Don Davies

DON DAVIES:

My Name is Don Davies.  That’s Don Davies.  I am the founder of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston.  I’m now a visiting professor at Boston---at the Northeastern University.  For a long time I was at Boston University.

Well there are many boundaries, of course. One is tradition; the way schools have always operated.  They’ve tended to be isolated, often, from communities and from parents, from outsiders.  Uh, another one, of course, is racial, ethnic, language difference, uh, which separates people, often, and separates people in schools from the communities that they serve, uh, if there is any difference in culture, in language, in race, or in---ethnicity.  Uh, there’s also the professional boundary.  Uh, teachers, uh, struggle always, uh, to, uh, establish a kind of professional, uh, status for themselves.  Uh, always feeling a little bit a---less then doctors and lawyers.  Wanting to be, uh, up there.  Uh, one of the thing---of results of that, uh, is that, uh, they, uh, are very protective of professional turf.  And this turf protection means, uh, keeping parents and other people from the outside who don’t know all the stuff they know, uh, at arm’s length.  That’s a tough boundary.  So those are some of the boundaries that, uh, that, uh, schools, communities and parents have to cross.  Of course the parents have many boundaries, uh---uh, to, uh, to cross.  Some of the same ones I’ve just been talking about.

Well it means, uh, to understand----

Being responsive, uh, uh, in---to diverse populations, uh, means, uh, understanding and respecting, uh, what those people are.  What those children are or what their families are.  What their language is.  What their culture is.  What their history is. What their, uh---uh, moral values are.  All the things about---that make them important as people, um, that’s what start---that has to be the start.  Without that the rest of it, uh, is---is---uh, mostly useless, because it’s very academic.

Well, yes, uh, there---I could give you many examples of schools that uh---uh are responsive.  Um, I think of, uh---uh, a school in, um, San Diego, uh, where, uh, um, there’s a very large Latino population and where the school had many, uh, Anglo, uh, non-Spanish speaking teachers.  Uh, and, uh, the---the problem there was just a---establishing basic, human communication with lots of parents.  Many of whom were undocumented, uh, um, residents here, illegal aliens.  And uh, so, it----the---just establishing that.  They---the thing that they did at that school was to, uh, leave the school because, uh, many of these people were frightened to come to the school.  They thought they were going to get turned in to the I.N.S. or somebody.  And might have been, I suppose, but---so they---they went to the community and they hooked up with, uh, a---a Latino, uh, leader who happened to be a former minister.  Um, and he then, uh, had meetings with the parents and through those meetings the---the teachers and the principal in that school were able to connect with the parents and then with the children.  That’s an example.  Getting away from the school and not expecting all those folks who are often intimidated or scared, uh, to come.  That---that’s what I would call being responsive.

Well, um, in many, uh, urban communities, um, uh, most of the teachers don’t live in the same places that uh, the, uh, that the---the families that send their children to their school, live.  They don’t know the community.  They drive through.  It’s a drive through kind of an, uh, experience.  They see little houses and they, sometimes, aren’t very impressed with what they see.  Um, the home visits by teachers, or by people who communicate, uh, with teachers.  Parents who are trained as home visitors, uh, helps to, uh, give teachers, uh, a better view.  Uh, a more real view.  A more human view of, uh, what the people are like, that they’re, uh---are trying to reach.  That’s, uh---but, uh, the home visit is really enormously, symbolically important to the people being visited, in almost all cases.  If they are linguistically different, new immigrant people.  People who don’t have much education themselves.  They are so surprised and shocked and pleased that somebody, from some official place like a school is actually coming to see them.  Sometimes they’re embarrassed because the house isn’t very fancy.  But they are so pleased at the attention.  And 95% of the people respond with great enthusiasm to being, uh, reached.  And to being told that they’re important.  And then to have somebody that will answer their questions about the school, or about the community.  So, if done right, home visits can be enormously useful.  Most home visit programs, however, are, uh, done by, uh, parents and other community people because teachers don’t want to do it.  And it costs a lot a money, uh, to, uh, hire teachers overtime, uh, to do them.  So, um, I think both kinds of home visits are very important.  Um, you know, uh, a teacher and a, uh, a parent, uh, who is a home visitor, going together to a home can be, uh, very useful.  But if that can’t happen, if the money isn’t there, of if the teachers just won’t do it. Because, sometimes they’re frightened, they don’t want to go to the community.  They don’t understand it.  Or/and they don’t know the language.  Um, then, um, training community people, uh, works very well and it isn’t very expensive.

