A Letter From The Director Of Education

Education seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Whether it be the excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book in the Wall Street Journal (“Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”) to the recent New York Times article on the value of testing (“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test”) to the flurry of reports on the crisis in our public schools, people are talking about education with passion and urgency. For those who attended our fall screening of “Waiting for Superman,” or our evening conversation with NYU President John Sexton, or our winter screening of “Race to Nowhere,” you know that SEEDS is committed to providing a public forum for the discussion of timely educational issues.

Education is how one generation communicates with the next. It is how we prepare, inform, counsel, and inspire those who are most vulnerable today (because of their youthful innocence), yet who will eventually replace us as guardians of our institutions, norms, and aspirations. This means that every educational decision matters, not merely on a personal or family or neighborhood level, but on a collective, societal, global level. The questions of education belong not just to teachers, parents and students but to all of us: Who is being educated and how? To what end? What values are being conveyed in the educational process? What skills? What domains of knowledge? What talents are being nurtured? What abilities ignored or suppressed? Are we rewarding merit and effort or simply reproducing systems of privilege designed to protect the power and influence of a certain social class?

At SEEDS, we have set ourselves the task of addressing a particular problem in society: ensuring that talented, hard-working students of limited means have the opportunity to excel and contribute to the best of their ability. The future of our society depends upon the advancement of talent — and talent knows no class, color or ethnic circumstance. Yet the obstacles for a low-income student are enormous. A high-poverty school is 22 times as likely to be poor-performing on national measures than a middle-class school. [1] Selective colleges enroll 25 times more high-income students than low-income ones. [2]students in library

But the advancement of talent requires care. It doesn’t happen on its own. A talented student in a failing school needs more than just “opportunity” to succeed in a challenging environment; he or she needs the intellectual tools and social skills that grant the ability to learn. That is what we aim to provide our students: the ability to pick up any book, open any newspaper, browse any website, listen to any lecture and find a point of entry. A student who knows “how to begin” can survive on any campus and succeed in any environment.

To this aim, we are in the process of evaluating and restructuring the SEEDS Scholars curriculum. (Eventually we will tackle the curricula of the Young Scholars Program and the College Preparatory Program as well.)

Curriculum reform takes both courage and humility. Courage because we have very little agreement as a society about what students ought to know. Clearly we need to prepare our students for success at the independent schools to which we send them, but what do we mean by “prepared”? Not to mention by “success”?

Humility is equally necessary because most of us know that what we learned in school plays very little role in our adult lives. A need to analyze the Odyssey comes up only so often. Americans have always been a little suspicious of “book learning,” and perhaps rightly so. Students learn as much, if not more, about life during lunch and recess as they do during English.

So it is with a mixture of humility and courage that we proceed. But proceed we must because, as we have already pointed out, education – every single aspect of it – matters. And curriculum, if it is treated right, encompasses lunch and recess. The word curriculum derives from the Latin currere for “current.” Before they set foot into a classroom, students are caught up in currents of thought, action, feeling, friendship, etc. Those currents will shape their lives. The work of curricular design is to help students navigate the currents of life.

In our new educational framework, we aim to instill the kind of mental and spiritual discipline espoused by Amy Chua within a context of support, emotional safety, and individual attention to the needs of each child that are the hallmarks of modern humanism. We have begun to assure that our Scholars learn hundreds of vocabulary words each week, and we have seen dramatic score improvements on the SSAT as a result – but high SSAT scores are a benefit, not the goal. We have begun assigning dense, analytical essays – essays that might pose challenges for the typical college undergraduate – because we believe that our students should know what it means to think rigorously. [3] Yet we continue to provide the kind of personal attention and emotional support that every young person needs in a world over which they have almost no control. Students need to know that teachers are there for them and with them, not above them or against them.

Our new educational framework reflects the latest research on the value of testing. Testing has come under attack because it adds to student stress, but tests are highly valuable for assisting recall. We believe, along with the experts, that taking a well-designed test builds cognitive skills and helps the brain to make neuronal connections that it otherwise would not. Yet our framework also reflects the vital importance of creativity. As Abraham Maslow once wrote:

The key question isn’t “What fosters creativity?” But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.

