Finding hope in 'Hard Times at Douglass'

July 11, 2008|By Eric Cooper

The HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High, about the challenges a Baltimore public school faces, is a stunningly revealing piece, highlighting a vital yet often overlooked issue. However, the program does not offer any solutions for reducing the achievement gap in Baltimore's schools - thus potentially creating a false sense of hopelessness.

The documentary portrays a school system, administrators and teachers compromising learning standards in order to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. One might think, from viewing it, that the route to reform is through holding students back until they are ready to pass to the next grade level.

Is this the new American way? No solutions for our youths, just postponement of their potential?

Some may hope that such repetition will enable struggling urban students to learn, but experience has shown the best way to overcome the obstacles to education that urban students face is to give teachers the support required for student success.

At Frederick Douglass High, where two-thirds of the teachers are not certified - and at many other schools in Baltimore and across the nation - this support especially needs to come in the form of professional development. According to experts, including Standard University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond in the Education Policy Analysis Archives, student achievement is much less related to demographic characteristics than it is to student access to appropriate, quality instruction.

Too often, districts think of "staff development" in terms of one-shot workshops, sporadic in-service training, superficial workshop-type presentations, staff retreats with cluttered agendas and tedious after-school training. This process can and must be improved.

The National Urban Alliance is partnering with educational and community leadership to foster an environment that leads to higher intellectual performance for all students. For this to happen, teachers must be equipped with the diagnostic tools, best practices and strategic thinking that will enable them and their students to believe that they can achieve.

The work of NUA over the last two decades has proved that the focus should be on building internal capacity for teachers and principals to transform the learning environments and learning experiences around relevant themes based on community priorities and needs.

To do so, learning must be at the center of continuous development. A coherent curriculum needs to be distributed across the district so that students in each school have equal opportunities, while maintaining the value of teacher creativity and professional judgment.

Engaging strategies and familiar cultural themes should be woven into the curriculum so students can gain experience that is relevant to their world. Finally, parent workshops - with a focus on outreach and incentives - should be created in order to provide participants with strategies for learning outside the classroom. In Baltimore, schools CEO Andres Alonso recently unveiled an ambitious proposal for boosting parent involvement.

We all have an obligation to provide resources to allow our youths to excel and contribute to society. In the rapidly changing world economy, America is being left behind for failure to invest in our future through quality public education for all students. In the end, hard times at Douglass High translate into hard times for all of us.

Eric Cooper is the president and founder of the National Urban Alliance. He is a contributing author of the book "Teaching All the Children: Strategies for Developing Literacy in an Urban Setting." His e-mail is

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