An Interview with Pedro Noguera

As we begin a new semester at CILD, we wanted to share with you a special interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, Director for the Study of School Transformation at UCLA.  Near the end of 2016, Dr. Noguera came to the William & Mary School of Education to speak on equity, innovation, and deeper learning.  Lindy Johnson, Co-Director of CILD, had the chance to sit down with him to record an informal session on innovation and equity in education.  We hope you enjoy!

Lindy Johnson [LJ]: I’m Lindy Johnson and I’m one of the co-directors for the center for innovation in learning design at the School of Education at the College of William and Mary, and today we have the pleasure to talk to Pedro Noguera.  He is a distinguished professor of education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA and his research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions and he is also speaking tonight in the School of Education on equity, innovation, and deeper learning. So I’m just curious if you could tell us a little bit about how you come into the field of education to begin with. Were you a teacher or what was your beginning?

Pedro Noguera [PN]: So I started teaching while I was an undergraduate at Brown University at providence Rhode Island. So my first teaching was in Providence High School then Middle School, but I really didn’t expect to become a teacher and go into education. I went immediately into a PhD program at Berkeley in sociology. And my focus was not education (it was on political change in the Caribbean) but while I was in graduate school at Berkeley, I continued to teach part time as a way to support myself in graduate school in Oakland. And so I always had a foot in education, but it wasn’t my area of research or something I thought I was going to do long term. It was really for very practical reasons, to make some money. I also found that it was a great way to know and learn about the community that I was in, both in Providence and later in the Bay Area. So when I finished my degree at Berkeley I was on the job market, and I was recruited by the School of Education at Berkeley to a new program they developed called Social and Cultural Studies, which was where they put all the people who really didn’t fit anywhere else – sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers – and I was thinking about going elsewhere, but since I already lived in Berkeley, I said, “well I like Berkeley, I’ll just stay”.  So it worked out.

LJ: Berkeley is a great town.

PN: Great town, and it was unusual because Berkeley is the kind of university that doesn’t really hire its own. So that was different too, but that’s where I started.  Once I entered the school of education, it was very easy for me to pivot my work away from the Caribbean (although I continued to do some work there) and actually also on education, and to focus much more on urban education because I had been teaching at a local high school in Berkeley and then I got recruited to run for the school board. So here I am, brand new faculty member serving on the school board, teaching high school, and now teaching at the university.  So that was unusual to have that combination of roles, but it turned out I learned so much about the field from that kind of work across sectors.

LJ: I mean you can really see that. That background makes sense because so much of your work talks about the importance of getting stakeholders together and getting them on the same page, which I love. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be? What was your idea or inspiration to write or to compile, Excellence Through Equity?

PN: You know it’s interesting, equity I think is confusing to most people, and it hasn’t been central feature of American education policy, although I think that is beginning to change – I see signs of it.  And that might seem surprising because you think, “No Child Left Behind” which was I think intended to be a policy that would ensure that we were in fact educating all kids. That was the reason I think why Ted Kennedy and George Miller supported it – it was a bipartisan law initially – but it quickly became something very different. It was all about standards and accountability, no clear guidance to schools about how to support, in fact, all kinds of kids, and no strategy for dealing with poverty.  That to me was a crucial flaw because anyone that knows about education knows that poverty impacts learning, it impacts school funding, it impacts children’s needs and child development. So we were asking schools to get better results but giving no guidance and how to do so. The Obama administration, surprisingly, continued on that path and really just continued to use pressure as a strategy to improve results from schools, again without guidance.  Invariably the schools that have had the most trouble, the schools where poverty is concentrated, and there’s been nothing to do for those schools except close them down and we’ve seen that happen in many parts of the country. We’ve seen mass school closures in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, but not a plan for what to do improve schools. So now as a consequence what we are seeing now is a disinvestment in public education in some of the poorest communities across the country. And that to me is a real, real, problem.  So we did the book because we thought we need to give some clear guidance to practitioners, (and maybe even hopefully some policy makers might read it), what would it take to really think about how to really use education as a means to improve communities and expand opportunity for poor children, but also what would it take to get districts that have sort of a more diverse population, to not perceive equity being at the expense of excellence.  Many of our more diverse communities, Virginia Beach for example is a very diverse place, but the schools tend to be segregated based on race and income, and the perception is the more you do for poor children of color, the less you will do for affluent white children. And as long as that’s the perception, then the poor children will lose, because the parents of affluent white children are more powerful, more influential, better able to ensure that the district and the schools are responsive to their needs.  And what we had to show is that equity is something that can benefit all children because there are many affluent white children that have needs that are not being met in school too. And that if we really start to think about, who are the children, how do we design schools that are responsive to the needs of children, all children, then we can create a set of strategies that will allow us to serve all children well rather than choosing some over others. And that was the goal behind the book, and we thought we need to highlight examples of schools and districts where that in fact is occurring, where you see high standards being made available and accessible to a broad range of kids without compromising rigor, without compromising our focus on outcomes for kids. And so that was the goal in doing a book like this, to really show it can be done.