Well, reciprocity and mutuality, um, means, uh, respect.  It means, uh, exchange, um, in all fields including in education.  If you’re talking about reciprocity between teachers and administrators in schools and parents and others in the community, it means giving and taking.  It means the school giving, uh, and it has a lot to give.  It mo---means the community and the families giving.  It means both of them taking.  It’s a give and take, which is what reciprocity means.  Um, it isn’t really a very fancy idea it’s just something that often school people don’t think about.  They think about, um, we are just here to help these people.  Um, actually, they need a lot of help from the people that they’re trying to help. They need to know about the children.  They need to know about their language and culture and history.  They need to know what the---each kid is like and how they can be reached and how they can be helped.  And so, if it isn’t reciprocal, if it isn’t mutuality, if it isn’t an exchange, uh, it’s a two-way thing and, eventually, most people who get that kind of help are resentful of it.  Uh, because it’s just uh---it’s a kind of a colonialism rather than, um, um, a mutuality.

Well, um, the basic, uh, notion of democracy, uh, for me, always, is that of---if that---an individual---in a democratic, uh, situation has a---some chance to influence the decisions that are important to that person.  All kinds of decisions.  And decisions about one’s child, and one’s child’s education, uh, are very important to almost all parents.  So if you’re talking about a school being democratic, you have to recognize the fact that to be democratic means that you have to give a voice to the people that are participating, meaning the family and, to, uh, to the extent possible and age appropriate, to the---to the, uh, the---the students.  Otherwise it’s just not democratic. Schools talk, in our country, all the time about democracy.  We talk about it.  We have bumper stickers and flags and all of that, but democracy is learned, um, like you learn to ride a horse.  Uh, you don’t learn it by having somebody tell you what democracy is.  You learn it by getting on the horse and riding.  And you don’t just point to the horse and say, that’s a horse and now this is how you ride it.  You get---have to---to get on it.  Democracy you learn by practice.  And what’s more important for newcomers to this country and people who are linguist---linguistically or ethnically different, to learn that first hand.  That they have an opportunity to have a---a difference in the things that make a difference to them.  And what better institution to do it than schools.  They’re the most pervasive, widespread institution and one of the most expensive ones we have.  The Post Office can’t do it. Uh, so, the school is there.  But the problem is, in my view, most schools don’t understand that kind of obligation to the democratic process.  They think teaching about democracy is what their job is.

Well, uh, people know whether a place is welcoming and has it’s arms open to them.  Um, whether it’s a school or a department store or a hotel or a restaurant, by how they’re treated.  And by the symbols and the signs that they get.  Many schools, uh, have all kinds of signs.  When you first go into a school there are all kinds of signs, you know.  No Guns.  No Gum Chewing.  No this or that.  Report immediately to the---to the principal.  Sign your name.  And, um, if you have to come, (chuckles) the message, you know, if you really have to come it---we’re going to make it different.  Then they go to the office and there’s a big counter sometimes taller than they are, if they are short women, with somebody behind the desk whose job is to protect the principal or the teachers from anybody bothering them.  And so they often get a very cool treatment.  Now that is not welcoming.  Um, so welcoming means, uh---an attitude and then the symbols of welcome.   There was a---there’s---is a---a high school in Anaheim that, uh, is taking out all the counters, uh, from their school offices.  They’re taking out the counters and they’re replacing them with chairs.  And they have two students sitting at the entrance who greet each person who comes to the school, each visitor, and asks what---how they can be helped.  And if they need translation they take them to the translator’s office so that, uh, they can understand, uh, what it’s all about.  Uh, that’s welcoming.  Uh, and that’s what you mean.  It isn’t just putting up a sign, in the school, that says, “Welcome.”  Or put a---like a---a mat.  But, uh, compare a school and a---and a department store.  Look at the department stores that are really effective.  They make the customer feel welcome.  And they---they help them find out where things are.  They don’t just send, you know, go in there.

Yeah.  Well, and the---and uh, stores that have done this have, uh, have learned---I get---Nordstroms was one example.  Wal-Mart, of course, uh, it does the same thing.  And does the same thing by having lots of people who speak other languages to great the people that are their customers.  So that, uh, the---the people who can’t speak English who come in, uh, um, might buy something.  Schools ought to do the same thing.

