I didn’t have the most conventional upbringing. As one of 12 kids (now with 15 nieces and nephews and growing), I know that my family has always turned heads on volume alone. If you add to the mix that nine of my siblings are adopted, most of us are within four years of each other in age, and our family portraits represents the best of our country’s diversity, this has shaped my views as a person, educator, and activist. Sports and substance abuse, racism and roses, homophobia and honesty, incarceration and ice cream, poverty and privilege, trauma and joy were all frequent topics of discussion at our weekly family meetings. Members of my family experienced school differently, often based on how much adults perceived they could achieve. What would it take to build a school system where all of my siblings and their kids would thrive? This question drives me to this day and pushes me to ask myself and other reformers what the next phase of the work to ensure excellence and equity should look like, based on what we have — and have not — tackled in the past 20 years of reform.
Recently, the education community has been barraged by sobering — but not surprising — news. In recent national studies, we (again) learned that students who drop out of high school do not have access to 21st-century jobs. We (again) learned about how homeless students fall between the cracks and how schools struggle to support them or, worse, don’t even know they sleep in a car. We (again) learned that students who were adopted or grow up in foster care, even in wealthy communities, experience more challenges in school than their peers, as issues around healthy identity collide with systems ill-equipped to support nontraditional families. We (again) learned that students of color, who are suspended at rates far higher than their peers for the same infractions, are far more likely to leave school and become incarcerated for major portions of their lives. We (again) learned that students who identify as LGBTQ are less likely to graduate or have a positive school experience.
Despite our best efforts, there are too many children whom schools and school systems, charter and district, are struggling to reach. They are students whom adults perceive as “hard to serve.” Far from being the great equalizer they can be, schools are too often the places where kids facing the most significant risk factors have the worst experiences. Challenges these students experience in life, often because of the failures of other systems like child welfare and criminal justice, are exacerbated instead of ameliorated in their school experience.
Undeniably, as a reform community, we have created more excellent schools serving poor students. But, equally undeniably, we have not changed the hard fact that if you are a kid facing significant risk factors, you are not likely to excel. More deeply diagnosing the root of problems is the first step to effecting meaningful solutions. But, as one of my favorite coaches used to say, “So what? Now what?”
If we truly believe that all students, regardless of their circumstances, deserve excellent schools that give them the widest range of life options, then we have to do more than admire the problem.
School leaders and reformers must be willing to ask ourselves tough questions and rethink what we are doing and not doing to truly support all students, especially those caught in circumstances that make school harder. I suggest we look unsparingly at how we approach our work along four dimensions: people, practices, policies, and power.
As a reform community, we have embraced a simple but important truth: People matter. We’ve maintained a laser-like focus on recruiting, selecting, and coaching excellence in the classroom because we know the single most important school-based factor is teacher quality. As was the case in our groundbreaking contract in Newark, we’ve created incentives to retain and reward the best teachers while fairly moving out those we wouldn’t want teaching our own children. We’ve changed the definition of what it means to be a principal and embraced the critical role assistant principals, other administrators, and teacher leaders play in building excellent schools.
But in order to really reach all students, we have to make sure we are giving teachers the tools to support students’ academic and social and emotional growth. We need to celebrate and develop teachers who build deep relationships with their students, who know what motivates and triggers them, and who form true partnerships with the primary person in their family, whether that is a parent, grandparent, neighbor, uncle, foster parent, or case worker. Great teachers skillfully plan rigorous lessons and know their students as unique individuals. It’s also critical that our teaching population better mirror the diversity of our students.
We need an equally deep focus on how we recruit, select, coach, and evaluate guidance counselors and social workers. Non-teaching staff, from counselors to peer coaches to teaching assistants, who help students set and attain personal goals, are critical. Adults whose full-time role is to support the social and emotional growth of students must be experts at developing trust to help students reflect openly on their hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. They need to be highly skilled, for example, in motivational interviewing techniques to help students persist in the face of obstacles. Even the most empathetic and dedicated educators have blind spots about how students who are struggling experience unconscious biases and low expectations. All adults need high-quality professional development experiences that help put them in the shoes of students and how they perceive school.
As a reform community, we celebrate practices that we equate with high-performing schools. We celebrate carefully planned and purposefully reinforced school cultures that have “no excuses” for students to operate below grade level. High-performing schools have rigorous curricula, carefully planned units and lessons, meaningful ways to measure student progress, and time to adjust teaching where needed. Adults are accountable for upholding school values and continuing to perfect their craft. Leaders sweat the small stuff and create environments that communicate respect for families and students.
