Where Have All the Strong Poets Gone?

Jonathan Kozol’s latest book, Shame of the Nation, documents the curricular and instructional landscapes of the two educational systems in America. One educational system in our country is located in the suburbs where mostly white students sit in classrooms with teachers who possess the content knowledge to construct lessons that are engaging and accurately reflect the content and structure of the discipline that they teach. The breadth and depth of the curriculum in these suburban schools provide all of their students with the knowledge and skills to do well in a post-secondary setting. Finally, these suburban schools are housed on sprawling campuses that possess all the accoutrements of ivy league universities —a quality library, computer labs outfitted with the latest technology, state of the art science labs, and a rich variety of support services that will enhance the social and emotional development of young people as they progress through their primary and secondary school experiences.

At the very same time that white suburban students are being prepared to become the future bosses in our country, African-American and Hispanics students sit in classrooms with young, inexperienced teachers whose minimum training in their content areas leave them with little ability to construct lessons that would reflect the kinds of thinking and methods of inquiry that would prepare them adequately for post-secondary schooling. Instead of engaging lessons that reflect state-of- the-art approaches to curriculum and instruction, students in our urban and rural areas are subjected to an instructional program that Kozol terms, “a test preparation boot camp.” Inductees in this boot camp are expected to listen to scripted lesson plans, complete practice test-preparation exercises, and take an endless stream of tests. The facilities in these “boot camps” are as deplorable as the instructional program. Students sit in classrooms without windows, go to bathrooms that do not function, and work in labs without chemicals or specimens.

Why has the resegregation of our nation’s schools into two systems —one poor and urban and one well-off and suburban— remained unnoticed by the public and our policy makers? The parents of poor urban students have never possessed the political or economic capital to generate outrage, much less awareness, of the dilapidated buildings and dead-end curriculum that their children are subjected to every day of the week. Suburban parents, who do possess the political and economic power to call attention to the deplorable conditions in our urban schools, remain silent because they simply have the schools they want. White suburban schools, especially the elite white suburban schools, have it all—why talk of funding formulas and social policies that would then require them to share the resources that are presently being lavished on their children?

As for state and national policy-makers, they have camouflaged the deep political, social, and economic forces that have conspired to segregate our schools, our neighborhoods and the futures of our children behind the high-sounding rhetoric of equal educational opportunities for all children —“all children can learn” and “no child left behind”—and the vocabulary of business accountability measures—test, inspect, and reconstitute. The relentless use of a vocabulary of equality married to a whole host of school accountability measures has proven to be a potent strategy for dodging thorny policy issues that might actually develop the conditions that “no child left behind” was meant to achieve —equal-funding formulas, scattered site housing, universal health care and a quality child-care system. The cruelty of this policy shell game is to sanction the schools that serve the poor and voiceless in our society and to reward the schools that serve the wealthiest and most powerful.

I understand why state and national policy-makers and their suburban constituencies have adopted a vocabulary and an ideology that masks gross inequalities in our nation’s schools behind the vices of big city schools and the virtues of suburban schools. Sadly, the general tenor of our nation appears to have forsaken the social justice concerns that motivated our young people during the sixties and the civil rights movement for a “gated-community” mentality that aggressively fights any encroachment on the rights and privileges that wealth and power have bestowed on their sons and daughters.

However, what I do not understand is why our nation’s professional educational organizations and the academic community have not only remained silent about the conditions, the facilities, the pedagogy, the curriculum that urban children are subjected to on a daily basis, but have supported and pursued accountability measures that can only worsen the educational futures of urban youth. A brief visit to an educational convention, an urban school, or flipping through a popular educational journal would quickly confirm how the educational establishment in our country has all but surrendered the high ground of the ideals expressed in Brown vs. Board of Education. Rather than pursue policies, curriculum, and instructional strategies that would provide all children with rich instructional environments, educational consultants, professors of education, school administrators, and state and national educational leaders, have stood by in silence or actively supported punitive strategies for holding students, teachers, and school administrators responsible for student achievement or, even worse, promoted “how to” approaches for implementing accountability measures that straight-jacket teachers and systematically destroy whatever self-esteem urban school children have left when they enter the school house doors.

