By: Peter Yarrow Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Jewel Of Collaboration
Writing On the Wall: Both Hopeful and Daunting
Operation Respect is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming school climates to become compassionate, safe, respectful and bully-free places and therefore conducive to children’s social, emotional and academic growth. Founded in 1999, the organization provides free, effective, curricular tools that help to transform and sustain positive school environments. Operation Respect also works to coalesce the efforts of like-minded educational organizations, nationally and internationally, that are working towards achieving a mutually held educational vision for the universal adoption of educational paradigms that meet all the personal and academic developmental needs of children; i.e. such as whole child education.
Looking back towards our inception nine years ago, I realized that two basic premises underlay the goals, vision and efforts of Operation Respect, both of which, now, seem remarkably simple, intuitive and obvious.
First: Operation Respect believes that in order for children and youth to be happy, to be able focus and concentrate, and to achieve academically, they must first feel safe and valued in their school environment.
They must not be subjected to what has become, far too frequently, a school environment that targets them with disrespect, ridicule and bullying, emotional and sometimes physical violence – which also targets and affects teachers and staff in similar ways. Second: Operation Respect believes that the intellectual growth of children and youth cannot take place normally and healthily unless it is accompanied and enriched by similar growth in their emotional, social and creative capacities.
Operation Respect holds the belief that educators must take responsibility for addressing all of the needs of children and youth. If not, the growth of children’s character, humanity and sensitivity and empathy towards others fails to develop, and students can be left without the tools needed for successful entry into the work force and the means to lead productive lives as engaged citizens of a democracy. Additionally, without these many dimensions of a proper education, academic progress that reflects a student’s true abilities, is inevitably hampered, and sometimes critically so.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: Operation Respect’s Achievements
The good news is that in our work at Operation Respect, we have actually been able to be the principal mobilizing spark that has inspired the larger educational community to embrace these two basic principles. We have found that, although such principles are interpreted in different ways by different organizations, the consensus is that in the first articulation of our vision and goals, we were right on target – in fact, ahead of our time. Consequently, Operation Respect’s initial point of view is now leveraged by the concurrence of some 50 organizations in a coalition called United Voices for Education (UVE) that jointly advocates for, and work towards, a shift in the American educational paradigm – one in which these two basic principles might soon become a meaningful part of important educational policy reform in America and beyond.
Through the leadership of the largest educational organization in the world, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), with whom Operation Respect has been working closely to articulate the common vision, goals and strategies of UVE, educators have begun to embrace the premise that education must become far more comprehensive than the age-old concept of teaching the three Rs, which now only scratch the surface of meeting the basic educational needs of children. The new, common, belief is that only when all of the developmental needs of children are met will children’s successful and healthy development and education take place. Consequently, educational leaders are searching for ways to make sure that all teachers and schools become better equipped to address education in this more comprehensive fashion and, additionally, ways for schools to hold themselves, and be held, accountable for the successful nurturing of all the developmental needs of the children and youth in their care.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: The Challenges
The reality is that such a perspective has a long way to go before it is adopted nationally and becomes an effective, improved, functioning educational paradigm. In the meantime, beyond student achievement, schools face terribly daunting problems that will derail all their educational efforts if these problems are not addressed, and addressed quickly and successfully. School violence, bullying, pandemic childhood depression and widespread teenage suicide all darken the hopes and dreams of schools, students and parents, alike. The Association of School Psychologists estimates that, across America, 160,000 children stay home from school every day simply because they cannot face yet another day of what is, to them, torturous targeting, ostracism, ridicule and bullying.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: There Is A Way
No doubt, with the adoption of educational models that embrace the concept and successful practice of whole child education, such painful and daunting problems will diminish. Whole child education’s approach to such problems is preventative, not reactive, because it creates a climate in which such acting out and destructive behavior is discouraged, frowned upon, and not considered “cool”. Whole child education, when successfully introduced, establishes a supportive, vitally alive, positive school community environment; one that is conducive to learning, where children feel safe, are empowered and feel secure – and where all forms of emotional and physical violence can be effectively banished over a period of years.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: Leveraging Operation Respect’s Efforts by a Factor of 50
We are hardly alone in our efforts any more. Fortunately, Operation Respect has been able to play a major role in bringing educators and educational associations together under the common banner of UVE leveraging our mutual efforts in a commitment to assure all children an education that takes place in a respectful and caring environment; one in which all their needs, aptitudes and gifts, as well as their challenges, special abilities and disabilities, can be properly addressed. (For more information, please see UVE: Logic Model and Strategic Plan at www.operationrespect.org.)
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: New Vantage Points and New Considerations
The discussion among UVE’s 50 organizations has progressed from the evaluation of schools in terms of achieving success to one that is addressing the imperative that all students receive the same basic academic level of resources and support.
If we are to expect the poorest of our youth population to be held to a standard equal to that of those who are far more fortunate, such inequities must ultimately be addressed and eliminated; or the entire effort to not leave any children behind is a cruel, cynical, joke.
The discussion has also turned to recognition that the achievement gap will never be successfully closed, not even a bit, until we even the playing field in terms of the availability of skilled, appropriately paid, teachers. Further, the discussion has also turned to making sure that all the dimensions of intelligence – social, emotional, creative and “heart” intelligence – need to be better understood and respected as the building blocks of our society, and therefore need to be considered with the greatest seriousness in the future education of our children.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: Federal Education Policy Will, Must, Change
Unfortunately, federal policy as it was altered under the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB) has failed to keep up with such new and important considerations regarding best practices for education and teacher training. Adherence to some of the unfortunate and failed policies and practices of No Child Left Behind has actually diminished the quality of education in many schools. Adherence to some of the unfortunate and failed policies and practices of No Child Left Behind has actually diminished the quality of education in many schools.