LJ: It can be done. And I love the diverse voices that you feature in the book. How did you choose who was going to contribute? Were these personal connections or how did you assemble your team of contributors?

PN: Largely personal connections. For the last 25 years I’ve been traveling the country, meeting educational leaders and learning a lot about what’s going on in schools and districts. And the truth is, we could do a volume two, and probably should because there are so many other examples, rural schools, schools serving English language learners, that need attention because so many other communities are struggling with those issues. But we thought that we need to show that there are in fact positive examples people can learn from. There are a number of place where there are high performing classrooms or a high performing school. Very rare to find high performing districts and so we thought, we need to do that too.  So we thought in order to make it compelling and clear we had to give concrete evidence and we asked the practitioners to write the chapters and tell their story about the work that they’ve been doing.

LJ: That is great. Could you talk a little about this idea of equity and privileged folks really thinking that equity is going to take away from their children. Because I think that does seem to be a concern, even here in Williamsburg, where there actually are a lot of pockets of poverty and homelessness, but those problems almost become invisible because there’s a large, more privileged population. How do you start changing those perceptions and educating those folks that equity actually lifts everybody up?

PN:  Well it’s not easy to change those perceptions because they’re deeply engrained in our culture and I would also say that what’s driving inequity in our schools in the inequity in our society. The more privileged, the more affluent families have more power, more influence, the less privileged, the more disadvantaged, as you said, they are more powerless and their ability to influence what is happening with their children is much more limited.  If we’re going to make equity more of a priority, more central, then the educators have to be very clear on what it takes to serve a broad range of kids. So that starts from rethinking assumptions about children, about learning. We come from a society where we tend to believe that some children are inherently smarter than others, they’re just gifted. And I don’t question that there may in fact- that there are in fact some children who are gifted in some ways – I just think we don’t know which ones they are – and we tend to confuse being privileged with being gifted.  And what I mean by that is we’ve known for a long time that family income, parent education, has an enormous influence on child development, and not surprisingly my daughter, who is four, she has the vocabulary of a ten-year-old, she can write, she can read, she can do all kinds of things, she’s not even in kindergarten, well that’s because her mom has a PhD from Harvard. Well that’s a huge advantage. It doesn’t mean that a child growing up in the housing projects or the trailer parks who’s not had that kind of exposure because their mom doesn’t have a college degree, doesn’t also have enormous potential. Once we start by recognizing that some potential is latent and has to be developed then we need the next strategies that allow us to ensure that all kinds of kids, not just the most privileged, have the opportunity to develop their skills and use education to become empowered as learners.  So if we challenge the assumption, recognize that gifts are randomly distributed in our society, they’re not just in wealthy communities but they’re in other communities as well, then in fact we need an education system that’s focused on cultivating talents and strengths in children not premised on sorting children, which is what we’ve been doing. And so once you establish that then you begin to enact strategies that allow you develop talents in kids, that allow you to be more responsive to the needs, that allow you to see that the academic needs, the social needs, the physical needs of a child are all interrelated.  Which sounds logical right? Hungry kids don’t do well in school – but we ignore that. We tend to ignore the fact that the kids with the greatest social and psychological needs also tend the be kids who do the least well academically. We need strategy that allow us to meet those needs so the kids have a chance be successful academically. And we need to make sure the schools that are serving high poverty children have the resources and have a staff, a faculty, that knows how to meet the needs of the kids. We haven’t even begun to do that work.

LJ: [chuckling] So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

PN: [laughing] A lot of work.

LJ: You talked about designing a school that serves all children well and personalizes the learning for the kid whatever their gifts may be.  So do you see deeper learning schools, we are hearing a lot about deeper learning schoos, as a way to get at that? What does a school look like that serves all children well?