What we need in today’s educational climate, are school leaders in the tradition of John Dewey, George S. Counts, and Paulo Freire who possessed the intellectual power and rhetorical skill to make everything in the field of education look new and to change the way the public and educators look at schools. Richard Rorty refers to such individuals as “strong poets.” By strong poet, Rorty does not mean literally “a poet,” but rather individuals who possess the imagination to create a new story about what teaching and learning should look like in our urban schools and the courage to develop an oppositional vocabulary that critiques the motives and the consequences of wealth and power.

What message and course of action should our Strong Professors of Education be pursuing in a country that has all but accepted a school system segregated by race and income? Strong Professors of Education should be using their classrooms, the educational media, and their research interests to identify and provide rationale for curricular approaches and pedagogical techniques that are harmful to urban young people and expose the gross inequalities which now exist in our public-school systems. Strong Deans of Education should use their positional and expert authority base to voice opposition to accreditation measures and policy initiatives that intensify punitive accountability measures and continue to promote inequalities in how we fund our schools. Both Strong Professors of Education and Strong Deans of Education should be teaching, writing, and creating courses of study that not only provide best practice in the field of teaching and learning for urban youth but should also be providing future teachers with methodologies and forums to study and discuss the relationship between the most vexing problems of our time—racism, poverty, sexism, violence, prejudice—and the routines of institutional schooling which historically have shown little awareness of the injustices perpetuated by these routines.

Most importantly, Strong Poets in the Academy must refocus the public’s attention on the real causes of poor achievement in our urban school systems. For too long the academy has allowed policy-makers to shift attention away from the effects racism and poverty have on the communities where urban schools reside to bogus accountability measures—data-driven schools, retention, high-stakes testing—that have no effect on the long-term achievement of urban school children and do great harm to the social and emotional well being of these same children. Race and poverty have never been neutral when it comes to schooling—the academy must stop treating race and poverty as silent variables in urban school achievement.

Finally, what should our Strong School Administrators be doing in the urban schools they lead? First, school administrators must have the courage and skill to become Strong Educational Leaders. It is dishonest for school administrators to portray themselves as “pawns” in the hands of powerful political interests and then disappear behind the curtain of the management functions of their job while the children in their schools languish in crumbling facilities and “drill and kill” classrooms. School administrators will always have control over the important allocation of time, resources, and instructional approaches in the buildings they lead. Strong Educational Leaders exercise that control in a way that provides teachers in their buildings with the time, the resources, and the instructional skills to make differences in the way urban young people read, write, compute and think.

Secondly, as with medical doctors, Strong Educational Leaders should “do no harm.” Many of the accountability measures—retention policies, special education placements, suspensions and expulsions, remedial services of all kinds— that are currently being visited on urban youth are destructive to the intellects and souls of urban youth. Strong Educational Leaders should be actively opposing these policies and making every effort to ameliorate institutional policies and accountability measures that are hurtful to urban young people.

The foundation of the efforts by Strong Educational Leaders to provide a more caring and intellectually challenging environment in their schools is a strong understanding of the theories, ideas, and practices that govern teaching and learning in our schools. Much of the destructiveness of current “comprehensive reform proposals” occurs because there is no one in a leadership capacity that is mediating the effects of pure theory on young people’s learning. No theory of learning—no matter how “scientific”– should be unleashed in a learning environment without the components of that theory being reformulated in a way that is sensitive to the social context of the school. The important process of reformulating theories that enter a school can only be accomplished by school administrators who are knowledgeable themselves about the theories, ideas, and practices that are grounding a particular school reform proposal.

Each year in our urban school systems we lose a generation of young people that have the potential to become productive citizens in our country. The substandard physical and educational condition of our urban schools which house each lost generation tragically remains out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. Professional educators, however, are morally bound to give voice to those students and teachers who go to school each day in physical facilities that are crumbling and educational environments that are debilitating. Strong Poets, as described by Rorty, possess a message that deflates accepted ways of seeing the world and, most importantly, the courage to voice the message in hostile settings. We, as professional educators, do possess strong messages of what needs to be done in urban schools and, certainly, we find ourselves in a hostile setting—what we are missing are Strong Poets.


