Pedro Noguera with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Dr. Pedro Noguera

Dr. Pedro Noguera

Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.  Dr. Noguera is a sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.  In conversation here with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, he shares his early experiences as a teacher and doctoral student, his thoughts on the implementation of the Common Core Standards, as well as what he thinks all schools can do to be successful in today’s high-stakes educational climate. 

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I would like to start by asking you to think back to your earlier career. What can you tell us about your years as a classroom teacher in Providence and in Oakland? How did that influence your desire to pursue a postgraduate degree? At the time, why did you think it was important, or what did you think you would get from a doctorate degree in education?

PEDRO NOGUERA

My route was a little different than most people because I am a sociologist. I was studying politics and development in the Caribbean; I was not focused on education but I had a teacher credential, so I was teaching while I was in graduate school. But I was only teaching to support my self through grad school. I didn’t think it would be my career. I wasn’t thinking about going into education. So I was on these two tracks: teaching to support my studies, and doing my research on something else in Granada. Then something happened and the United States invaded Granada (laughter), which made it hard for me to continue my project and at that point I started focusing on urban issues in the United States. I started thinking, “What I’m seeing in education is very interesting to me.” I was then able to go back to Granada and finish my dissertation research there and I continued teaching. I increasingly started to focus my research on what was happening with urban schools. That’s how I redirected my interest to urban education. When I went on the job market after I got my Ph.D., I was applying mostly in sociology. UC Berkeley recruited me for education, and since I had been teaching and working in schools, I decided to do it. That really brought me into education much more and allowed me to align my research interest with my practical interest.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What was your interest before education?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I was studying political change and adult literacy. I was particularly interested in how adults who have been marginal in society were being brought into the changes that were occurring in their countries through literacy. I was actually interested in literacy more as a political process than as an educational process. When I was teaching, I also became Chief of Staff to the Mayor, and in that position I became aware of all the problems facing the city. I started getting frustrated in the job and I increasingly started to see that the only way to start to solve some of those problems was to look into education. That again brought my interest back to education. My early interests were about the problems of education, problems of young men, problems related to violence in the community, problems with drug use and drug trafficking, etc. Those weren’t your typical educational problems. My interest was always about what was happening in the community and how that impacted schools and children.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You have now been in the field of education for over 30 years, and you have said that you got into it because you thought you could make a difference. I personally think you have accomplished that because of the issues that you present when you speak and the many pieces you have written, which generate important conversations around improving education. Would you say that you have been able to make a difference? Is this the change you expected to make when you started?

PEDRO NOGUERA

That’s a question I keep asking myself. I would say, to some degree, yes. I say that because educators write back to me and tell me that reading my work or participating in a conference was very helpful to them and they describe how it helped them, in terms of making changes in their classroom or their school. But my ambition is greater. I want to influence policy at a local, state, and federal level. Sometimes, I feel I have been able to be influential at a local level; it’s harder at the state and federal level. Although now I am in a position where I do have access to prominent individuals in the federal government; I have access to the secretary of education, for example, and the commissioner of education of New York. They do listen to me and they feel I am someone that they should talk to. My impact and influence is exerted increasingly through media. I do a lot of writing. I write Op-Eds for The New York Times, and other publications. Today I was doing an online national chat about what the next Mayor of New York should do to address the achievement gap. I use media to expand my influence.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In regards to policy, you have said that education policymakers are focused on the wrong questions.  How do you see education reform today and where do you think it’s going?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I think they are asking the wrong questions and they are focused on the wrong things. I’ll give you an example: Suppose you go to the doctor and the doctor says “You have high blood pressure,” if we just keep checking your blood pressure that’s not going to change the fact that you have high blood pressure. Because you have high blood pressure, we need to do certain things to change that. We need to get you exercising and change your diet, etc. We need to focus on the treatment. We can then come back after a month or two and see if the treatment worked. Did it lower your blood pressure? The analogy to education is that the testing is the equivalent to taking your blood pressure. The test tells you where a student is, maybe, but it doesn’t tell you the things that we need to do to help that student improve. We need to focus on how to provide better teaching, better support for children, more motivation and engagement from students, etc. We are not focusing on those things. We are not focusing on making sure that the conditions, in schools, are conducive to good teaching and learning.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Would you say that these are changes that can be done at a local level or are state and federal pressures too overwhelming?

