Thursday, April 25, 2002

WHY STUDENTS SUCCEED: A PRESCRIPTION FOR CHANGE FROM THE GROUND UP
Spoken reflections from an Academy faculty meeting on December 3, 2001

"I LOVE the reflection journal. Part of this is a passion for writing and sharing thoughts with others; some of you know that I often write in my spare time and post reflections on the web. Part of this is the simple fact that we as teachers have a lot of write and tell about. Let’s be honest: what we do is interesting. This is evident every time I’m at a dinner party with consultants and bankers, who are ever so curious about charter schools and teaching. I mean really, who wants to talk about money? And part of this is that this journal – much like a magic wand or a conch shell – gives me an opportunity to speak my views about something a little controversial on my mind, to rock the proverbial boat if you will. So with that said, this week I’m going to talk about a few controversial topics: politics, race/culture and why students here succeed.

I am here at the Academy of the Pacific Rim today because I once was a liberal. Let me explain: Like many of you, I went to a liberal college where my overwhelmingly left-wing professors convinced me that every child in America – esp. those in cities like Boston – should have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that certain 'external' factors out of their control kept them from succeeding. I suspect that’s also true for you: if you look at a roster of faculty alma maters, the list reads like an Alphabet Soup of liberal bastions in what demographers would call 'Blue America' – Amherst, Berkeley, Colby, Dartmouth. Four years ago, I subscribed to The Nation and The American Prospect, and voted Democrat across the board as a knee-jerk reaction. If I didn’t go to Yale and went to West Point instead, there is no question that I wouldn’t be here reading this.

How strange it is then that I now find myself here. If you take a step back and look at APR from the outside, what you see is a very conservative school, a school with traditionally Republican values: a heavy respect for authority and tradition (what we call routines); a strong emphasis on self-discipline; and traditional character virtues posted on the walls (William Bennett would be proud). Walk into middle school classrooms and you see desks perfectly lined up, a throw back to schools of yesteryear. Walk into a ceremony and you see students sitting on the floor in straight lines (dare I say it looks “militaristic”?). At APR, we talk about college; we talk about being “professional” and looking sharp; we talk about success the old-fashioned way. We don’t make excuses and we don’t play the race card; everyone will succeed by following rules and working hard.

Seen this way, our school is clearly more Dubya than Bill Clinton, more Organization Man than Dot Commer, more traditional than progressive – and I say this not out of shame or guilt or to apologize. If you look at other successful, innovative urban schools (e.g. the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx and Houston, Bronx Prep in the South Bronx, North Star Academy in Newark), they all follow this conservative formula: discipline and character first, then learning and a message from Day One that all ye who enter ARE college-bound. These schools trade off freedom and curiosity for structure and discipline, and they do it for one reason: it works.

On a micro-level, for the past three years I’ve been keenly interested in what high-performing students here at APR share in common: Why do students succeed? I’ve been interested, for example, in why students from very conservative backgrounds – Roman Catholic kids like the Keatings and Quinchias, or the children of Haitian immigrants like Sarabina Michel and Johvian Jean – are so incredibly successful academically and behaviorally. For reasons that you can probably guess, I’ve also been keenly interested in the relationship between Asian students here and success. Here are some numbers: Asians comprise only 5 percent of our student population but 12 percent of the honor roll students being rewarded this Friday. Fully 45 percent of the 'highest honor roll' students in the 1st trimester are Asian. 67 percent of our Asian students made one of the three Trimester 1 honor rolls. On the behavior side, only 9 out of the 1012 serious disciplinary incidents this year involved Asians (1 percent!), and all 9 were caused by 2 students. The numbers speak for themselves.

Why are Asians overwhelmingly succeeding at our school and what lessons might we draw from this for our school? I am by no means an expert and this is by no means a comprehensive scientific study, but I will hypothesize nonetheless based on my observations and personal experience.

First, Asians succeed because Asian families are notoriously conservative. In Asian households – and this traces back to Confucian values -- there is absolute respect for authority. When I was growing up, my dad demanded complete respect from me, and his word was never questioned. As a matter of fact, I was trained to never look my dad in the eye as it was a sign of disrespect (you can imagine what college interviewers thought about that!). Growing up, elders (e.g. teachers) always knew best and were always respected.

Second, Asians succeed because their parents’ expectations always exceed those of the 'outside world' (e.g. school, other families). If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned in my years here, it’s that the greatest predictor of student success is how much parents demand of their children. Parents for whom passing is good enough will have children with 70 grades. With our Asian parents here, there is never “good enough” grade, whether it is a 70%, 90% or 95%. My own father was never happy with my grades unless I brought home 100 percents (which means never). Likewise, I believe the Guen and Chan students are excelling not because Monica and Jenny like working long hours but because their parents demand 95 averages and nothing less.

Third, Asians succeed because theirs is a 'culture of educational achievement'. In large Asian family gatherings, the topic of conversation is always school. Students that excel academically and end up in prestigious schools are looked up to as role models; SAT scores are compared; indeed, entire families are judged based on how well their children do in school. It isn’t that Asians value school more than everything else; to Asians, school is everything else. I first heard about the SATs when I was in 6th grade; I first heard about the college application process when I was in 7th grade.

So, what does this mean for us as a school? I don’t think we have much influence over home lives but our culture is one area that we do have tremendous control over. I passionately believe that we are a unique place -- families choose to send their children here – and that we should leverage that fact for all its worth. I occasionally tell my students that coming to APR is a privilege, and if they don’t want to be here, there are 4 other Boston students that want their spot. Our school is different because we have created a special culture here, one where expectations for behavior and academics are high.

Yet, I think we can and should be doing more. Many of our students are going to be the first in their families to aspire to, apply to and attend college, and are woefully uninformed about what that process looks like. They do not understand that 80 percents – while honor roll-worthy here – make a 3.0 G.P.A. and that isn’t good enough to get into any fairly selective schools; they have not heard of the PSATs or SATs; they do not know what colleges are looking for.

What this means is that all of us – and not just the college counselors -- must methodically create that college-bound culture beginning in the middle school: a culture where you hear words like 'Harvard' and 'Williams' in the hallway more than you hear 'Celtics' or 'Patriots,' one where students are quizzing each other about SAT-words during lunch time, a culture where the status symbols are not lettermen jackets but Intel Talent Search prizes, AP scores and National Merit Scholarships. It’s a Herculean task but I think we’re up for it."