Effective school-wide practices that result in tightly managed school instruction, data, and school culture should be maintained, but they will be insufficient to reach all students. Teachers need tools to prevent students from being off-task and to redirect them in non-punitive ways when they are. School-wide procedures and rituals must repair trust while helping students learn from missteps and engage in reflection to keep growing, rather than simply trying to remove the problem, and this extends beyond individual classrooms. Curricula, standards, lessons plans, and qualitative assessments focused on teaching productive habits of mind must be as rigorous, thoughtful, and valued as those teaching algebra.
Student support teams should push adults with different roles to find new, innovative strategies to reach students well before they are critically off-track, behaviorally or academically. When students begin to struggle, adults should have structures and protocols to ask themselves and each other, “What have we missed?” or “What specific strategies and interpersonal approaches will coach this student to peak performance?” rather than “How can we describe what is wrong with this student in greater detail?” or “How can we punish this student more?”
Therapeutic learning centers should be special places where students engage in one-on-one coaching or clinical services. Student-led groups and activities should provide students with opportunities to lead and see their impact, regardless of their personal circumstances. Memorandums of agreement should spell out when and how law enforcement, family support, child welfare, and probation staff partner with school staff to make sure interagency gaps aren’t making things worse for our most vulnerable students and families. School teams must have the skill, will, and capacity to operationalize a new set of tasks too many previously thought was “not my job.”
We have to take a hard look at policies that have had some positive effects but also some unintended consequences. High schools should be accountable for graduation rates. But, we should focus on publishing five- and six-year graduation rates so schools retain students and persist in lifting them to a level of academic competence they need to access 21st-century jobs, rather than just incentivizing them to coach students to pass the GED to grow their graduation rate. (A lot of students, by the way, call the GED the “Good Enough Diploma,” and scores of research shows that students with GEDs have worse life outcomes than students who drop out.)
Our goal should absolutely remain to get every student to proficiency or above on rigorous standards — and let them decide if they want to go to college after they have the skills to access the full range of life options. But we should stop publishing “percent proficient” by itself without any growth data. I have seen firsthand the powerful incentive this creates for schools to retain students within striking distance of the proficiency line and to find ways to eject those really far behind. Getting students from their own 20-yard line to the other team’s 20-yard line is harder than getting a student from the other team’s 20-yard line into the end zone. Our current proficiency-based accountability systems only count when we score — which means we are ignoring a lot of students while celebrating false gains.
Every city in America should publish a “school mobility rate,” overall and by school, so the public can plainly see how many students who started the school year in one school actually finish the school year there. As educators, we often tell ourselves that “we don’t have what it takes to serve this student” or “this student could use a change of scenery” or “this student needs to get away from his friends — they’re a bad influence.” The truth is that every time a student who is struggling moves to another school, that student becomes three to five times as likely to not finish school at all, and we know what that means for later life options. This is not a “charter problem” — it’s an education problem. Too many students are moving from school to school, a practice that makes it more difficult to help all kids, particularly our most vulnerable, reach excellence, and we do not focus on the epidemic of mobility enough.
Finally, we have to get real about who has power to influence systems. Too often, the loudest microphone is held by a vocal and connected educator or parent who is resistant to enrolling a student returning from Rikers, an openly transgender student, a 15-year-old girl who is pregnant, or a magnet school student who is perceived to not have “earned” a spot. Students and families who are more marginalized, therefore, are too often on the receiving end of enrollment, policy, and other practices in systems and schools that families with more power would never accept. Equally problematic, some local and national funders are so focused on having more schools with more students reading at proficiency that this has eclipsed equity, fixating on student growth, and supporting the hardest-to-serve students. Most troubling, some of the most innovative and successful change agents in education do not think they should have to focus on what too many regard as “niche issues,” like serving students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students who are returning to school, or students who are growing up in a nontraditional family. I would argue that truly understanding these issues is what will help us get to the next level of education excellence for all students as well our most struggling communities. Somehow, when it comes to serving our toughest students, reformers who advocate for more charters by harping on the fact that districts are irreparably broken still want to relegate students to subpar “alternative schools.”
If Reform 1.0 was about creating more great schools and proof points, I think we can safely say we’ve done that — and we should all celebrate the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here. I remain a fierce believer in the positive impact of high standards, fair choice systems, rigorous curricula, top-notch talent strategies, and high-quality accountability data — and would not support any new direction that walks back the key lessons we’ve learned on these fronts.
But I believe we should embrace Reform 2.0: a movement to ensure excellence is really reaching all students. In my estimation, that’s going to require some serious rethinking of people, practices, policies, and power. I wonder sometimes if we are as committed to equity and serving all kids as we are to saying we have more excellent schools or even preserving choice. I wonder what it will take for me to sleep well knowing that my son and all of my nieces and nephews — white, black, brown, academically gifted, those with learning disabilities, transgender, differently abled, compliant, challenging, and everything in between — attend schools that deliver on their potential.
For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.