Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thoughts on Fixing Education - I

Esquith, and his 5th grade class at Hobart Elementary (Photo courtesy of AMDOC)

Good teachers blow me away. I was brought up by teachers, and have always sought a lot of my inspiration from within the confines of my school or college.

Recently, I spent the day with Rafe Esquith. His kids blew me away. In an elementary school that graduates only 32% of their enrolled kids, Rafe has managed to ensure that over 95% of his kids graduate from college. Rafe told me (and showed me) that there are no shortcuts. It takes discipline, dedication, and lots of love. I was there from 2-7pm on a friday, long after the school grounds had closed and most other kids had gone home; not Rafe or his kids. They had already been in that room 13 hours that day. Yet they were still around...voluntarily...practicing Shakespeare, for fun (btw, follow this link and you'll see their idea of practicing Shakespeare is).

He told me that his best piece of advice is "don't really do something unless you really, really love it." Rafe, who is happily married and has successful grown children of his own, spends most of his time in the classroom with the kids, who are mostly immigrants from broken families living in gang-infested neighborhoods. And his kids love him back with a fierce passion. The resulting loyalty has produced amazing results.

Rafe was the real thing. The results were all around me. So I sat him down and asked him about how to fix our broken education system. "You know the truth, Pragnya??" he asked, "I don't know if its fixable. Our moral and societal values have declined so much, that too much of the parenting has fallen on the teachers. Its NOT an easy solution. Its going to be long term and its going to need the commitment of many. I don't know if Americans want to be this committed." I was a little disheartened with this. But he was right. When I asked about the developing world, he said, "If you really want to fix it, go to the developing world. Atleast they have the chance to do it right."

I asked him about the KIPP system that Bill Gates had spoken so highly about. He scoffed, "Any school that has a PR person on staff, is NOT a system that works. The real PR are the students. Look at them. If the alumni are good, ask yourself what the school is doing right." As I vehemently agreed with him, he said, "there is nothing magical about what I'm doing. Its pure hard work and commitment. I am committed to these kids, and I'm committed to being a better teacher. I wasn't good when I started; I've learned to be good over time. If anyone is this committed, they will make a difference. I use Shakespeare, because that's what makes me tick. But other teachers should use what makes them tick."

Rafe has two best-selling books on education. I thumbed through one briefly before our meeting; and hope to read more of it when it comes through the library again (it was checked out after I got back from meeting him).

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