Well, much of what’s been done, uh, over, uh, the years in parent training, by schools, hasn’t been very effective, uh, in my opinion, uh, because it’s, uh, it’s done from the point of view of---that---we know how to do it and we’re going to tell you, now, uh, how you’re messing up.  Or how you should do it differently.  Uh, so that it’s more like what we do.  And so, you know, it’s white, English-speaking teachers going to tell Latino, or Korean, or people from other countries, other languages, um, how they should, uh, raise their children.  And, uh, those folks, if they---even if they don’t say so, resent that, because they know about their own culture and how they raise children.  They make---may need some help.  So, that the whole premise of parent education, if it’s telling other people, um, that what they’re doing is wrong and how they ought to do it better, um, is---is---is doomed for failure.  It isn’t going to work.  It’s---it’s not the---the school isn’t an agency to do that.  Now schools can help, uh, on parent education, if they start with a basic understanding and respect for the people, uh, that they are, uh, uh, are interested in providing some help in how to---to, um, be more effective parents.  Particularly on how to, uh, to work better with their---with their children’s learning, particularly on the importance of reading to children, for example, and talking to children.  Um, schools can be very helpful on that because they know something about it.  If they start from a basic respect, uh, for the people that they’re dealing with and be sure that they have people who are conveying the message, uh, that have that respect and, uh, can speak the right language, literally, the right language, as well as the right tone.  The right spirit of that language, otherwise it’s better for them to stay out of the business of---of, uh, parent education and let churches and---and other agencies, uh, do it.   Now, parents need---all parents need help.  They all need help, sometimes, whether they’re rich or poor or English speaking or non-English speaking.  And so, helping parents get the help that they need.  They need help in how to raise kids.  They need help in how to, uh, help kids with the la---with learning difficulties.  They need help on all sorts of issues, uh; everybody knows that, um, at----uh, giving that help is something that the school can play an important role in.  Not necessarily ar---always giving the help.  Uh, many people talk about home visitors and one of the things that home visitors can do, is to offer information and help in response to parents questions about, you know, ‘I’m having this problem with my child.  I’d like to---to get, uh, ---how---how can I get some help?’  It could be a physical problem, it could be a mental problem, it could be a---emotional problem, it could be a learning problem, whatever.  So, the school can play an important role in helping parents get the information that they need.  So when I say that schools haven’t done well on parenting, I mean the old-fashioned of---of, uh, of trying to shape everybody up to be just like we are.

 Well I think they---working with teachers it---it---like working with pack---uh, parents has to start with, uh, respect for that person.  Who they are?  Why they are?  And, uh, their style and, uh, rather than just assuming that they’re a bad person or don’t want to do, uh, anything right.  Teachers need support.  They need encouragement.  They need ideas.  Uh, they need, uh---when they do something, uh, that’s, uh, particularly useful they need recognition.  They need a pat on the head.  And they need money.  And they need a---a---most teachers would tell ‘em---most the---uh---tell me and tell almost anyone else, that they need time.  Because they’re---their plate is loaded with full.  Uh, they’re asked to all kinds of things.  There are all kinds of special projects.  There are all kinds of, uh, requirements that uh, that the state and the feds and the local district are putting on them.  And now somebody comes along and says, ‘well now you’ve got a---to, uh, to work with all these parents.’  Parents that you don’t understand very well, that you don’t know much about and they weren’t the---it’s not the same community as it was eight years whe---ago when you moved here.  Now you’ve got to do that.  And so we’re asking teachers to, uh, to do something that is difficult and it takes a lot of time and we’re not, often, giving them the time.  Mo---schools that do this well, uh, hire a person called a ‘parent coordinator.’  And if it’s a big school they hire a couple of such people to do some of the outreach and some of the contact with parents, and to provide help and encouragement and communication with the teachers.  They don’t just---you---you can’t just go in---into, uh, an overworked, busy teacher and say, ‘now, you’ve got to add this new role, uh, to your life,’ without getting some help.  So, um, the teachers are often not to blame, uh, because they’re often not given any role in deciding what this is all going to be about.  Uh, teachers, uh, respond very well to be given a---a role on how parents ought to be involved.  On how they think parents could help their own teaching.  For example I recently was involved in an evaluation in Rhode Island of a---or a project that the Rhode Island Foundation funded which gave small grants of th---two to five thousand dollars to about 80 teachers in Rhode Island.  Uh, high school teachers, middle school teachers, who said they wanted to, uh, to get help from families and the community in improving instruction.  They were worried about, uh, all the new tests, all the new standards, and so they wanted to get help.  Uh, they did little plans and little proposals.  The Foundation gave them some money.  They---in over a two or three year period they did some absolutely wonderful things.  Because they were given trust, they were given help and they were given a small amount of money.  So if they needed to buy some---some paper for a project or buy a---a disc for their computer for a, uh, technology project they could go out to the store and buy rather than waiting three months to go through the school bureaucracy to get something.