As a result of these failures, under NCLB, the curricula offered by schools has narrowed as educators and administrators focus on “teaching to the test” to avoid being deprived of funding and/or being shut down. Consequently, it is common for the arts, sports, extra-curricular activities, higher level problem solving, to have been cut out of the school day -- depriving children of badly needed educational enrichment beyond the acquisition of basic academic skills.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: The Bright Light of NCLB, and its Shadow
On the other hand, to give NCLB its due, there is no doubt that the excellent data collection that has occurred tracking students’ and schools’ achievements is a positive and important step forward and has allowed teachers and administrators to locate and isolate the genesis of problems that were not easily detectible early, or at all, in pre-NCLB days. Unfortunately, important as such data are, they have not always been used wisely, and frequently have been acquired under the shadow of fear of failure by a school. Such fear by teachers staff and administrators, of losing their jobs, possible loss of a school’s funding (making the task of improvement all the harder) and the negative effects of labeling a school, thereby sullying its name and reputation, can be crushing to everyone. Such labeling and the inculcation of the fear of failure is toxic, and frequently overwhelmingly so, to the efforts of schools to improve and rehabilitate themselves.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: Money Is A, If Not The, Root
Last, the problems of schools under NCLB have been greatly increased by a shortfall of $70 billion dollars that was promised to schools by the federal government. This shortfall was crucial money that was part and parcel of assuring the original plan, a best shot at a successful rollout and implementation of NCLB. Had this promise to our children and their education been given top priority, as it dearly should have been, the data acquired might have been put to far better use by teachers and schools than was possible given the economic realities of schools, particularly those in need of help, not punitive actions.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: Where We Need to Go Next
Education and the educational paradigm of America need to be reformulated in certain ways to bring us into the 21st century, both in terms of the place of the United States in the world and in terms of what we decide we want to be as a country making its way through one of the most challenging times in its history.
Recently, Daniel Pink, in a book entitled A Whole New Mind, has made the compelling case that the type of outcomes resulting from yesterday’s educational paradigm are totally out of line with the needs of America, now and in the future. The acquisition of only basic skills of literacy, numeracy and science simply won’t cut it. Such education does address the need for students to acquire high-level, creative, outside the box, problem-solving capacities. Without such tools and skills, America’s future workforce will be seriously unprepared to tackle the essential jobs of the 21st century. Further, high level critical thinking on the part of the voting population is absolutely necessary to the successful functioning of a contemporary democracy that depends upon its citizenry to be well informed and civically motivated.
The Hopeful and the Daunting News: To Sum Up
Real progress in American educational reform is hampered by the sheer magnitude of the task to “move the mountain”; a monolith that famously resists all efforts to change it by virtue of its complexity and its monumental inertia. What was once a remarkable educational system, the pride of our country, has now become a clearly failing, grossly inequitable, highly politicized and hugely under-funded emblem of our failures of systems, but also a critical part of the opportunities that exist in perhaps more exciting ways than are in current memory. I, for one, see great change on the horizon. I see great hope as well. America is coming to terms with the fact that we have to change, to reform, many of our ways of doing things. It is the time for renewal in our country as we decide what to do in the world of money, the world of the military, the world of our reputation and good name in other countries, the world of environmental reality, and more. As we address all these dimensions of our policies and practices, surely we must realize that we are, we can be, we must be, truly capable of self-reflection on our failures, yet celebration of our past successes and future capacities. We are not what we once were, but in some ways, is this not a good thing? I think it is clearly a mixed bag, but as we decide who we want to become when we grow up, if we keep our precious children in mind, we will no doubt be guided by our most loving and wisest instincts.
Peter Yarrow has charmed, inspired, delighted, and just plain entertained generations of audiences since Peter, Paul and Mary first sang their way into the national consciousness in the early 1960s. As a member of that renowned musical trio for 49 years, he has earned five Grammys and an Emmy nomination, recorded eight gold and five platinum albums, and six Top 10 hits The late Coretta Scott King once proclaimed, “Peter, Paul and Mary are not only three of the greatest folk artists ever, but also three of the performing arts’ most outstanding champions of social justice and peace.”
Peter’s gift for songwriting has produced some of the most moving songs Peter, Paul & Mary recorded including, in addition to “Puff,” “Day is Done,” “Light One Candle,” and “The Great Mandala.”
During the last decade, Peter has devoted himself primarily to the work of heading Operation Respect (OR), an educational non-profit he founded. OR is dedicated to assuring children and youth a caring, safe and respectful climate of learning where students’ academic, social and emotional development can take place in a welcoming, environment, conducive to learning. OR disseminates a classroom-based program called “Don’t Laugh At Me”, free, through the generosity of the Mc-Graw Hill Companies, that has been utilized in a variety of ways, frequently in conjunction with other similar programs, by an estimated 22,000 schools in the United States, Hong Kong, Croatia, Canada and elsewhere.
Don’t Laugh At Me (DLAM) is designed to help establish a school and class room climate that encourages acceptance of differences, is free of bullying, ridicule and violence of all sorts, emotional and physical. The program incorporates music that reaches adults and children, alike, opening their hearts and inviting discussions that lead to a greater sense of community and healthy deliberation. OR has distributed more than 150,000 copies of DLAM free of charge to educators and is available, free, through www.operationrespect.org.
The United States House of Representatives honored Operation Respect with a unanimous vote of commendation after only five years of its existence. Peter has received two honorary doctorates from San Francisco State University and National Lewis University for his work in educational advocacy, and Peter’s mother was a New York City English, Speech and Drama teacher for close to 30 years at Julia Richmond High School.
To learn more about Operation Respect please visit www.dontlaugh.org or call 212-904-5243.