A Valiant Effort to Teach History to the Middle School Crowd

By 02/09/2011

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A Journalist’s Education in the Classroom: The Challenge of School Reform
by David Awbrey
(Rowman and Littlefield, 146 pp., $24.95)

Welcome to the world of the journalist turned newly minted middle school history teacher!  David Awbrey’s transition from one professional field of endeavor to another is a leap of faith few would even contemplate, let alone undertake.  This account of his journey is as riveting as it is sobering.  The vivid descriptions of his encounters with alienated students of the Pipkin Middle School in Springfield, Missouri are powerful because they are so realistic. David Awbrey’s’ descriptions of his first few months on the job could make a grown man cry.  But he soldiers on, buoyed by his vision of a vastly improved public school system informed by noble convictions and rational incentives.

What were the challenges?  Students disaffected in the sense that any kind of learning, especially history, was thought to be totally irrelevant to their lives, mired in a counter-culture based on an entirely different set of moral assumptions.  Their world was hormone-driven, mainstream cultural values saturated, and devoid of any kind of parental reinforcement. The school was just a place to spend time in, a kind of super-janitorial parking lot. Teachers were thrown back on their own resources; administrators seemingly were only interested in their own convenience.  Against this kind of institutional backdrop, David Awbrey never gives up, a kind of David in a world of Goliaths.

As such, this extraordinarily well-written book serves as a searing reminder of the challenges implicit in a teacher’s life, especially at the middle school level.  Indeed, in this litany of frustration, there are only a few insights which provide any grounds for even cautious optimism.  Most of the proposed remedies are thoughtful, as far as they go, but they amount to little more than the accumulated conventional wisdom of traditional school reformers. Needless to say, they include a vastly more rigorous curriculum, higher expectations for all students, a knowledge-based rather than a methods-based emphasis in teacher education, and a more thoughtful system of assessment rather than the relatively mindless fill-in-the-blank approach of so many conventional standardized tests.

The tragedy of all of this is that Pipkin Middle School remains the norm rather than the exception nationally.  As David Awbrey correctly points out, the U.S. is falling behind other highly developed countries. Just because, despite all our rhetoric to the contrary, as a country we do not set enough store by insisting that a sound basic education be available for all students, regardless of race or economic circumstance. Teachers continue to be selected from the bottom quarter of the SAT test population.  Despite Race to the Top and other initiatives designed to revolutionize the status quo, most schools continue to be predestined to a kind of recycled mediocrity.  In a word, despite David Awbrey’s heartfelt and totally admirable championship of the liberal arts, and his best intentions to the contrary, his book is more of a depressant than a source of inspiration.

What would have been more enlightening is a much more systematic examination of what really works.  After all, there are lighthouse schools all over the country serving low-income students where the achievement gap between minority and majority students has been eliminated.  These are institutions whose students, regardless of socio-economic deprivation, score at the same level as their more privileged counterparts.  There are schools in which the teachers are so invested in the success of their students that the students come to realize that it is in their own best interest to excel if they are to go on to college and lead fulfilling lives.  These schools, in some cases, school systems, have been transformed by the kind of dedication exemplified by some Teach for America graduates and some fearless superintendents like Michell Rhee and Paul Vallas.

All that said, David Awbrey’s courage and tenacity should be applauded. His efforts to revitalize traditional history instruction are both imaginative and compelling.  And given the plethora of challenges he faced, one should not expect Utopia. Rather, to have enhanced the lives of even a few disadvantaged students is no mean achievement.

-A. Graham Down

Comment on this article
  • Anne Clark says:

    Where can I find a list of these “lighthouse schools”? Please publish the list so that we can start studying what they do in a 3rd grade math class and bring it to scale with implementation of the Common Core State Standards across the US.

    I think you are too quick to congratulate Rhee and DC. “Score at the same level as their more privileged counterparts”? Really? Right now – or a hope they’re headed in that direction?

    Here’s a NJ example:
    KIPP Newark – no SAT scores posted yet – but 21.1% partially proficient on NJ HSPA administered to 11th graders.
    North Star SAT Math 516, Verbal 474, Essay 477

    Their “privileged counterparts”:
    Mendham SAT Math 586, Verbal 569, Essay 578

    And that’s as good as it gets here. The North Star kids are doomed to start college with remediation. The next highest reported SAT Math average is 400 at a charter high school in NJ.

    Please – the lighthouse school list. We need it desperately.

  • Michael says:

    Your statement “Teachers continue to be selected from the bottom quarter of the SAT test population” is simply false. Try this: http://tinyurl.com/4w5cv8s

  • Marilyn Quigley says:

    Excellent review! I know this author and his wife, and you can “take it to the bank” that the book is accurate, brutally honest. I will be buying a copy of my own to read when I retire in seven weeks from the wonderful world of CHRISTIAN COLLEGE teaching, SO different from what I’ve seen observing student teachers in the public schools.

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