmaster, for the most part these are average students, many of whom might fail in public schools. But at St. Philip’s, they earn very high test scores, ranking in the top 13 percent of the country.
The headmaster works on student motivation daily, implanting his creed for can-do attitudes and positive thinking:
It’s not where you come from, but where you’re going.
If it’s to be, it’s up to me.
If you start today, you pave the way.
Stick it out!
Every marking period, he personally dishes out one scoop of ice cream for every “A” made on each student’s report card.
There have always been students who excel, regardless of the circumstances, and go on to some of the best colleges… not necessarily because they are brighter, but because they want to. Someone, somewhere during their short lives, has managed to provide the impetus to motivate them beyond the norm. What the success of the above schools tells us is that such emphasis on motivation can work throughout an entire class, grade, or school.
There is a body of contemporary thought that says it’s bad to press kids to perform; to expect too much. Without getting into a quantitative debate, I’ll merely say that all logic and known study, at the very least, proves that high expectation does generate motivation… and low levels of expectation will, almost always, generate low levels of performance. In effect, you will usually get no more than you ask for.
There are also pragmatic reasons for effecting a motivated faculty and student body. An effective learning environment must include a certain amount of discipline. A group of 50, or 30, or even 10 students cannot learn much in a classroom if chaos prevails. But how can one person (teacher) control a group of kids, especially at the high school level, unless that group of kids (or at least most of them) want to be controlled… are motivated to allow themselves to be controlled? Motivated, hopefully, because they want something out of the experience. But it still works if what they want is…
…to play music (as they can at the Duke Ellington School)… or…
…to read a story to the principal (as they can at the Phyllis Wheatly School)… or…
…to get a scoop of ice cream (as they can at St. Philips)… or…
…to simply make their lives extraordinary (as they are continually promised they can at The Piney Woods School).
Not an easy answer, of course, or the only answer. Curriculum, obviously, needs to be continually reviewed, evaluated, and improved. As does faculty training, salaries, and physical plants. But… just imagine the difference it could make – with no change of curriculum, with no congressional bills, with no bureaucratic in-fighting, with no additional funding – if the levels of success at the Phyllis Wheatly School could be harnessed and replicated in schools all across the nation.