High school students nationwide appear to be on to something that a whole decade of school reformers, legislators, and professional educators continue to ignore. In a recent nation wide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association, students state that the high schools they are attending are not very demanding, not very interesting, and not preparing for kinds of thinking or occupational skills they will need when they graduate. The really bad news is that one-third of students who enter ninth grade do not participate in the survey because they have already left school (dropped out). These reports confirm John Goodlad’s observation that high schools are places where students have become emotionally deadened by the routines of schooling and intellectually morbid by an institutional curriculum that prizes completion of work rather understanding and reflection (Goodlad, 1984).

These reports take on greater significance in a world which will demand a highly educated populace to solve the complex problems that are the products of growing global competition, growing association with diverse cultures, and the impact of industrial and technological growth on our natural habitats. Why then are our high schools, whose aim is to provide young people with a proper introduction to the symbol systems, theories, ideas, and elements of argumentation, unable to develop approaches to curriculum and instruction that reflect the kinds of critical thinking and knowledge of subject matters associated with higher levels of intellectual thought? The answer to this important question lies with the institutional nature of schooling in America and the transformation of the disciplines by schools from methods of inquiry to the memorization of unrelated fragments of theories, facts, and ideas.

In the last one-hundred years the goal of the American High School has been transformed from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. In order to accomplish these institutional goals, schools configured themselves in a way to accurately account for daily attendance, to monitor the whereabouts of students on an hourly basis, and to efficiently process students through a prescribed number of credit hours. Today’s schools do these functions very well. The school’s schedule, the supervisory functions of teaching, the subject-centered curriculum, and the assign and assess delivery model of instruction are efficient means of accomplishing the institutional goals of schooling.

Teachers find themselves trapped in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college—and the means of schooling—large classes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing— are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Teenagers find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules —and the routines of schooling —sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets —are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

The organizational structures of institutional schooling induce a passivity towards knowledge and thinking. The disconnect between the emotional, social, and intellectual sources of growth becomes total, however, when high school students are required to master information contained in prescribed subjects that bear little resemblance to the methods of inquiry and levels of thought found in the disciplines of the arts and sciences.

The goals of a school subject are to provide a vehicle for scheduling, assigning daily class work, reproducing information on a test and to certify to institutions of higher learning that a student has completed a prescribed curriculum. Subject matter in such a curriculum consists of catalogues of names, dates, places, definitions, events, and procedures which have been removed from the social and historical context in which the discipline evolved and the problems they were designed to solve.

Not only has the intellectual and aesthetic power of the disciplines been reduced to catalogues of information, but policymakers have deemed only the “core” subjects of English, social studies, mathematics, and science worthy of study. Other ways of knowing the world are considered “electives.” Only a minority of students in our schools possess the social, emotional, and intellectual profile to succeed within such a configuration of schooling.

The daily challenge administrators and teachers confront in schools whose goals and functions are institutional is the minute by minute effort to reduce the tensions created by a configuration of schooling that is openly hostile to the diversity of talents, emotions, and cultures of the student bodies they serve. Administrators and teachers respond to this challenge by employing a combination of special events, routines, techniques, sanctions and broad interpretations of academic achievement to entertain, manage, control, and move along their student bodies.

Administrators and teachers intuitively know that the current configuration of schooling is not working. Things remain the same, however, because the assumptions of institutional schooling are never questioned. In fact, school administrators have intensified the goals of institutional schooling by replacing programs and course sequences that once provided groups of students with course options recognizing multiple talents, abilities, and interests with the one size fits all college bound curriculum. It is no surprise, then, that two-thirds of our students go through the motions of institutional schooling but show little joy, little emotion, and little learning and tragically, one-third of our high school students exercise the option of walking away from school before their senior year.

My effort to resolve the conflict between the institutional goals of schooling and the needs of the whole child began ten years ago when a group of freshman students, who, in the words of the Director of Pupil Personnel Services, “refused to do school.” Students in this group were fourteen and fifteen years old. All members of the group had missed over thirty days of school by November and were failing every subject. The achievement profile of each member of the group did not qualify them for special education services.

