In Focus

Metis Partners with National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

Classroom Inc.

The National Urban Alliance for Effective Education held a workshop with students in the Robbinsdale School District in suburban Minneapolis.

Metis is very pleased to partner with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an innovative organization whose mission can be summed up as a deep belief in the capacity of all children to perform at a high intellectual level. “When teachers see poor test scores—which are often correlated to lack of adequate early education—they assume that kids can't handle complicated tasks and tough challenges. Therefore, these students start falling behind early on,” says Stan Schneider, Metis president. “NUA is working to reverse the tide.”

NUA's approach is described in a new book that we have been reading at Metis, Pedagogy of Confidence, by Yvette Jackson, EdD, the organization's chief executive officer. Dr. Jackson, an internationally recognized educator, has taken her expertise in gifted education and applied it to motivate and elicit potential in underachieving students. In her book, she discusses ways in which educators can inspire learning and high intellectual performances by focusing on strengths, engagement, and confidence of urban students.

NUA's core belief, based on the theories of the cognitive psychologist Reuven Feuerstein, is that intelligence is not static, but rather is “modifiable.” In other words, test scores and classroom performance of children who have received poor early education are not predictive of their potential. But, to improve their achievement, one first needs to elevate teachers' expectations for these children. Dr. Jackson works with Eric Cooper, EdD, president and founder of NUA, to improve the quality of teaching and leadership in under-performing schools. They do it through a framework that aims at whole-school transformation.

NUA begins its work with schools by performing comprehensive assessments of the instructional program and using this information to tailor professional-development activities that build on the strengths of students, teachers, and administrators. NUA then brings together school leaders and teachers from partner schools collaboratively to build a plan to achieve transformation. Through workshops and intensive coaching, NUA arms teachers with practices and teaching strategies to build on students' strengths and interests and to engage students fully in all aspects of the learning process.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that NUA has not only closed gap between achievement and potential for children of color in the classrooms in which it works, but has improved the education levels of all children affected by its programming. A case in point is its work with the Eden Prairie Schools in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul. As Eden Prairie incorporated more students with limited resources and experiences, the system began to see underachievement, and administrators realized that they needed to raise all of the students in the classroom. NUA worked with principals and teachers to increase their expectations of students, developed instruction that acknowledged students' cultures, and built community support for its new instructional strategies. Within five years, Eden Prairie students had experienced dramatic improvements on state tests, including average increases of 21 points for black students, 12 points for Latino students, 10 points for Asian students, and 5 points for white students.

“Letting the students know that you believe they have amazing strengths is the transformative part. When you start the school year by addressing a student's strengths instead of his or her weaknesses, the whole cultural environment changes,” Jackson says. She adds that all students—even underachieving ones—know a great deal and have deep interests. When teachers build on these assets, it is very motivating.

In addition to emphasizing students' strengths, NUA teaches educators to ensure that students have an adequate frame of reference for what they are learning. Jackson advocates “electronic field trips”—that is, using the Internet to open worlds, from the Louvre to the Sahara Desert, with which students may not be familiar.

By way of example, Jackson says that students may write poetry or perform rap music outside of school. “When students understand that rap is poetry, and that poetry is about ideas and patterns, that can lead to discovery of other ideas and patterns, whether in the newspaper or in Shakespeare.”

When it comes to studying a subject like the Civil War, Jackson notes, you don't start with war. You start with the concept of conflict—something students know a lot about. “We can talk about the various forms of conflict and why they happen before launching into a discussion of a particular war.”

NUA has found that, when students feel successful in school, they start to enjoy their experience. They start to view their teachers more positively and vice versa. In schools where NUA is involved, students even lead their parent-teacher conferences and establish their own learning goals for each semester.

Like many grassroots organizations that provide excellent services, NUA has not yet been rigorously evaluated. Its own documentation shows that, when the model is implemented comprehensively and with fidelity, all student groups show substantial achievement gains, and performance gaps between students of color and white students diminish, as was the case in Eden Prairie. However, this level of proof does not satisfy some funders' requirements for more rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental evaluation. Such an evaluation would provide solid information about the relative contributions that the various components of the model make toward achieving the overall outcomes. Because Metis believes that NUA's approach is worthy of wider support and replication, it has partnered with the organization to help it seek funding to be evaluated.

“We've joined hands with NUA because its core beliefs align so closely with our own,” Schneider says. “Throughout my career working with educational institutions, I have seen time and time again that students have the capacity to achieve when given the right resources. Organizations like this deserve to be studied rigorously to demonstrate their value to the public and to inform which elements of their approach are having which effects.”

Jackson says that her organization's partnership with Metis has pushed NUA to think more deeply about how and why its practice leads to the intended results. “We have our skill set and they have theirs,” she says. “We need the type of expertise that Metis has to gain the support we need to deepen and expand the work we do.”

“Together,” she adds, “we can make a claim to understanding not only from a pedagogical but an organizational perspective how to bring out the best in both of us. It's all about having a reciprocal relationship, being reflective, responding to feedback, and going further.”