Dear President Obama,
Now that you are back in the White House, we hope you can turn the campaign rhetoric into real success stories on the ground. You say that U.S. progress in a global economy depends on strong education. Yet in Philadelphia and many inner city schools around the country, we are simply not making the grade. The U.S. is ranked 17th in reading behind Finland and Poland, and 30th in math, a full 13 slots behind Slovenia. And a March 2012 report from the U.S. Education and National Security organization stated, "by almost every measure, U.S. schools are failing to provide the kind of education our society will need to ensure American leadership in the twenty-first century."
We know you have a lot on your plate, but the education of our children needs to be a top priority. We blew it with No Child Left Behind. And, as yet, the Common Core Standards are not jumping from the pages of educational reform into our daily school practices -- as some case studies from Philadelphia make abundantly clear.
Take Julie, who teaches 2nd grade in an underperforming, low-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Of the 20 kids in her class, only 4 read at grade level. Julie had read the scientific literature and knew (according to a paper by G. Whitehurst and his colleagues in 1994 in the journal of Developmental Psychology) that only 10 percent of these children were likely to have age appropriate books in their homes. So she approached Donors Choose, a nonprofit organization that matches educational needs in the classroom with real products for children and she built a reading corner in her classroom. The children were thrilled and started to have discussions around books. But their joy was short lived when the school removed the book corner over a weekend, claiming that it did not fit into the prescribed curriculum.
Rita, who teaches 1st grade in the same school, knows that curriculum well. And having read many blogs and research papers about literacy, she hoped to surround the children with words. She put up posters around the room and engaged her fledgling readers in conversations about the world that would increase their reading readiness. She, too, was familiar with the science of learning and knew about the giant steps that lower income children made in studies that focused on language development and that flooded a classroom with signs and other examples of written text. Yet, the higher authorities swooped in and demanded that she remove the well-placed and attractive posters for fear of distracting the children. If she did not clear the walls immediately, she faced detention.
North Philadelphia retains the scars of poverty, with boarded up homes and concrete playgrounds. But there is an oasis in a Head Start that services over 400 low-income Hispanic children. And that oasis stands on a city square where the school buildings surround a grassy park with an underused jungle gym. The principle is a formidable woman who totally "gets" what it means to prepare her children for school. She also knows that physical activity, like romping around in recess, is a diminishing activity. But she, too, was reprimanded by the school system when she escorted her children to the nearby playground. These children should not cross the street with their teachers; they should play on the concrete. Really? We know that recess and physical activity in safe spaces increases attention and helps children learn.
Finally, we cannot help but mention adjective day. A bright woman who had enlisted in Teach for America was going into her 5th grade North Philadelphia classroom where the day's lesson plan called for teaching adjectives. Now, we are fans of those delectable and delicious parts of speech that adorn nouns to make the language more specific. But to learn adjectives you really have to know about nouns, so we asked our young colleague -- "do they know nouns?" "No," she replied, "and I am not allowed to teach nouns today because it is adjective day!"
Our teachers stand at the front line in the fight against poverty. Instead of following Michelle Rhee's lead of bashing and handcuffing them, perhaps we should empower them to take the science of learning into the classroom so that every child has a real chance to succeed. The 16 children in Julie's class who read below grade level come from homes where parents often don't read and where, according to the work of Hart and Risley, these same parents rarely have conversations with their children. Julie knows this and added that reading corner to supplement the intellectual dearth at home.
Today, the poor kids in Philadelphia -- and in many other American cities -- are doomed to fail. This is shameful, because we know what to do. Scientists working in the newly minted science of learning will work with you to fashion the Common Core Standards and to help implement and assess those Standards in school districts across this nation. It is time to draw on all of your resources. It is beyond time to ensure that the rhetoric about educational reform permeates the walls of the classrooms.