PN: So deeper learning, and that’s actually what I’m going to speak about tonight, is only going to serve as a means to foster equity if equity is the central focus, if we recognize that all children can engage in deeper learning, and should.  Now for those that might question that, I would just challenge you and say, what is the most common question posed by a three-year-old? And all three-year-olds are consumed with the question, why?  They want to know why things are the way they are. That is that they are innately curious, children are. They are constantly trying to discover the world around them. Our job as educators should be to encourage that curiosity, to encourage and feed that desire to know, the desire to learn, which is very different from than we typically do in schools.  In most schools we present the world as, these are the facts you need to master to be an educated person.  So we engage in strategy to attempt to be much more didactic and our learning evokes much more memorization than on the higher order skills that we know develop cognitive ability, like the ability to apply knowledge, the ability to evaluate and to make sense of the world through education. Those are the deeper learning strategies that all children need to be engaged in.  To me the program that, or the approach that epitomizes that is the Montessori schools. If you go to a good Montessori schools, you see kids engaged in deeper learning at very early ages.  And they’re also developing because they’re doing deeper learning, they’re developing concertation skills, they’re developing that intrinsic desire to learn very early. And what many people forget is that Maria Montessori, who was a physician, not an educator, started her schools with the poorest children in Rome. But when the Montessori methods were imported to the United States, they became almost exclusively available to the affluent children. It’s not as though that was for whom it was intended but we tend to limit those deeper learning strategies to those kids we think are advanced, whereas the other kids we think, they just need directed structure.

LJ: You talked about how you came to education through a circuitous route, and here at William and Mary we have wonderful, passionate, high achieving undergraduates. Some of them come to us and say I really want to be a teacher, but other folks are talking be out of the business.  What would you say or what advice might you give to a young person who is considering going into education but just feels like teachers are pretty disenfranchised right now, they’re not really respected, there’s not the financial compensation. How do we get kids to go into teaching when we know it’s a tough job?

PN: It’s a tough job, and it’s become tougher. We have a teaching shortage now across the country because a lot of people are leaving the profession too quickly. And that’s because I think the conditions that many teachers work under are not sustainable. That also impacts learning. What I would say to undergrads, and what I say to them when they speak to me about it, I say, it’s a great field, you have to be very clear about why you’re going into it because it’s going to be very challenging, it’s going to be very difficult, and you have to realize that teaching is very complex and it requires a high level of skill. And I think that’s one of the problems I see right now is that we don’t appreciate the degree of skill involved in teaching.  To be an effective teacher you have to know the content very well that you’re going to teach, you have to have strengths in a wide variety of pedagogical strategies so you can teach in many different ways and use technology and other things as a way to engage students, and you have to know how to build relationships with children across race, socioeconomic status, language, culture, etc. Those are huge skills. Think about how difficult it is for example to teach a child to read. Many outsiders have no clue of what goes into it, especially if the child is dyslexic or an English language learner. It is so challenging to do that. And I think if we understood and appreciated the great skill involved in teaching we would have much more reverence for it and support teachers much more than we do now.  I was talking to a teacher who was at a conference I spoke at last week and he was visiting from Iceland. And I said, wow how does a teacher from Iceland come? He said, well I’m on my sabbatical year. I said, your sabbatical year? He said, yeah after seven years of teaching we get a year sabbatical, its paid leave, and the expectation is that we are going to study, we are going to use the time to enhance our knowledge and skills as teachers, and so that’s why I’m in the United States going to conferences.

LJ: [laughs] It sounds like a dream!

PN: [chuckles] It sounds like a dream. But it sounds like what a society that was interested in really furthering education would do. We have to invest in the people who do the work.

LJ: Absolutely. Some of the teachers that we’ve talked have said that we know that this work does require big policy high level change, does the teacher in the classroom level, do they still have some kind of power over their focus on teaching for equity? What if they’re in a school where everyone is not on the same page? Are there certain strategies that the one teacher can focus on to make a little dent or is this really all high level change that needs to occur?

PN: Well ideally you want changes to occur on multiple levels. You want, and I think Virginia actually is a leader, because I know your state superintendent, Steve Staples, and I think he does get it, because he’s a former teacher, that you need to empower teachers and you need to focus on the conditions in schools that foster engagement.  However, there are many districts that are not there. They are still stuck on narrowly focusing on achievement as measured by test scores, they don’t trust their teachers so they have administrators in classrooms making sure the teachers are on the right page on a particular day or doing it the way they want them to do it, and the sad thing is that drives many of our most creative people out of teaching. Teaching is creative work and what we want teachers to be empowered to find a variety of strategies for engaging students and that’s why the art of teaching also has to be cultivated.  There are skills that need to be learned but there is also the creative aspect of teaching that we need to encourage our teachers to develop on their own or with their colleagues. And so my hope is that there are principals and superintendents who also understand that we also want to empower our students as learners and our teachers as professionals. And empowerment simply means being very clear about what good teaching is, how to do it, but also keeping the space there for teachers to be decision makers about how to engage different children, for example, one of the big questions for an educator, is depth vs. breadth. How deep do we go with a particular lesson to ensure that the children really understand a concept? So that we aren’t just moving on before they have a strong foundation. At the same time, we want some breadth in the curriculum because we want to make sure that they are exposed to a variety of knowledge and skills so that during the course of their education they have exposure to the knowledge that we think is important, whether that be depending on the field, in science or history, that they have some exposure. Being an educated person should mean some degree of cultural literacy, to use the term that E.D. Hirsch has made famous. And I don’t disagree with that (although we might disagree about what should be in it).  But that conversation about depth vs. breadth is a very important one for educators to have. But I think that sadly in some schools, there are administrators who are making that decision, and who are controlling their teachers because they don’t trust them enough to make wise decisions on their own.

