The Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Creative Change, which works with schools and universities around the country to develop sustainability and social justice curricula, just recently completed a project inside the Ypsi Public School system. As I was curious as to how things went, I reached out to Susan Santone, the founder of Creative Change, and asked if she’d be willing to talk. What follows is our conversation.
MARK: Recently, a fellow in Indianapolis wrote to me, asking for advice as to whether or not he and his wife should move to Ypsilanti. I posted his letter on my site, and, in the resulting conversation, a number of people suggested that, because of the schools in Ypsilanti, he’d be better off in Ann Arbor. You, as I recall, pushed back at the suggestion that Ann Arbor schools were “better.” Why?
SUSAN: The question I raised in my comment was, “What do we mean by better schools?” I asked readers to consider how we measure this. Do we mean the A2 schools have “better” teachers, or are we gauging quality by test scores? If it’s the latter, I noted that that there’s a strong (and even predictive) correlation between a child’s test scores and his/her parents’ income. Based on this, we can conclude with some certainty that many children in Ann Arbor come from higher-income homes. What we can’t conclude (and I’m not saying anyone implied this) is that A2 schools (or any other district) has better teachers. There are great teachers in all corners of our region, but my aim was to highlight some of the outstanding educators and programs in the Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS). The new district has a bold vision and a strong commitment to equity.
MARK: And how is it that you’ve seen this “bold vision and strong commitment to equality” play out in Ypsi schools? What tangible, positive changes have you seen since the launch of the new district in 2013?
SUSAN: Well, two of district’s five pillars are Cultural Competency and Restorative Practices, approaches grounded in the principles of democracy and responsibility to the larger community. I saw these principles come to life through a course at the middle school focused on diversity, equity and sustainable communities. The project was a partnership between the district and Creative Change. The course, taught 2013-2014 school year, wove topics such as racial equity and community change into social studies and language arts instruction. Three interdisciplinary teams of teachers delivered the program, reaching over 300 students. I worked with the teachers to help plan the program, and provided a collection of lessons to support the instruction.
MARK: So your job, at least in part, was to ensure that the lesson plans fulfilled curriculum objectives laid out by the state…
SUSAN: Yes, of course. The standards must be addressed in any type of program we offer. Interestingly, Common Core does not dictate specific texts or content; rather, the standards provide learning outcomes that teachers can meet in multiple ways. Many schools rely on commercially-developed materials that promise alignment to the standards, but the Ypsilanti teachers used compelling, authentic content as a context for meeting the outcomes. That’s what makes their work so unique.
MARK: And what did these 300 students address in this course?
SUSAN: Through the course, students investigated diversity, equity, and community vitality, all in the context of history and literacy instruction. The program also engaged students in tough conversations about race and discrimination. For example, students explored race-based land use policies after World War II and their role in regional segregation. They also examined their own stereotypes and the sources of their beliefs.
MARK: And I assume that, at the end of the term, these students were tested, right? What did those test reveal?
SUSAN: We administered a pre- and post-test to assess changes in key literacy skills such as interpreting graphs and charts and supporting claims with evidence. These skills are among those emphasized in the new (and controversial) Common Core standards your readers may have heard about.
The test consisted of a reading selection with multiple-choice and essay questions. The reading focused the race-based housing policies after World War II and their impacts on regional segregation. Students had to interpret data to explain changes in Detroit’s demographics. For the written question, students used evidence to assess if the housing policies supported institutional discrimination. Overall, we wanted to evaluate students’ ability to think about equity from a systems perspective–one that connects causes and effects at the policy level.
We worked with the University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to score the tests. The post-tests showed gains of up to 20%, with clear improvement in writing. Students also brought in ideas from the history and literature they were studying as part of the course… If you’re interested, the final report is available online.
