DN:What was your approach to narrowing the achievement gap?
Weast:You can’t just say you are closing the gap, or the people at the top end will get held back. And you can’t just raise the bar on academic standards — that leaves some people feeling like they will be left off the train. You have to do both. You have to think through the strategies for both in a very careful way.
DN:You speak of engagement for students, teachers and even custodians, bus drivers and cooks. What do you mean?
Weast:When a person is engaged, what they are involved in matters to them. They don’t mind using their curiosity to get better at what they are doing. People want to get up out of bed and go to work. Kids won’t miss a class, because they like the teacher, and like what’s going on in the class. They study beyond the classroom because they see the connection between what the subject and what they want to do with their life.
DN: The U.S. education has a strong focus on standardized testing. How does this affect student engagement?
Weast:We put amazingly draconian measures on students, and it turns them off. If you treat people like prisoners, they will act like prisoners. If you do testing and the outcome is not good, it becomes a never-ending punishment cycle, and a self-fulfilling prophecy for kids. You can spiral down, or you can spiral up. That’s why you need a consistent pattern going all the way back to early childhood. There are certain things kids need to know and be able to do before the get to kindergarten. If that doesn’t happen, the kindergarten teacher has too much of a span to overcome.
DN: What are some ways your district increased learning in early childhood?
Weast:We found you could do fun learning projects with young children and they could learn a lot. We put out new standards and shared them with the whole community — things children need to be able to do when they hit the kindergarten door. We made packets for mothers with newborns. We put workers in the housing projects with heavy concentrations of poor kids to get them ready for school. You can get them ready if you have clarity, but it has to be deliberate.
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