Despite the Rhetoric, Teachers and Students Are Succeeding

In his important new book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, author Ian Haney Lopez defines "dog whistle politics" as veiled references meant to "carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites" rather than deal honestly with the racial issues of our time.

American public education is full of these high-pitched battles. Privatizing schools because too many (poor minority) children "fail" to be educated by public systems is one. Another "failure" is that urban (read: "minority") parents are not interested in their children's education. Frankly, having spent significant time working with urban schools and parents, I have never met a parent (whether in Harlem, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Newark, D.C., San Francisco or Los Angeles) who is not passionately concerned about the success of a child. Instead, I've met single-parent mothers who hold two or three jobs, working six or sometimes seven days a week just to stay slightly above the poverty level. They are some of my heroes, but in spite of their relentless perseverance, they remain untapped resources in a movement for change. 

Teachers are demonized as "failures" in the classroom. Fortunately for all of us, more and more are banding together as agents for justice by believing in the inherent capacity of all students, and seeking strategies and instructional pathways to improve student performance through professional development and collaborative learning. 

To add to this narrative, I share an experience from Newark through the words of Dr. Alexis Leitgeb, a superintendent in a small Midwest school community and a consulting mentor at the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education: 

In one of the K-8 schools, I was in charge of teacher professional development. On one particular day, a teacher asked me to come to her classroom because she was struggling with classroom management. In her classroom was an African-American middle-school student named Amos. I observed immediately that the students were not focused on the teacher's presentation and a lot of teaching time was lost. The teacher is very hard working, capable and passionate, but, at the time, did not have the help needed to be effective with this particular class of students. As a consequence, with every visit to that school, I taught the class to demonstrate for the teacher how to engage students through lessons I modeled.  

The students started out unengaged in the learning process and chaos was the order of the day, even with the best efforts of the school staff. Throughout the year, more and more teachers began to engage in the professional development we offered, and were always surprised when their students were focused on the subject matter I demonstrated and modeled for their teachers.  

Amos, in the back of the classroom, consistently struggled with writing and speaking.  

A student mentor program was implemented, and it was here that I became close to Amos. He was a natural for NUA's student-voice initiative, where students become teachers along with their teachers.  Amos slowly rose to the top as the leader of the student project. He became so enthusiastic over time that he asked if he could create a website so teachers could read what was taught during my sessions, brainstorm ideas for struggling students, and find a calendar where they could sign up to have a student mentor demonstrate pedagogical strategies in their classroom. We received approval from the school and administration and Amos took off on his own. When he did not feel enough teachers had signed up, Amos took the calendar around to teachers, asking when his group could come in and teach.

Some of the students began to develop ideas on how to use strategies for reading, vocabulary and math.

Toward the end of my final year in the Newark initiative, Amos explained that he and several students were going to attend another school. He indicated that the students who were part of the student-voice project would be speaking to their new principal to bring lessons learned to their new schools. 

Right before summer break, when I was leaving and Amos was moving to his new school, I asked to meet his mother.  She came after school, and I gave Amos a laptop computer, printer and digital camera so this amazing young student could work at home on schoolwork, creative artwork and design, and videos. I did not want his lack of financial means to prevent him from having the equipment I knew would help him meet his full potential.

Amos went on to the Poetry Out Loud 2015 competition.  He made it all the way to the state finals at Princeton and took second place. Amos discovered his strengths -- leadership and speaking -- while engaged in the student-voice project of the NUA.

There are tens of thousands of stories just like this one, starring teachers who move from being "just a teacher" to justice in teaching, due to their personal commitment to student potential, and, at times, thanks to the professional development and teamwork in which they take part. They don't give up on their students, nor do they give up on each other as they move toward school transformation. In spite of the politics of education, they find a common pathway that leads to improved achievement and social justice.  

Let's allow these stories to be told, so that the success Amos has can be taken to scale, and the doomsday cacophony -- those dog-whistle politics -- about education in America is muted. 

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 He tweets as @ECooper4556.