PEDRO NOGUERA

It has to happen at the local level because it is not happening at the state and federal levels. Ideally, it would be good if the federal and state level were aligned and encouraged this. But we can’t wait until then. In the meantime, there are things we can do to bring this change, like some of the things we are trying to do in Uniondale School District, where you teach, to create a better climate for teaching and learning, even if that’s not the guidance that the state is providing. We don’t have to wait.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

This takes me to the implementation of the Common Core standards, which I don’t necessarily think are so wrong as the assessment that has evolved to evaluate their implementation. What is your take on these standards and/or their implementation and the assessments that have been designed around them? Do you think that the implementation of national standards makes it harder for local actors to bring about change in education?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I think the idea behind the Common Core standards is a good one. Let’s again use the health analogy. I shouldn’t say, “Oh! You are an immigrant, so you can have high blood pressure, but if you were American, I would say no!” You can’t have a different standard based on who you are. It’s the same with children; we have to have a common standard. They are all trying to go to college; they are all trying to do the same thing. The issue is not the standard. The issue is, given the learning needs of the children, how do we teach them? If there is a standard that they all must meet and they are English language learners, they are going to have greater challenges, etc. That’s what the policy makers are not doing. They are not giving guidance to schools on how to meet different kinds of learners that are out there in our schools. The setting of the standards was important, but that’s the easy first step. The hard step is to think through how to implement those standards and provide curriculum that is suitable for all the different kinds of students we have, how to provide the right training to teachers so they can teach those students with that curriculum at those higher standards. That’s the work we should be doing now.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I agree with you and I feel the general public is misguided when I hear the Common Core standards are getting a bad reputation, when it’s really the assessments and the ways in which they have been prematurely implemented…

PEDRO NOGUERA

That’s right! And the fact that they are doing the assessments before they implement any kind of training on the curriculum (laughter)…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Exactly! I had my own two children refuse to take their state tests last year.

PEDRO NOGUERA

Oh! You guys opted out?

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Yes! We met with their principals and my children had to verbally refuse to take the tests. It was a difficult decision because I didn’t want to send the wrong message to them but I felt that…

PEDRO NOGUERA

It was not fair…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Right! It wasn’t. The stakes were too high; there was too much unnecessary pressure surrounding state tests.

PEDRO NOGUERA

Right! Especially for kids who take them very seriously and are trying to do well. It’s a problem of poor implementation.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Yes! In regards to implementation, while on a conference about education reform in California, you referenced Michael Fullan‘s article, from Canada, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform,” and more specifically, you talked about capacity building. Can you elaborate on that and describe how you think this idea can be implemented in the US?

PEDRO NOGUERA

That’s effectively what we are trying to do in Uniondale. We start by analyzing the school data and analyzing the teaching. That gives us an idea of what’s happening and of strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are the areas where capacity is needed, in terms of skill level and teachers. Often times, many teachers do not know how to teach the students in front of them, sometimes simply because they have not received the appropriate training. Or they don’t know to engage, or they only know one good teaching method they feel comfortable with. Capacity building is about aligning the skills, or building up the skills so that they are in alignment with the needs of the students. If you have large numbers of English language learners, for example, you need teachers who know how to teach them in math, in science, etc. That’s obvious, right? But that’s not what we do. It happens in many schools. We have lots of teachers teaching kids and they are not really able to teach them.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Do you think that’s something we can teach? Can you teach someone to be able to teach and engage students? I sometimes wonder and ask myself that. There are some very intelligent well-trained people who fail to reach their students. It makes me wonder, can people be taught to produce a certain kind of positive response from students?

PEDRO NOGUERA

(laughter) I hope so. I know what you are saying. The hardest thing to teach is to build relationships with students. That’s the hardest thing. You have to want that. You have to really want it, and if you don’t really want it, it doesn’t come naturally. Theoretically speaking, anyone should be able to learn content. You can learn to teach using different strategies and different pedagogical techniques. Although that takes skill too, and it may take time to perfect. But the relationship building takes more; you have to want it and there has to be a desire to do that. I do think most teachers want to be successful. I don’t think too many teachers just want to fail kids, or fail at what they do. But if teachers fail at what they do, and they have been doing it for a long time, they start to blame the children instead of looking at themselves and thinking about what they can do differently.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You are absolutely right about the relationship building aspect of teaching and reaching students. I often tell my college students, who are in teaching preparation programs, that if they can build a relationship with their students so that their students feel that they don’t want to let them down, that’s like finding a treasure.

PEDRO NOGUERA

That’s right! They will work for you because of that relationship.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Right! Which in-turn shows them they are capable of learning and doing the work. I have had students who really dislike science, but because we have a relationship and they feel there are some expectations I have of them. They will do the work, they will learn the content, and they will pass that state exam if necessary.

PEDRO NOGUERA

Right! Children will respond to the adults they know care about them.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Going back to implementation of education reform, what is your take on the growing numbers of school closings in New York City?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I think they have overused that as a strategy. There are probably some schools that are so dysfunctional that they do need to be closed. But I don’t think that’s true for all those schools that have been closed. What I find disappointing is that they did not do a good job of really evaluating some schools to figure out what is really causing the failure, what needs to be changed…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

They just went by the scores and closed the school…

PEDRO NOGUERA

Exactly, and some schools were set up to fail. In some schools, they disproportionately placed too many high needs children there; they just allowed it to happen. In New York City, certain schools are screening kids and they only take the best students. Other schools just have to take anybody who comes. If you get too many special education students, too many ELL students, too many level one students, guess what, you may have a failing school.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And that’s the education system we have now. I find it ludicrous that while I teach solely sub groups of students whose needs differ from the mainstream population, my stats should be compared to those of a teacher who teaches a full class of honor students. It’s inequitable. The same thing is happening to the schools being closed. Do you think that this trend will continue?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I hope with the new Mayor there will be a different strategy. We’ll see. That’s what Bill de Blasio said, if he wins (laughter).

