On Hope and Urban School Reform

Hope is both rational and emotional.

Faced with a lethal illness and the probability of dying within months, some patients knowing the facts of their illness and the inevitable arc of the disease have surprised their doctors by their resilience, determination, and, yes, hope in living years rather than months.

And there are those patients who do not want their doctor to recount the facts of their illness, its probable trajectory, and what  is reasonable to do and expect. Avoiding decisions over the inevitable trade-offs involved in any “cure,” these patients find refuge in alternative treatments. They willfully embrace the emotion of hope but ignore the realities of their condition. In effect, they chase false hopes.

Yes, I know that the distinction I make between real and false hopes in patients faced with a terminal disease is blurry. Nonetheless, I believe there is a qualitative difference in these two kinds of hope. A clearer distinction can be made between hope and optimism.

Unlike varnished optimism which depends upon unrealistic forecasts (hey, I am going to win the lottery; or the technology worker believing that backup systems won’t fail) hope–as oncologist and writer Jerome Groopman points out–“is rooted in unalloyed reality.” Hope, he continues, “acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along the path. True hope has no room for delusion” (p. xiv).

And here is where I want to make a segue between these distinctions about hope derived from doctors treating seriously ill patients and the persistent efforts of urban school reformers to rescue failing schools.

In an earlier post (May 9, 2011), I wrote of an experience I had with graduate students at Stanford University seeking an MBA who questioned the facts I presented about failed school reforms and the historically bloated rhetoric of reformers. These students were eager to take on the challenges of overhauling urban schools and classrooms. One young woman took me to task for depressing the entire group and stripping them of hope.

Here is what I wrote in the post:

“Even though nearly all these students accepted the accuracy of what I said–many had read similar accounts of previous reforms–I sensed that the questioner wanted reassurance that their time, energy, and commitment will pay off later in successful reforms. I could not (and did not) reassure her. Nor could I  give her unvarnished hope.”

“What I did do was talk about the importance of knowing realistically what faces anyone undertaking an adventure that contains the possibility, nay, probability of failure. I compared the launching of a school reform to climbing a difficult mountain. Responsible people want a guide. Someone who can tell the adventurers where the crevices are, what false turns to avoid, where the icy spots are and to be honest about the possibility that they may have to turn back before reaching the summit. That accurate knowledge of the difficulties, honesty, and humility are crucial to reaching the summit and implementing a school reform. Hope for success rests in expertise, problem solving, and courage but–and this is an especially important “but”–climbing that mountain (implementing that reform) is still worth the effort even if success (however defined) is not achieved.”

As I recall, the reaction of the class to my words was subdued. If I had to guess, I had possibly dampened their optimism about accomplishing reform but had hardly dented their personal hope to rescue students and schools from failure. Nor did I want to diminish their hope. I only wanted to anchor their hopefulness about positive changes in urban schools in the realities of past and current reform without losing the energy fueled by emotion. I wanted them to avoid getting caught up in the seductive rhetoric appealing to their emotions that U.S. reformers indulge in again and again: overstate a crisis in schools to the point of despair and then understate the difficulties of making school and classroom changes. These are the ingredients of delusion. And “true hope,” as Groopman said, “has no room for delusion.”

Were urban reformers clear-eyed about how schools can, indeed, make a difference in the lives of minority and poor children and youth, the more vocal ones would lower the flame of rhetoric by dumping slogans like “no excuses.” They would not dismiss those teachers, principals, and community members who not only tackle the effects of poverty on learning but also are equally committed to improved schooling.  It takes courage, not delusions, to recognize and speak openly about what urban young children need before they arrive in school and the interventions needed when they are there. It takes courage to not chase false hopes. It takes courage to distinguish between untempered optimism and realistic  hopes.



Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “On Hope and Urban School Reform

  1. Guides who can point out pitfalls and obstacles are useful. Guides who can help find a way around them are golden. There aren’t a lot of such guides around. However, we at least are starting to know the tools they can use. One such tool is Hope Theory.

    Hope Theory establishes three components to Hope:

    1. Goals
    2. Pathways
    3. Motivation

    Goals need to be clear. Pathways should be multiple and account for forseeable obstacles. Motivation is the combination of belief in ability and desire to act. Also known as “self-efficacy”, it’s what powers forward motion. Motivation is necessary for initiating and persisting with actions toward the goal. Each component of Hope Theory – Goals, Pathways, and Motivation – is a challenge in urban school settings. However, using Hope Theory and other research from the last two decades in positive psychology, it’s possible to design, initiate, assess, adjust, and carry through a positive education process to help urban schools. The process can be imlemented gradually as resources are available to allow schools to find and clarify goals, discover the pathways, and generate motivation and start forward movement. I’m optimistic, and realistically so, I think, that as school and policy leaders start to understand the components of a positive education process, we’ll start to see more examples of sustained success.

    One reason for my optimism is that a positive education process accepts standards-based accountability while recognizing that the standards and assessments usually are insufficient as goals and say nothing about pathways or motivation. Accountability “success” comes as a by-product of the process. However, since the approach does not require rejecting standards-based accountability, based on my experience as a school board member, I think we can sell the process to policy leaders.

    I continue to appreciate your clear thinking about the challenges, obstacles, and pitfalls of school reform in gerneral, and for urban systems in particular. Keep up the good work!

    Hope Theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._R._Snyder

  2. Jane Remer

    Larry. another excellent and timely post I’m going to hang it on my corkboard. My question: What concrete actions do you suggest we take to get started in our localities? How do you translate the mountain/guide metaphor into a reasonable plan that is based on experience, patience, determination and local engagement? I’d love to see your framework for action.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Jane,
      Because we know how important the setting is, how crucial that context is–I am reluctant to offer anything more than the basic questions (which blend realism and hope) that teachers, parents, and taxpayers need to ask when a plan (OK, call it a reform)–especially if it aimed at altering classroom teaching and learning–is being considered, has been adopted, or even put into action. Those questions are familiar to you, Jane.

      1. Was the plan/reform implemented fully?
      2. Did teaching practice change consistent with the aims of the reform?
      3. Have students learned what was taught?
      4. Do tests reflect what has been learned?

      You get the picture. These questions help put realistic details into the mountain guide metaphor.

  3. Jane Remer

    p,s. – I mean, how do we move from what we agree we ought to do to a structured journey trying to get it done?

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