We believe our students yearn to create and to be creative. So we assign open-ended yet challenging projects that require teamwork, imagination, and exploration. We know our job is not just to teach our students but to learn from them. (If you haven’t seen one of Ken Robinson’s videos on the importance of creativity in schooling, I urge you to do so.)

Writing is the backbone of our new framework. Nearly every academic subject requires an ability to write. So does nearly every profession. This isn’t “free” writing we’re talking about. This is expository, persuasive writing. It is the ancient art of rhetoric. And it takes enormous practice. Students must learn how to frame a thesis statement, how to support it effectively, how to hold the attention and interest of a reader, how to dance between the serious and the amusing, how to raise new questions that go beyond the subject at hand. There is a paradox at play: good writing requires a clear mind, but a clear mind requires the ability to think like a writer. Our goal is to exploit this paradox so that our students discover the magical joys of rhetorical ease.

If expository writing is the backbone, self-awareness and an understanding of human behavior are the flesh and blood of our new framework. In a future article, I will provide more detail about our new Human Behavior curriculum. For now, suffice it to say that we have distilled ten skill-sets that we believe merit reflection and cultivation. These range from the art and science of critical thinking to the craft of effective communication to the pragmatic realities of good problem-solving. As recent work by Steven Johnson on the power of community in spurring progress illustrates, societies flourish when individuals interact effectively. We believe every short story that students read, every historical event they study, every step forward they take in math and science is an opportunity to examine and enhance their own self-awareness and their understanding of human behavior.

This summer, we will admit our first class of students to a revised Summer Challenge curriculum. In English, those students will focus on grammar, sentence structure and paragraphing. Knowledge of proper grammar is the sine qua non of clear writing: without it, one is forever trapped in the prison of unintelligibility. Many well-intentioned educators have purged grammar from their “Language Arts” curricula, fearing its supposedly stultifying effects on the young writer’s “voice,” but they have done so only to the detriment of their students. In Math, our students will be expected to progress steadily toward the completion of Algebra 1 prior to the start of 9th grade, and to be able to teach what they have learned to each other, as a way of ensuring that they understand the math they are doing and not merely memorizing formulas. In History, they will re-enact the Constitutional debates of 1787, learning the foundations of the American political system, developing the ability to speak in public, and elevating their skills at framing an argument. At the end of the summer, those students selected for the second and third phases of the program (the Scholars Academy) will continue to participate in three days of outdoor leadership training. But this training program will have an added component: the reading of analytical essays on the nature of group dynamics.

In the fall, these same students will prepare intensely for the SSAT, concentrating on vocabulary and math. Every week they will have short vocabulary and math tests to ensure their recall of important material.student with book

In the spring, they will practice their expository writing skills each week. They will read the SEEDS Guide to Essay Writing as well as the SEEDS Guide to Critical Analysis. In math, they will continue to master more advanced concepts and handle more challenging equations. And in Human Behavior they will be introduced to the key thinkers and principles of the Western humanistic tradition, from Socrates and Plato to Locke and Mill. They will read excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, The Canterbury Tales, and Freakonomics. They will be exposed to introductory brain science, so that they have a better understanding of their own cognitive processes, and they will explore the Zen notion of satori, or enlightenment. In small teams, they will create final projects that will help to illuminate the material in new and intriguing ways.

The following summer, in the final phase of the program (known as The Boarding Experience), the students will engage in a full-fledged study of education itself – from Plato’s views on the study of music to the 1983 Report on “A Nation at Risk” — using the essays, articles and beautiful reproductions of master artwork in the “Ways of Learning” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly as their touchstone text. (Lapham’s Quarterly is published by the American Agora Foundation and brings together literary selections on a particular theme, from sources as diverse as Cicero, Mary Wollstonecraft, Wallace Stevens, and James Baldwin.) The conversation will be rigorous, challenging and sophisticated. It will demand our students achieve a new level of erudition. All classes – English, History, Math, and Science – will connect through this investigation of what it means to learn. In their electives, students will produce works of art that speak to the power of inquiry. Every student will be required to write a final paper answering the question, “What is the role of thinking in human life?”

