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The 180 Podcast Nov 9, 2020

The 180 Podcast: You Can’t Separate Character from Student Success, with Ron Berger & Laina Cox

You Can’t Separate Character from Student Success, with Ron Berger & Laina Cox

Today we continue our conversation with Ron Berger and Laina Cox

Ron is Chief Academic Officer for EL Education, which guides a network of over 150 public schools in more than 30 states – helping build schools in low-income communities that send all graduates to college through high student achievement, character and citizenship, while also building teacher capacity through professional coaching, resources and open-source curriculum. 

Laina is one of those educators and administrators who bring EL’s vision to life, as Principal at Capital City Public Charter Middle School in Washington D.C. 

In fact, today’s conversation focuses even more in depth on what exactly that means in Laina’s school – literally, how they do it. In this conversation, Ron and Laina also take on the question more broadly – looking at learning in America today – and address some of the broader social questions of how learning can and should work in the face of a pandemic, social unrest, and more. 


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Why are you so bought into and believing in the approach that you’ve been describing?

Laina Cox: We are pressured in schools to prioritize academics over character and to not look at it as a blending of both pieces need to happen in order for us to successfully educate a child.

Test scores are being pitted against character and social, emotional learning, but we need both to produce strong future citizens. And I think it’s ironic that we’re seeing firsthand in this pandemic with school buildings closed because school isn’t closed, school is still very much in session, our buildings are just closed.

But how our students are handling the shift, how they’re choosing to engage, we have to look at their wellbeing and their social, emotional health. And it’s even more proof of why school should never just be about test scores, it’s so much more. And interestingly to me, so much of the argument that I feel like I’ve heard around wanting schools to reopen and about what students are missing isn’t only about the academics.

People are talking about schools needing to be reopened because of the social piece, the connection, the character building, the engaging with other children, all of those other, in any other time, what would be “other”, they would be put into a different pot. But now everyone is really understanding what school should be about. It took a global pandemic for people to see what we’ve been trying to say all along, that you have to focus on the whole child, their mind, their emotion, their social wellbeing, and be educating them academically and all of that all at the same time. It’s not one or the other.

Chris Riback: Ron, is Laina right? Is she bringing to life in her school what you meant to build as part of EL Education?

Ron Berger: Chris, Laina said that just beautifully. It is everything we believe and Capital City Public Charter is as good an instantiation of that as any school I know. They do that beautifully there. And I think Chris, what Laina is saying is really just common sense for every parent.

A child is not going to do well in school if she doesn’t care, if she doesn’t feel purpose and motivation for her work. So it’s a precondition for kids succeeding academically that they feel that something is meaningful that they’re doing, that there’s a reason for their work, that they’re excited about it, they want to put themselves in it. And I think what distinguishes a school like Laina’s is the fact that kids are going to be self-directed about their work because their work matters to them, because they want to do a good job.

It’s not just about being obedient. It’s not just about preparing for a test. It’s about doing work that they’re proud of and doing work that’s of high quality that they’re going to share publicly through their student led conferences and their passionate presentations, these presentations of learning for the public. We want kids to feel like there’s a reason for the work that they do that’s beyond themselves, and they’re going to be motivated because they care to show it to others.

Chris Riback: Ron, your comment a moment ago was, we need her to care, that the point of education, I’m paraphrasing, is for the student to care and to go from there. And congratulations to you, you’ve been part of an environment where you’ve been able to help see that come to light because you’ve been part of a team that’s helped design that and you’ve gotten to work with people like Laina.

But my guess is you care not only about your own environment, but you probably care about this whole country and frankly, you probably care about this whole world. What’s your feeling about where we are as a society in terms of education?

Ron Berger: Well, Chris, I think things go in waves. They go one direction and then another direction. You can see that politically, I think in this country if things swing one direction and then there’s a backlash and they swing the other direction.

But I feel like we, as a nation, when I started in education, which was mid ’70s, there was a big push for project based and character infused and art infused learning. In the ’90s things really shifted with no child left behind to a very sharp focus on tests and accountability.

And I think as a nation, we thought for all good reasons, for reasons of equity, for reasons of excellence, we put all our eggs in one basket, which was if we test kids enough and we hold schools accountable enough for test scores in two subjects, literacy and mathematics, that’s the answer to improving our schools.

And from 1995 to about 2010, that was the dominant vision in America. If we have high accountability, it will work. And I’ll tell you, accountability is a good thing because there are many schools, especially schools serving communities that were underserved, often Black and brown communities that all of a sudden there was a bright light on the low quality of those schools because of the accountability.

So I don’t think accountability is a bad thing, but accountability alone does nothing. Accountability doesn’t create the learning experiences for kids. And we didn’t invest equally into getting better learning experiences for kids and developing staff more deeply. And so I mean, at the same time as we were digging deeply into accountability, there were other things like Finland and Singapore and places that were deeply investing in teachers and making the teacher development a stronger program.

And the United States has really advanced, not at all internationally in terms of things like the PISA testing. We have not made progress. And this investment in accountability only has really shown to be a failure. Even on our own NAEP scores, our national assessments, the only assessments we use that cross all States, we’ve really made no progress in the last 10 years.