Well the, uh, the family center idea, uh, is also, uh----is an old one.  Um, it---it means, simply, a school setting up a place, um, a room, or a part of a room, or a location, uh, that is a welcoming place, uh, for, uh, for parents to come, so that they don’t have to go through the usual school bureaucracy.   Usually the, you know, there’s a---there’s a---a coffee pot, a little refrigerator, a sofa, uh, books and things to read and, uh, a---a---a staff person of a, uh---a parent/coordinator of some kind there to talk to the---the parents that go.  So it becomes a, if they’re done right, uh, they become, um, a kind of hub of activity for parents and a place where other parent activities, uh, can be developed and where the school, through the parent/coordinator, can learn what the parents want and what they need and what they think.  They can learn it, uh, honestly and upfront rather than just a---a written survey that, uh, is sent out to say, ‘How do you feel about our school and do you like the teacher?’ and all of that kind of thing.  (Siren in the background)  It’s a much more personal, uh, sort of way.  They work very well and they cost very---uh---a---very little money.  The---the staffing is exp---you have to hire somebody and you have to spend some money for that.  But many of these things do cost money, uh, the school will have to decide is the payoff or the benefit is going to be great enough so that a minor investment is going to be worth it.  The co---it’s a---a cost benefit, uh, uh, sort of an analysis.

Well, a teacher---a young teacher, uh, just starting out, uh, who’s interested in, um, in---reaching out to the parents of the kids that, uh, uh, he or she serves, um, has lots of a---of---of---of---things that, uh, you can do if you just of---in quite human terms.  Most of the parents of that young teacher are curious about him.  They’d like to meet him, or her.  They would like to hear his voice, uh, on a telephone call.  They’d like to see him, uh, in a visit, or in a meeting, or in a---a---a social activity.  So, uh, getting a kind of a human connection is the place to start and it’s not hard to do.  Uh, but a young teacher starting out and doing that needs to make sure that, uh, he watches his---his tail, or her.  Uh, so that he---the---the traditions and the rules of the school and what the tea---the new teacher does, um, don’t get into a lot of trouble.  Because, uh, young teachers can get, uh, kind of, uh, clobbered, uh, by, uh, the tradition of a school.  So, uh, he needs to, or she, needs to be, um---to use a little, um, political skill in figuring out how to do this.  But reaching out to the parents, getting to know them personally, is one.  And then giving them something important to do that will help the children, like homework.  It---which is interactive, uh, where the tea---the kids go home and interview parents, uh, and grandparents about their own cultural history and that becomes an important part of the class.  Uh, parents love that and, uh, will respond very well to it, and then inviting some of those people into the class to talk.  There are---there are just hundreds of things that young teachers that---can do that won’t get them into---into too much trouble, uh, if they’re careful.  And maybe some of their older colleagues will, uh, like some of the ideas.

Well, interactive homework, uh, uh, is, uh, there---there are a lot or programs, uh, existing programs, that, uh, schools and teachers can buy that can be use.  Uh, and, uh, the---those are readily available and, uh, uh, some of those would be very useful.  But I think that the important, for me, I’m not an expert in interactive homework, um, and when I was teaching a few years ago I didn’t---we didn’t talk about interactive homework.  Uh, but uh, the key think about interactive homework is to, uh, make it (noise) participatory, uh, for the family.  Uh, so that, uh, it’s not just asking the family to supervise (noise) uh, the kids homework and, uh, which is useful and important to---you---for parents to say whether their---the---whether they’ve done their homework or not.  But it’s to make them interactive.  There are all kinds of creative things that you can do, uh, to, uh---to reach out to the families and to the community, um, that will, uh, will make the homework better and more fun for the kids.  And also give the family, and com---people in the community, a chance, uh, to, uh, feel better about the school.