My journey into school reconfiguration began with a brainstorming session with our school’s truant officer. After I described the profile of our missing freshman students, Sarah, our truant officer made the following comment: “I know what will work with these kids, but you won’t do it.”
“No, Sarah, I am willing to try anything to help these kids through school.”
“Anything?” Sarah asked.

Sarah proceeded to describe a school configuration that would work for students who “refused to do school.” Students would begin school at ten o’clock. The course of study would be designed by the students in consultation with the director of the program. The physical education program, which was a constant nemesis for these students, was redesigned to be more user friendly to students who disliked “dressing” for gym and traditional activity structures emphasizing competition and team sports. The maximum class size for the program was set at fifteen. The classroom for the program was to be located away from the normal distractions of the high school day.

As I listened to Sarah’s “demands” my thoughts alternated between a resentment towards students who would not go along with the program and a respect for the wisdom of a teacher who had worked with these students for many years. My institutional self was saying no the program. My educational self said that my options resided outside the boundaries of institutional schooling. The traditional configuration of the high school was not working; more of the same was not an option.

Project STARS (Success Through Accepting Responsibility) began that day in my office. I was able to secure money for materials and a salary for the teacher. I found a room in a remote part of the building. I worked with the physical education chairperson to modify the program for these students. I felt a bit more assured about the success of the program when Sarah volunteered to teach and direct the program.

There were parameters for Project STARS. Students, along with their parents, had to sign a contract stipulating that they would attend school on a regular basis, would behave appropriately in class, and would complete assigned school work. Parents and students were also informed that they would not receive a diploma from the school unless they completed all required courses. Students who were unable to comply with these rules would immediately be dropped from the program.

STARS became a huge success. By the end of the first semester, students who were virtual drop-outs were now attending school on a regular basis, were arriving on time to the program and were successfully completing self-selected correspondence courses in academic and elective courses. Over the next seventeen years I was principal I handed out seven hundred and seven diplomas to students who, without the STARS program, would have become a number on a dropout report. In that same period of time, our school’s average graduation rate increased by 9.62%.

The years that I worked with staff and students in the STARS program taught me that traditional institutional approaches to improving achievement that do more of the same, only harder, or the endless search for pathologies in students only alienated the student further from purposeful approaches to learning. Both strategies ignore the fundamental disconnect between the knowledge, interests, and capacities of young people and the institutional goals of schooling.

The other lesson I learned in working with teachers and administrators on different configurations of schooling is the distinctive change in their attitudes towards students who were not doing well in school. Freed from the constraints of institutional schooling, professional staff stopped the blame game—if only students would, if only parents would, if only the administration would. Now staff focused on asking the right question: “How can we make this student successful in our school.”

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A place called school: prospects for the future. A Study of schooling in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

Reluctant Leaders

If the literature on school reform places instructional leadership as the number one contributor to effective schools, why are school administrators reluctant to embrace that role? What follows institutional realities that work to constrain school administrators from assuming responsibility for the functions of instructional leadership.

Graduate schools offering advanced degrees in Educational Administration are thick on managerial offerings—finance, law, administration, building and grounds, technology, special education, human resources—and thin on course offerings in curriculum, instruction, and supervision. It is no surprise then, when teachers move to main offices the instructional functions of their offices are delegated to more junior administrators.

Career Advancement
The inconvenient truth of school administration is career advancement is based on resumes filled with managerial accomplishments: balancing a budget, implementing a technology plan, passing a referendum, lobbying governmental bodies, bringing in a building project under budget, negotiating contracts, resolving special interest disputes. Rarely do you see Principals or Superintendents with resumes filled with instructional accomplishments: writing of a teacher evaluation plan, designing of a quality staff development program, the development of innovative alternative instructional programs, the implementation of theory-based pedagogy.

A review of any line and staff chart in main offices confirms what functions advance careers in school administration and what functions leave a school administrator at the bottom of the chart. To begin with, the men and women at the top of the chart are no longer considered Superintendents—they are now CEO’s. Below the office of CEO are job descriptions dominated by titles representing managerial functions: finance, personnel, building and grounds, technology, data management, security. At the bottom of the chart are Assistant Principles and Department Chairpersons assigned the responsibility for some form of teacher supervision.

