11/11/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

The American Dream Begins With a Belief That All Can Succeed

School district "makeovers" are gaining popularity. Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan have created state-run districts to boost performance in their troubled public schools. Virginia is following suit. And officials have agreed to open 17 additional charter schools in New York City over the next two years in response to calls for "revolution" in education.

Yet these "makeovers" could be as superficial and fleeting as the "befores" and "afters" in the beauty magazines or celebrity tabloids. Nontraditional schools have had some successes, but results are mixed, and in general, there is no proof they do a better job than traditional schools.

What does work is believing in every child's ability to achieve, and training every educator to support that potential.

It sounds easy, but it isn't: It takes hard work, time, and planning. And while it might seem like a matter of faith, there is science behind the formula.

The late Professor Reuven Feuerstein (1921-2014) was a clinical, developmental and cognitive psychologist. He believed everyone could improve the way they learn. His research showed that, given the proper direction and intervention, all school children could be taught to learn at the highest levels -- even those with significant cognitive disabilities such as Down Syndrome. Dr. Feuerstein told me while I was a doctoral student at Columbia University, about one such student who, after working with Dr. Feuerstein and his staff at the Feuerstein Institute, went on to receive her PhD in clinical psychology -- despite a reported IQ of 72. Dr. Feuerstein's groundbreaking work proved that intelligence tests do not predict who will and won't succeed.

In her award-winning book, The Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools, Dr. Yvette Jackson described Dr. Feuerstein's achievement this way. Professor Feuerstein:

"...has proven that when students are provided with prerequisite opportunities - explicit training in thinking skills, mediation of underdeveloped cognitive functions, extensive discourse in learning concepts, overt and succinct feedback, and guidance in reflection - they develop the foundations that strengthen their cognitive functioning. In this way, their intellectual capacity can be realized and optimized, and the cycle of underachievement can be replaced with accelerated achievement and self-directed learning."

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. Dr. Feuerstein's method has three main components: teachers who are trained and retrained in the method and observed as they work with students; students who spend many hours learning the method and using it, and; teachers and students integrating the method with other school subjects. Yet organizations among others, from the U.S. Army to teachers in Europe, South Africa over the years have studied the Feuerstein method and concluded it could help their members improve their thinking and learning.

Professor Feuerstein also believed hope is a powerful motivator, able to propel individuals toward success. It's a theme others have embraced, including Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard, who in The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness defined hope as "...that elevated feeling that comes when an individual, through one's mind's eye, sees a path toward a better future."

The more I recall Dr. Feuerstein's work, the more I come to understand that the "education reform" movement in this country seems to miss the point. Rather than working to improve teacher quality and giving students hope through guided learning and teaching, we seek improvement through school privatization and priorities that tend to favor the elite, even though the advocated intent is to seek solutions for students who are challenged by poverty and family circumstances.

Rather than working to support an over-worked, committed and professional teaching force, we blame the students, teachers and even parents for academic failures -- as captured in the ideology of the so-called "no excuses" reformers. Well-intended but misguided policies such as one-size-fits-all standardized tests, where the results do not account for cultural differences and student strengths, remain part of the problem -- not the solution as many on the ideological political right profess. Sadly, proven pedagogies such as those used in talented and gifted programs, which develop important learning goals as teamwork, collaborative learning, critical and creative thinking, are primarily provided for wealthier students who already have every opportunity for success.

Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University envisions a better, more equitable road map in To Close The Achievement Gap, We Need To Close The Teaching Gap. Among the lessons she suggests we learn from high-achieving countries:

  • Address inequities that undermine learning;
  • Value teaching and teacher learning;
  • Redesign schools to create time for collaboration;
  • Create meaningful teacher evaluations that foster improvement.

If we can make these changes, framed by the belief that all children can succeed, the American dream might become reality for all. After all, we succeed as one -- not as one class that continues to benefit when others are denied.

*NOTE (11/11, 12:30 p.m.) -- To my readers: The John Birch Society reached out to me to say they are not a racist organization. I want to make it clear that when I was growing up as a child, they were well known for their opposition to the civil rights movement and everyone around me considered them to be a racist organization. My reference was to my own personal experiences and perceptions of the John Birch Society in the 1960s. They very well may have changed since then, and, based on the diversity of the JBS as it presently seems to stand, I applaud them for having the wisdom to recognize the rights of all American citizens, and the strength and power of a diverse organization.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at