MARK: I have no idea how such things are studied in academia, but I imagine that, in order to state definitively that one curriculum is “better” than another, you need to follow pretty rigorous protocols, screen students carefully, establish control groups, etc. In other words, it’s great that these students improved, but it’s conceivable, isn’t it, that other factors may have played a role? Assuming that’s a possibility, do you have plans to move forward with a more rigorous study?
SUSAN: You make a good point. We’d love to do a study with a control group. Unfortunately, the resources aren’t there for that.
Overall, the project provided rich and challenging content delivered by highly skilled teachers. They made the material engaging and appropriate for students’ developmental levels while also connecting the content to the standards. I feel quite confident that these factors had a positive impact on achievement. The teachers also reported that achievement increased on other assessments they administered, and that the learning climate improved.
Too often, “diversity” instruction is superficial or watered down to feel-good slogans or one-time cultural events. It’s truly rare to engage students in deeper investigations of institutionalized inequalities–and rarer yet to do this in ways that support literacy skills.
MARK: I don’t think there’s any question that kids learn better when they relate to the material that they’re given, when it make sense to them within the context of their own experience…
SUSAN: Absolutely. “Culturally responsive” pedagogy means (among other things) grounding topics in students’ lives and experiences, and using that as a bridge to academics. This is exactly what the teachers did. (It’s worth noting that the district provided teachers with extensive professional development on these approaches as part of its commitment to cultural competency.)
MARK: As someone who develops curricula, I’m curious to know your thoughts on both Common Core and this new test-driven environment we seem to find ourselves in. Personally, I’m more inclined to say that we should hire great teachers, pay them well, and give them the freedom to teach their classes, within reason, as they see fit, assuming, of course, that the children in their classes can demonstrate some level of proficiency. It seems to me, however, that we’re moving into a world where teachers are seen by those in government as little more than script readers, who should be rewarded by how well the children in their care memorize things, and not by whether they can help kids discover what they love, and turn them into good, bright, innovative, free-thinking, contributing citizens. I could go on, but I think you’ve probably heard this a thousand times before…
SUSAN: This topic is certainly big enough for its own discussion, but here are a few thoughts: While the Common Core standards are new, high-stakes testing is not. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ushered in an era of testing tied to escalating sanctions for “failing” schools. In response, many schools have narrowed the curriculum to focus on the two tested areas, English and math. Common Core continues the NCLB policy, but with new. and more demanding, tests. Backers of Common Core claim the standards support higher-level thinking skills, but if “teaching to the test” intensifies, critical thinking will be the first casualty.
MARK: As you said at the beginning, we know that there’s a strong, and even predictive, correlation between a child’s test scores and his/her parents’ income. Given that, it’s hard for me to see NCLB as anything but an attempt on the part of the Bush administration to cut funding for poor schools, paving the way for privatization. I try my best not to indulge in conspiracy theories, but, given the way that things have played out, it seems logical to me that NCLB was passed with the intention of privatizing public education under the guise of helping kids in “bad” schools, thereby weakening the teachers union. I don’t have a question for you here. I just find it difficult to talk about NCLB without venting.
SUSAN: You don’t have to be much of conspiracy theorist to make those conclusions. Over the past decade, we’ve seen that schools attended by low-income students and students of color are more likely to be labeled as “failures.” This subjects the schools to restructuring schemes that strip control from teachers and communities — witness the The Educational Achievement Authority — while often funneling resources to private, for-profit companies. Corporations have also made millions from the testing industry that grew from NCLB.
The fingerprints of private interests are also all over Common Core, from its developers to its funders and advocates. Achieve, one of the organizations involved in Common Core, has long worked with the corporate community on education “reform.” The testing industry was heavily involved in the development of the standards and is making tens of millions of dollars on the new tests. I agree that businesses, like all sectors of society, have a stake in quality education. But their goals are economic, not civic.
The Common Core mission statement is especially telling. It focuses on “college and career readiness” so that our communities can “compete in the global economy.” A strong economy is crucial, but will it be an economy that sustains the environment it depends on? Answering that question requires the critical thinking Common Core aims to deliver. But can that happen when the standards are built on the mindset of global competition? I believe that citizenship, not economic competitiveness, is the purpose of schooling. It’s time to reclaim that civic mission.