Our aim is to graduate the best prepared class of students in the history of NJ SEEDS.

Just as we are committed to educating our students to be critical thinkers, however, we know that we must find ways to gain critical perspective on our own instructional efforts. We must demand concrete proof of their value. With an eye toward the accumulation and assessment of data, SEEDS has established a Board level committee on metrics. While this Committee has just begun its work, it is safe to say that in order to assess the results of our curricular reform efforts, we will likely interview admissions counselors and teachers at our receiving schools, and with new evidence showing that students are the best judge of their own learning, we will no doubt survey the students themselves.

Sometimes I hear people talk about low-income students – even high-achieving, low-income students – like their values must be different from those of other students. I assure you this is not the case. Last Saturday I heard one of our teachers ask her class who inspired them. One student answered Bill Gates. Another Mother Theresa. A third said Isaac Newton. These figures inspire us because of what we have in common as human beings, irrespective of class, race, ethnicity, gender or any other sociological category. We all value the fulfillment of human potential.

Education is the beginning and end of all discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, psychology, literature and art. None of these is possible without a rich education (whether it be in a school or on the streets) and none of them matters if one’s discoveries fail to be passed on to future generations. The irony of graduate programs in education is the degree to which they trivialize the transcendent and turn teaching into a trade. Education is the context for all of social life. What we have learned informs our thoughts and beliefs. What we want others to learn shapes our actions and interactions. Education is always in the background, pushing and pulling us – determining our feelings, coloring our convictions, pointing the way toward new solutions. Sometimes, like right now, it also enters the foreground, demanding explicit discussion and debate.

Each of us is constantly being educated and educating others. Yes, we typically reserve the term “education” to denote that which takes place in the formal context of schooling. This only perpetuates an illusion. Education is a constant, life-long process. We learn on the job, we learn from our spouses, we learn from our children. Alas, we often learn and teach at a notably mundane level. It doesn’t mean very much to say that one has “learned” how to order in Starbucks-speak or that one has taught someone else to do the same. But we can always raise the level at which we operate. Even as we wait on line for our lattes and frappuccinos, we can contemplate the most important issues of our day. And as we interact with our neighbors and colleagues and family members, we can share the essential lessons of our lives, including the core truth that every person deserves a fair shot. At SEEDS, we believe that the more each of us thinks of ourselves as lifelong learners and teachers with the constant opportunity to make the most of ourselves and do the best by others, the sooner we will be able to come together as a community to ensure the greatest possible future for all young people.

David Allyn

David Allyn, Ph.D.
Director of Education

[1]Douglas Harris, “Ending the Blame Game on Educational Inequality: A Study of ‘High Flying’ Schools and the NCLB,’ Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University, March 2006, p.20.

[2]Richard Kalhenberg, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, The Century Fund, 2004 (Washington, DC).

[3]Here are the comments of one teacher regarding a recent assignment, which involved reading an essay by Lana Whited about metaphors of race and class in novels by J.K. Rowling and then articulating Whited’s main point. “Many of my students had trouble with the winter reading assignment. They had trouble distinguishing between Whited’s arguments about Rowling, and Rowling’s own points in her novels. I think it was good to give them an example of expository writing, but the level of abstraction seemed a bit too much for them.” Another teacher responds, “I had exactly the same experience. I’d say about a third of the students answered the first question [“What is Whited’s point in this essay?”] with Rowling’s points rather than Whited’s. However, a good number of students also answered the question by explaining Whited’s points reasonably well, and then finding great examples, so there was definitely a range of success with the assignment. It was good to see how many of the students picked up on it before we discussed it in class, but it was also very clear that we need to work on this. We talked about it in class, and I wrote notes to each student on his or her paper, and it seemed to me that it began to make sense to some of them who had been confused. It was a challenging assignment, but I do think it was definitely a good (high) level to start out the semester, because from there the students have been quickly improving on their work and assignments. They seem to be picking everything up very quickly, especially with lots of group/partner work and sharing/presentations in class.”