Keep Your Hand on the Plough
By Kathleen M. Minke
As you read this, you are probably already looking forward to the (at least somewhat) less hectic summer months. But as I write this, I’m still recovering from the incredibly successful San Francisco convention and trying to sort through the sea of ideas generated there. The convention was the third largest in NASP history, and I am so grateful to the convention committee, NASP staff, volunteers, and presenters who made it such a valuable learning opportunity for nearly 5,600 of our colleagues. As NASP president, I was on the receiving end of many positive comments, which I cheerfully collected on their behalf. If you were not able to attend, it is not too late for you to learn from many of our presenters through the audio recoded sessions on the NASP Live Learning Center (LLC; http://nasp.sclivelearningcenter.com/index.aspx). You get audio and/or video synchronized to the PowerPoint slides of the presenters, with more than 100 hours of professional development content (the sessions cited below are included).
One of the messages that came through most clearly to me during the convention was the energy and dedication of our profession and the urgent need to harness that energy toward effective schooling for our most vulnerable students: those living with the crushing effects of poverty. As Linda Darling–Hammond outlined in her keynote address, despite the hue and cry about the decline in U.S. students’ performance on international assessments, when you look at the statistics for students attending schools that have low poverty rates, U.S. students lead the world in reading. However, in schools with greater than 50% of their students living in poverty, U.S. students fall near the bottom. And, unfortunately, our poverty rate continues to grow, with an estimate from the Brookings Institute placing it at around 26% of all U.S. children by 2014. The countries whose schools are held up as examples to emulate have far lower rates of poverty (Finland, for example, has a poverty rate of just 3.4%). In addition, high achieving countries have taken a systematic, sustained, and comprehensive approach to school improvement. According to Darling–Hammond, successful reforms include universal preschool and healthcare, equitable funding with careful investment in high–needs students, investment in teacher preparation and early career mentoring and support, "whole child" curricula that focus more on critical thinking than on developing "fill in the bubble" multiple choice testing skills, and a focus on multilingual and multicultural education.
It can be discouraging that few of these elements are prominent in our national discourse. For example, we hear a constant drumbeat about problems with teacher preparation, assigning blame to colleges of education and advocating ranking systems of dubious merit as a key solution. However, far less attention is paid to the skills and supports (like those we provide) that teachers need to work successfully in multicultural, multilingual environments, including the ability to work in teams and develop strong relationships with each other and the students and families they serve.
The good news is we know these approaches work. This year’s Distinguished Lecturer, Robert Pianta, reviewed a substantial body of research demonstrating that the quality of teachers’ interactions with students in both emotional and instructional support is a far stronger predictor of student success than variables like teacher pay and certification. The effects of high quality classrooms are especially strong for students of the greatest need, and teachers can successfully develop these skills through observation and careful feedback, processes with which we can help. There also are examples where large–scale efforts are underway to address issues of poverty. In a featured session, Kevin Dwyer and David Osher outlined their work with Cleveland Public Schools, where 100% of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch, and sustained attention is being given to providing the core conditions for learning that are needed for success.
What can we do as individual school psychologists? There are lots of possibilities. Make developing advocacy skills part of your personal professional development plan. Consider attending the NASP–GW Public Policy Institute this July to learn effective ways to shape policy. Ask your state association to include building–, district–, and state–level advocacy training in your conference offerings next year. Mobilize and partner with other concerned groups to support equitable funding and schools that create effective conditions for learning. Be willing to challenge comments like: "What can you expect given her family situation?" Beware of quick fixes that don’t address systemic barriers and comprehensive supports. Seek and promote the existing strengths and resources that all families have as an avenue to school success, and work to build bridges between school–based and community–based services. And, most importantly and despite whatever roadblocks you encounter, make yourself a valuable resource to school leaders who can partner with you to effect change. Or as Linda Darling–Hammond summed up her remarks (by way of Langston Hughes and the old spiritual): "Keep your hand on the plough."