Even instructional jobs that were once at the top of the line and staff chart—Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction—have been retitled to represent some form of instructional management: Assistant Superintendent for Data Analysis or Assistant Superintendent for Annual Performance Data.

You Don’t Bother me and I Won’t Bother You
The egg crate design of institutional schooling places teachers into self-contained classrooms that are largely walled off from any form of collaboration, collective sense making, or collegial coaching. What this isolation breeds is an attitude amongst teachers that their classrooms are private domains that no parent or administrator has a right to enter or comment on. Parents or administrators who dare to cross the classroom threshold will be met with an attitude ranging from suspicion to outright hostility—especially if the conversations move towards teaching performance.
School administrators employ the following managerial strategies that circumvent uncomfortable conversations about teaching and learning:

  • They fill their calendars with managerial functions that leave little or no time for classroom supervision;
  • They delegate supervision to newly employed administrators;
  • They complete mandated supervisory responsibilities attending to the forms of supervision—completing check lists, brief observation visits, writing gratuitous comments on evaluation forms, but not the substance of supervision —educating, conferencing, coaching, remediating.

School administrators are extremely sensitive to the charge by members of the school community that the staff is suffering from low morale. Even the most seasoned administrator stays awake at night when informed that staff morale is low. Nothing lowers morale faster that disrupting comfortable teaching routines and asking teachers to adopt uncomfortable teaching routines.

The Community
For the most part, parents are pleased with the forms of schooling: the seven-period day, grades, subjects, tracking, six hour days, honor rolls, building configurations. As long as the forms of schooling are performed well, parents will believe their local school is a good school.

Parents become upset with school administrators who question the substance of institutional schooling: course structures, grading, ability grouping, time allocations, role of extra-curricular activities. The introduction of an interdisciplinary program, the reduction of tracks, the implementation of alternative grading systems, the elimination of weighted grades will produce open hostility from a community who wants their school to mirror the schools they attended.

Job Satisfaction
Finally, managerial functions involve organizing and monitoring the objects of schooling: budgets, buildings, materials, technologies, grounds. After a day of managing objects, administrators can point to tangible outcomes for their efforts: a budget is completed, classes are balanced in the master schedule, a computer lab is installed, a contract is signed, grades go out on time.
School administrators will not experience the same managerial satisfaction in supervising the subjects of schooling: teachers and students. The countless external and internal variables that swirl around classrooms and the inability to define or quantify educational abstractions written into school mission statement make it all but impossible to connect supervisory moves—teacher observation—to student outcomes—critical thinking.

School administrators who assume the role of instructional leader will leave school buildings each day never really knowing if a post-conference, a curriculum proposal, a hallway conversation, a teaching assignment, or a new technology will result in a quality learning experience. In fact, quite the opposite, instead of knowing they have completed a job well done, they will keep replaying in their mind how they could do their job better.

Budgets, Boilers and Boosters

One of the primary goals every school leader should be striving for is strong instructional leadership.  That is, to develop quality instructional programs focusing on discussion, debate, deliberation and deep thinking rather than the mere transmission of principles, facts and procedures.

Even though research indicates that effective schools are lead by strong instructional leaders, surveys of school administrators show that their time is spent more on school management functions; budgets, boilers and boosters.  The goal of a Principal is to keep their eye on the teaching and learning ball;  curriculum development, teacher evaluation, staff development, mentoring, coaching, reading research.

In my journey to understand and practice strong instructional leadership, there are questions to think about and barriers to overcome in order to focus on building an effective learning environment for kids:

Why do school administrators end up managing the routines of schooling rather than confronting the complexities of classroom instruction?

What are the barriers to implementing new and more effective approaches to curriculum and instruction?

What knowledge and skills must a school administrator acquire to effectively drive effective teaching strategies?

How do school administrators persuade skeptical teachers to adopt substantive changes to curriculum and instruction?

How do school administrators work with legislation and regulations in education that disrupt substantive improvements to curriculum and instruction?

How do school administrators work with teachers in classrooms to make collective sense of theory-based pedagogies?

These are the questions we must answer in order to create a quality classroom experience for optimal learning.