• by Art Cole, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1998 • 

I am pleased that IDRA has chosen compensatory education and school reform as a theme for this issue. After more than 30 years of reform efforts, we must continue to demand that students achieve to high academic standards. There is no question that Title I funds are critical to ensure that this country’s students will be the best in the world.

All of our students need clearly defined standards – benchmarks for measuring success. We need adequate resources to ensure that teachers can effectively challenge students to reach high standards. And we need policies at the federal, state and local levels that enable all students to meet their potential for academic success. We all embrace these principles. However, it is easy to forget that beyond the many effective policies, educational theory and significant funding over the years, good quality education remains personal.

On this personal level, there are defining moments leading to student success that any teacher can create. Does the act of defining such moments require special skill, exceptional effort or some special type of certification on the part of each teacher? I do not think so.

What makes education so exciting is the simple notion that each educator can have a profound affect on any one child at any moment. Some educators seek out those opportunities, but too many others just fail to recognize the teachable moment that can change the course of a young person’s life. Each of us has had one or more of those moments as a student. As teachers, we have experienced many more moments that would affect a student. Look back with me, a member of a large low-income family, as I reflect on a critical moment that a teacher created for me and how profoundly it affected my life. This story is simply about my personal experience with a critical moment that a teacher created that changed my life.

Access is a word that we often banter about in a casual manner. It means different things to most of us, but it has a special meaning to any young person on the margin of our society. The parents of children from low-income families, members of minority groups, or any child who may be the least bit different from the majority of all students understand the meaning of access. We, as educators, have the power to grant access or take it away, and we often exercise that power. Access shapes our destiny, the schools we attend, the associations we are able to make, and the exposure we have to that big world around us.

In my case, the gateway to higher education would be afforded by having access to a high school that offered the rich academic preparation necessary for acceptance into college. While the high school serving my neighborhood offered what was touted to be an “academic program,” history had suggested otherwise for the majority of my junior high school peers. Little did I know at the time that the decision by a junior high school mathematics teacher to offer an enrichment course during lunch period would change the lives of a few boys who were otherwise destined for an inferior high school education.

Mrs. Carey asked in every one of the eighth grade classes: “Who would like to go to Tech High School?” This was the most competitive public high school in the city. I and a handful of others raised our hands and signed on to a year-long challenge. The next nine months were filled with solving difficult problems in mathematics and science that rarely would be touched upon in the regular curriculum.

The entrance exam to Tech High School was competitive. Only about half of us scored high enough to be admitted into this “elite” institution. Few, if any, would have scored as well had it not been for the intervention of a single dedicated teacher who took a personal interest in students achieving to high standards. The success of a few also gave many others that incentive to compete for entrance in subsequent years.

As I reflect on the success of that young faculty at a newly created school and follow their careers, it was an outstanding group. The future superintendent was among that first-year group. An associate superintendent grew out of that group. An outstanding national leader in psychology was also spawned there. A common thread is that many of their students can trace back to at least one critical moment that a faculty member created to shape their careers. This was a team of teachers who repeatedly created these moments for hundreds of young students over the years.

Do we as educators do enough to create critical moments in a child’s life? There are at least four frameworks one can look for to begin to create critical moments for academic success.

  • The first is access. What moments can we create that expand the horizons of a young person or expose a child to opportunities that may be out of reach without intervention?
  • Content of information is an important factor. Are there challenging content areas that shape the minds, plant a seed of interest or form the foundation for a mind-expanding experience for a young person?
  • Are we aware of students and how they see themselves in the world? Do we take the time and put forth the effort to understand each individual in sufficient depth to identify that critical moment when it presents itself?
  • Are we sufficiently aware of our own behavior to ensure that we can treat each student fairly and with unconditional positive regard?

I will note that these are not necessarily frameworks for achievement. Those are beyond the boundary of standards, curriculum or content. One need not be trained in pedagogy or have mastered a content area to seize upon opportunities for creating critical moments. The frameworks for student success co-exist with the need for students to achieve high standards.

These are simply four examples of opportunities that anyone may use to create a critical moment in the life of a young person. Upon reflection, I have probably let many more opportunities to create a critical moment go by than I have been successful in creating. My challenge to myself is to do better. I hope you also see the challenge.

Art Cole, Ph.D., is director of school improvement programs at the US Department of Education. Comments and questions may be sent to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]