Well, I’ve thought a lot about Federal and State policies, and local policies, uh, that should be coordinated, uh, with the Federal and the State policies since, uh, really, uh, we have a three-way, uh, system of---of, uh, policies that affect schools.  So it’s important that the three things be, uh, somehow, coordinated and thought about, and sometimes they’re not.  In fact, sometimes they’re---they’re quite contradictory in that the three sides are---are fighting each other, are blaming each other, for---for the---for the problem.  Well, um, the, uh, ---schools, through states and through federal programs need written and specific, uh, rules and regulations about almost everything.  About reading, about linguistics, about many things, including parents and parent involvement.  The responsibilities of parents and of teachers towards parents, the responsibilities of the school toward the community agencies.  Those things need to be spelled out, in writing.  Not just left to everybody’s good will that may change from---as the principal changes or as the teachers change.  You need it, uh, in this---in our kind of large, bureaucratic, uh, setups, you really need to have ‘em written.  And then you need to have somebody pay attent---whether they’re federal or state or local rules, you need to have somebody pay attention to whether they’re being followed or not.  Because we have ninety perc---nine, no, eighty percent of the rules we have are not, uh, really, enforced very well and, uh, we don’t---so the often don’t work because they’re not being done.  So, you need specific rules, uh, you need somebody to monitor them, to evaluate them, to in---enforce them and then you need somebody who will pay for it.  And, uh, s---leaving every child behind sounds great.  Uh, leaving every child---not leaving any child behind, I mean, uh, um, costs a lot of money.  It---it---it’s going to cost a lot more than this country has ever been willing to spend, uh, on el---public elementary and secondary education.  So, the money part is absolutely crucial as a policy and it is the---the core of the policy.

Uh, there are---there have been many federal and state, uh, mandates, uh, for, um, parent involvement, uh, in---in policy boards or committees or advisory committees of various kinds.  Um, and, uh, all very well intentioned and, uh, some of them will have worked, uh, quite well, but many of them don’t work.  I think most teachers and administrators and many parents who’ve been involved in those activities know that there have been many problems.  The problems are, they’re often, uh, the folks that are asked to be involved in this way are often not given very much help, or very much training, or very much, uh, assistance in, uh, finding out what they’re supposed to be doing, what their role is, and then, you know, how to do it.  Uh, they’re being asked to do something that’s kind of a morphs and complicated and, uh, they get bo---both the teachers and the parents get bored with that after awhile and they stop coming to the meetings, very wisely, and stay home and---and, uh, listen to the baseball game. Um, I would do the same thing.  So, uh, it---it requires, like anything else, uh, being done with thoughtfulness and with respect and giving the people that are, uh, being asked to be involved, um, uh, some information and some help and some support, and that when that’s done, uh, we’ve got lots of examples, uh, of---of, uh, where it works very well.  It---it’s, uh, a good way of demonstrating that schools can be democratic and that decision making, uh, means that the people that are affected, like parents, have some chance of---some voice in, uh, what’s going to affect their children.

Well, um, I think, uh, school, family, uh, community partnership, collaboration, can, um, can help to reinvent, uh, um, American schools if educators and policy makers take it seriously and do not think of it just as a trivial, sort of a side bar, thing.  It’s nice.  It’s nice to have the parents and we have a, uh, a supper, uh, every year and, uh, people bring in and make their---their native dishes and we all enjoy that. That’s---and play a little music and dance, that’s fun.  But, uh, ----that’s not connected, necessarily, to the fact that every kid is now having to take a test that---that he or she has to pass.  That there are new standards that the state is requiring, that the feds are now going to be, uh, requiring, uh, a test every year, uh, in the first eight grades.  So, there---those---those are real things.  So, parent-community, uh, partnership needs to be connected to those things, uh, if it’s going to be taken very seriously and if people are going to---if educators and policy makers who are---will think it’s---it’s worth both the cost, uh, and the effort involved.  So, connecting, uh, what I’ve been talking about for the last, uh, thirty or forty years, about partnership and parent participation and community involvement in the schools, um, is going to become more widespread and more useful, to the extent that it’s connected, with the school’s effort of becoming, uh, with---uh, the American school system, uh, reinventing itself and becoming a much more effective institution for all children.  Unless the kind of collaboration that I’m talking about helps to narrow the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our schools, uh, it’s not going to, uh, amount to anything.  It’s going to be considered, uh, you know, a tea party.

I think the most important problem facing, uh, the American society today is, closing the gap between, uh, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’   Between, mostly poor, minority, uh, children, uh, they’re not all minority children, uh, the poor children that aren’t doing well in school.  Where the achievement lev---levels are---are way off.  Where failure rates on all of the new tests and the new standards are very high.  We’re not going to have a productive society, a democratic society, if we have 20% or 25% of our---of our, uh, population largely uneducated.  We---it just isn’t going to happen.  So, what I am most passionate about is that problem.  I---and I know that that problem of closing those gaps cannot be done by the school, by itself.  It isn’t being done by the school by itself, it won’t ever be done.  It’s really a problem for the whole community and for, uh, the school working with---with families, specifically, to engage them, use their resources and their time and their energy, in helping th---the children that aren’t learning how to learn.  So, th---that’s---that---the issue of closing that gap and getting schools to really do something about it is what’s really important.  And some schools are making some progress and I’m pleased about that, but we have a very long way to go.