MARK: Speaking of politics, I’m curious to know what kind of response you’ve gotten with the Creative Change curriculum. Have you gotten any pushback on the content? We do, after all, live in a society in which several people refuse to accept the reality of global warming, and become incredibly defensive at even the the most casual mention of the racial inequality that exists in this country.
SUSAN: Sure, there is a faction that is vehemently opposed to the type of work we are doing. They label education for sustainable development as “education for sustainable tyranny,” and believe that it is “prepar[ing] children to accept the total transformation of America under global totalitarian control.” They decry teaching children concepts such as interdependence — the idea that people, societies, and the environment are all connected. Fact: Interdependence is not a totalitarian plot; it’s a basic principle about how the world works, with a firm grounding in fundamental laws of physics and biology.
Overall, though, Creative Change has been very successful in a range of settings, including conservative communities and religious schools. No matter who we’re working with, we frame our work with this question: “What will it take to create healthy, democratic communities where all can thrive?” And I’ve yet to find a single person who does not want this. Granted, how we get there can certainly become political, but having common ground at the beginning enables us to continually ask, “Is this policy/economic approach/etc. getting us to that healthy community?”
Moreover, the military sees issues such as climate change as a security concern. The economic and social instability created by extreme environmental changes will escalate conflicts. But there are some incredible visionaries within the military. I would highly suggest people read “A National Strategic Narrative,” a treatise on sustainability authored by two top-ranking Pentagon officials. The document questions the Cold War agenda of zero-sum competition and puts forth a national vision grounded in diplomacy, human rights, sustainability and education. Here’s my favorite quote: “Dominance, like fossil fuels, is not a sustainable form of power.” I have been so inspired by this work.
Here’s the bottom line: Today’s students must learn how to adapt to climate change, transition to renewable energy, feed a growing global population, provide clean water for all, and build democratic and peaceful societies. When the military is paying attention to these issues, it’s hard to say they’re an agenda designed to dismantle US sovereignty and deliver us into the hands of a one-world socialist government orchestrated by the UN. (Yes, this is some of the thinking out there.)
As far as this concerns Common Core, here’s the good news: As I mentioned, the standards do not dictate specific texts or content (although some are recommended). Teachers can use sustainability topics as a context for teaching Common Core skills such as defending a position with evidence, or determining an author’s purpose. This is exactly what the Ypsilanti teachers did. And they’re doing it again this year in the middle school world history curriculum. Students will examine ancient civilizations and the environment, economic and social influences that led to success or collapse. Armed with these insights, students will investigate the environmental and economic changes facing the region (including climate change), and develop ways to create a more sustainable and resilient future. We’re planning a community event as part of this, so stay tuned.
MARK: I’m curious about that space… that wiggle room you have around the perimeter of Common Core and No Child Left Behind… where you still have some freedom to operate and try new things. Is there any fear that this space might become more narrow?
SUSAN: I think Common Core is here to stay in Michigan. Teacher evaluation is the next frontier for accountability, and many are concerned these evaluations will rely too heavily on students’ standardized test scores. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is against accountability; however, given the heavy influence of out-of-school factors (such as parents’ income) on test scores, educators are right to question the weight those scores should have in teacher evaluations. If policies echo the punitive nature of NCLB and use inaccurate measures to punish “bad teachers,” it’s reasonable to conclude that teaching to the test will intensify. This will narrow the space for trying new things as you describe.
On the other hand, I think the new Next Generation Science Standards present a good opportunity for educators. These standards identify specific topics — including climate change — while emphasizing scientific processes and “cross-cutting concepts” such as systems thinking. I find much to like about these standards, and think they will support the scientific literacy students need to make informed decisions. At this point, science is not a tested subject under NCLB. That alone may provide more room for teachers to use innovative approaches.