And so I think people are seeing accountability as one tool, but it’s not enough. So we have to invest more in creating rich educational experiences for kids in an equitable way across all schools and invest more in teachers and in school leaders. Because investing in one thing, which is high stakes accountability, didn’t work for us as a nation.

And so I think there’s actually a moment now where we’re swinging back to more rich educational experiences for kids, more project-based learning, more public presentations of learning by kids. And I think the COVID crisis is actually going to accelerate people’s understanding of exactly what Laina described so beautifully, which is that you can’t separate student character from student academic success.

Because their academic success is predicated on things like their personal courage and their personal commitment to collaborate and to take risks and to have a growth mindset. Students will only succeed with the right character strengths. So it’s a false choice, as Laina said. And I think people are becoming aware we have to look at the whole child right now. And I think there’s a movement across America now back to looking, as all parents do, at the whole child.

Chris Riback: To close out the conversation, I’m curious, your point, Ron, about experience and your point about character, there were items in both of your backgrounds that struck me and I’m just interested in you as individuals and the influences.

Laina, I mean, among the many, many, many things that are so interesting, fascinating about your background and the things that you’ve done, I couldn’t help but notice that you seemed somewhat proud of the Alpha Kappa Alpha experience. What role did that play for you? And it might maybe overstating it and there’s some other experience that was particularly meaningful for you. I’m sure there are many, many of course.

Laina Cox: No, you’re definitely not overstating that commitment and the passion that I have for my sorority. And when you are a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, you are a lifetime member. So this is a commitment that we chose in college and that we chose to be taught and seen and continue on the legacy of strong women and strong Black women. And it’s a commitment that you make for life. It’s a sisterhood that you become a part of for life. And we are obviously extremely proud of all of our members who continue to have civic engagement and be leaders in whatever field they’re in.

And for me, just because of my background where I attended a predominantly white private school in New Haven, CT for high school and just some of the experiences that I had in dealing with racism and classism, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Spelman College in Atlanta and be given the opportunity to be in a space where my growth was nurtured, where Ron named the piece of earlier around caring about what you were doing and what you were learning and who was standing in front of you and what they were teaching you and what they were telling you.

And that type of experience along with then joining a sorority like Alpha Kappa Alpha, it just continues to build on a kind of foundation for me of my identity, who I am as a black woman in this country, how I am as a leader in a school of students who look like me, how I want to be for them, how I want to show up for them.

And the experiences that you have in a sorority or in a college in a historically black college specifically, those are the types of things that guide me during my darkest times. And they gave me the quality of an education that allows me to now pass that on to my students and to the teachers in my building. 

Chris Riback: It speaks to the sense of community that you are talking about the importance of in your school and in all of the schools. And Ron, to close out, are you still a carpenter?

Ron Berger: I wish I were doing it a lot more than I am, but I am living in a house I built with my own hands. Still for my wife’s birthday, I built her a bookcase. I mean, I’m still trying to keep my craftsmanship up. I would just want to say though, to build for a moment, Chris, on Laina’s comment that-

Chris Riback: Please.

Ron Berger: When we talk about Crew, we’re not just talking about an advisory structure, right? We’re talking about a culture of a sisterhood, a brotherhood, that one feels in a school and in a broader community. My whole career, I have met strong Black women that were sisters of Laina from her sorority, and people I admire.

And I think Laina is at a school right now with three Black women as principals. And I just feel like that kind of sisterhood, that kind of commitment to making the world better is so important right now. And I’ll just say I’m an old white guy. And I feel like old white guys have messed up the world a lot. When I go into a school like Capital City with three Black women leading it, I think it’s about time we have Black women leading things because they could only do a better job than people like me have done.

So I’ve just… celebrating Laina’s sense of sisterhood in her sorority and how important that is. But my commitment to craftsmanship did come from the fact that I was a carpenter for 25 years which was just a necessity for me. I was a rural public school teacher making not enough money to live on. So I built homes and remodeled homes for 25 years in addition to teaching.

And I’m still proud to have some beautiful homes and furniture and things that I built here in my own community. And when I get the time, I still love to be working with wood because it’s a lot more tangible and solid than working in education. When you work in education, you’re worried that every advance you make might crumble if things fall apart. And when I build things, I think that’s probably going to last a long time. So it’s a different kind of security.

Chris Riback: I’m sure you are not overselling your craftsmanship in terms of wood, but I bet you are underselling your craftsmanship in terms of what I know is not lost on you, the important other things that you have built in your life, which is to say kids and students. And it sounds like a whole community and I’m sure you take as much pride in that maybe even a little bit more than you take in the wonderful bookshelf that you built for your wife. Ron, Laina, thank you both so much for your time. Thank you obviously for the work that you have done and continue to do.

Laina Cox: Thank you Chris.

Ron Berger: Thanks for hosting us. And thanks for pairing me with Laina Cox. What a dream team to be in an interview with. So Laina, thanks for joining.

Laina Cox: Yes, that is a mutual feeling Ron.

Chris Riback: Thank you. Thank you both. 


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