Real Innovation in Education

The revolution will not be computerized, to riff on Gil Scott Heron.  No the education revolution will not be computerized. The innovation we need in schools will not be technology based.  No algorithm is going to reach and teach our most vulnerable students, nor will a panopticon manage their behavior and develop the social and leadership skills they will need to prosper.

But over and over “innovation” means a computer, it often means reducing the human contact and relationships that are the glue of schools for underserved kids, and technology is what is funded.

Real innovation that changes the trajectories of our underserved kids will not come with a microprocessor—it’s rooted in human relationships.  And until we focus on those relationships and how we create healthy, supportive, and prosperous ones—focused on the kids themselves, we are bound for failure.

Years ago, I came to failing charter school, they had gotten tech grants, installed T1 lines (I know I am dating myself here), and had an 86% attendance rate.  New principal, new day, T1 lines are literally ripped out of the ceiling by hand, and the school is reorganized.  Small classes—less than 15 kids– smart engaged invested teachers are hired that look like the students and can relate to them, and we create self- contained classrooms in middle school, where the teachers loop for 3 years with that same cohort of students.  Teachers are with kids 6 hours a day for 180 or so days a year for 3 years straight.  That is a structure that forms relationships.

We had the highest attendance in the District the next year.  Kids had someone who would greet them every day, miss them if they didn’t show up, value them in the community, and push them to success.  No fancy technology, except the oldest one we know—the human mind.  And these were kids with major challenges, 96% free and/or reduced lunch, 15% homeless, all historically disadvantaged minorities.  The school eventually won a National Blue Ribbon Award.

And I continue to see the real innovations when I go out to schools.  Like Lavelle Preparatory Academy—that trains paraprofessionals extensively in trauma and wellness before they are hired, is creating the first program in a NYC public school that honestly and responsively addresses student addiction and substance abuse and really integrates a program to support students through mental health challenges and recovery.

Or another planning team we are working with, who will take kids as they come off Riker’s Island (yes they house juveniles at Riker’s-stupid and shocking I know), we will provide housing, counseling, paid work, and a responsive school.  This will be tied together through mentoring relationships with faculty, and also guys like them who went through the same struggles and came out the other side.  They will work in their communities doing community service and renewing the bond there with community members.  Where in some cases they were takers from the community, they will return as givers.

But yeah, no robot caretakers, or smart phone apps required.  The real work of education for our vulnerable students is caring relationships.  We all crave those, and they are the entryway to academic progress.

I used to run a training where I would say I have the four letter answer to all your problems, to engaging every student, and finding initially small and then escalating successes. L.O.V.E., real love and caring, not its stepcousin pathos, who pities and makes excuses.  The one thing I might quote George W. Bush on was that line about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” which we see parading as love or concern, but it is a whole different beast.

But true empathetic love, where we listen, understand, and push for our children the same things that we deserve and want, or better.  When we see us in them, and know that the pressures that many of us face creates diamonds where others see only coal.  If only we listen long enough to know where and how to look we can find diamonds in every child.

No technology is going to do that.


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