LJ: I totally agree and the teachers that I have talked with I think really do appreciate and want those opportunities to make decisions and have a say on how their school is run.  We’ve talked a lot about practitioners and teachers, just switching gears a bit, what do you see as crucial areas for research? Are there particular questions that you for example are looking at right now in terms of the gaps in the research around equity or policy change?

PN: So I’m a sociologist by training, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a cognitive scientist as they call it now, but I am very concerned about learning. I think we focus so much on achievement and we focus so little on learning and I really think that if we focused more on learning – how do we create conditions in classrooms and schools that are conducive to learning, where kids become excited and motivated about learning, I think that’s what we should be focused on – and I think we would end up with very different schools than we have right now. It is rare, sadly, for kids to come home at the end of a school day and tell their parents, “wow what a day I had”, “it was fantastic”, “I learned so much”, “we did so many interesting things”, “I read this great book”. It should be that that happens much more often than it happens right now.  At the same time, I think that we, in thinking about school reform, we’ve missed a really basic question. That is, how do we have to organize schools and how do we have to prepare educators to meet the needs of the children they’ll serve? That’s the fundamental question we should be asking. Because I’d say right now that there’s a lack of alignment.  The skills of the teachers don’t match the needs of the kids. And because they don’t match them they don’t know how to teach those kids and showing up in large numbers of kids that are poorly educated. And I don’t just mean the poor kids. I see a lot of affluent kids who end up coming to college who are really not prepared for college. They haven’t written enough, they don’t know how to do independent research, they haven’t been challenged really. And so I think the lack of alignment between the way we organize schools and the way we deliver education to children and engage them is a real problem that we barely address so far.

LJ: So this summer the Center for Innovation in Learning Design is bringing together teams of principals and teachers to try to help them reimagine their school culture and one of the things that we found is that teachers and principals aren’t really having deep discussions about learning and what happens in the classroom. A lot of times it’s about logistics, it’s about buses, it’s about discipline, but it’s not about the actual learning of kids.  What kinds of conversations do you think are essential for principals, and teachers, and even other stakeholders in the school, to start having in order to develop this shared vision or get on the same page about their core beliefs, because we don’t see those kinds of conversations happening very often in a lot of the schools we are working in.

PN: So I think the focus of school culture is a good one because it tends to be ignored. I often remind people that all schools have a culture, it’s just that some cultures are better than others. And a culture is characterized by the quality of the relationships among the adults and between the adults and the children, by the values and the norms of the school, by the sense of shared mission and purpose, but it’s very important that we engage educators in conversations about school culture and how to create cultures that are conducive to teaching and learning that they not lose sight of the teaching and learning part – that they all have to go together. And I think that too often in education we take such a fragmented approach – we’ll have a session on technology, we’ll have a session on culture, we’ll have a session on curriculum, or classroom management, and we don’t integrate them.  And we have to integrate.  For example, school discipline. You can’t teach in a school that’s chaotic, a school where kids are out of control. At the same time, that gets people fixated on classroom management and behavior.  Ultimately the best behavior strategy is academic engagement.  Kids who are academically engaged are less disruptive. So you have to think about discipline in relation to the larger educational strategies of a school, not in isolation.  It’s getting people to think more systemically and in a more integrated manner that I think is the real challenge.  We assign in many school districts, the least prepared teachers to the most challenging kids.  Why would we do that? Why does Teach for America do that? Now some people say, well it’s better than the ineffective teachers that we assign to them, but why are we doing that? That’s not the strategy either. We need to rethink many approaches that we take a really ask a different set of questions about how to make schools more responsive to the needs of students.


LJ: Wow. That’s wonderful. You’ve given me definitely a lot to think about and of course I look forward to attending your talk tonight but thank you so much for talking with me.  I really appreciate it.

PN: Thank you Lindy.

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Josh Chung is a second-year Masters student in the Higher Education Administration program at the College of William and Mary. He has been a photographer, EMT, and has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Among Josh’s many varied interests, he is currently interested in researching user interface and user experience (UIUX) in instructional design.

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