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Let’s hope for the best. One of the things that you have written about consistently are the conditions that promote student achievement. In your opinion, what are those ideal conditions that allow for students to succeed and to want to succeed?

PEDRO NOGUERA

Lower class size. I think it helps if the teacher doesn’t have so many students to have to work with, especially if they are high needs students. Some kids need more individual attention, therefore having tutors may be necessary, particularly for those students further behind. You also need to have a school culture that is conducive to learning, where kids really understand what it means to be successful. This needs to be reinforced throughout the school. Having good leadership is essential. Teachers need to get the support they need to maintain orderly classrooms and to get the training they need. Teachers need to know what good teaching looks like; there needs to be ongoing support for that. For those schools in need of improvement, there should be model classrooms, where you can take teachers and say to them, “I want you to come to this classroom and watch this teacher teach.” There needs to be a clear vision of what good teaching looks like. It’s just as if you are playing a sport, you have to know how to play the game otherwise you keep losing, and sometimes that entails watching others to learn to play better. We don’t do that with teachers. Teachers work in isolation. You may have a teacher who is really good and others may have never seen that teacher teach. We need to provide environments where teachers can continue to learn from each other. It is very important not to pretend that everybody is equal. Not everybody is equal; we pretend that often times.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

One of the things I have heard you mention, which I strongly agree with, is that the most important work occurring in a school is the work that takes place in the classroom. Consequently, I tend to put aside other pressures and obstacles we, teachers, are presented with on a daily basis, in order to focus on what’s most important for me. But for how long can we keep this up? It gets to a point where the outside pressures and obstacles slowly take over and bury us. I teach education courses to graduate students and I often wonder what is the best advice for new teachers, who are facing even more pressures than those of us veteran tenured teachers? How do we keep them motivated and engaged in education?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I think you motivate them by reminding them why they got in, about wanting to make a difference. People are motivated by success. If they are experiencing success, they are more likely to feel good about the work and want to stay. You have to give them support to create success, and success brings success. When you go to schools that are successful, it’s usually because of the teachers. The teachers are reinforcing each other. They feel good about what they are doing. Those schools don’t have a high turnover rate.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I completely agree. Going back to your career path, what’s next for you? What are your future career goals?

PEDRO NOGUERA

I don’t know yet. I am very happy with what I’m doing. I love writing. I do get tired of traveling so much. At some point I may want to do something that may involve less traveling and more time to write and more time to teach. I enjoy teaching too. I am not necessarily looking for a different kind of position. I have been offered different positions, like Dean of schools, etc. I was recruited to become a college president, but that doesn’t appeal to me because I don’t just want to do administration. Right now I really haven’t seen any new opportunities that appeal to me. Something involving media would appeal to me, because that means reaching more people.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And you are a great speaker. We love to hear you speak when you come to schools. You are truly inspiring and the discourse you engage in makes sense to us. It’s not as if someone completely detached from what really goes on in schools comes to speak to us. The things you say touch exactly what goes on.

I have selfishly asked you about things I feel are important right now and I know you are the right person to address. But lastly, I want to know what Pedro Noguera is thinking about right now. What is important and in your mind currently?

PEDRO NOGUERA

(laughter) I am writing a new book. A book about a new approach to educating kids, that is different from what policy says. Remember I said we are asking the wrong questions, what would it look like if we were asking the right questions? How would schools be organized differently? What would be different about teaching? I not only want to write it but I also want to give people examples of where this is happening. So that it’s concrete and abstract. I am thinking about how to draw on the schools that I am familiar with and the research that I have been doing to write a book that will really help people to have a visual of what is possible.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Are these schools from here? Public schools? These things will be doable?

PEDRO NOGUERA

Yes, (laughter) public schools in the United States.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I am definitely looking forward to that. Thank you so much for your time, wisdom, and motivation to all of us involved in the field of education.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana (contributing editor) is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly interests are in the areas of bilingual and bicultural education, science education in bilingual settings and the academic experiences of immigrant students. Presently, she is conducting qualitative research with students who have been classified as presenting interrupted formal education. She is also a part-time instructor in the department of Arts & Humanities at Teachers College and a full-time bilingual science teacher at a high school in the suburbs of New York. Estrella holds an Ed.M. in International Educational Development from Teachers College and a B.S. in Biochemistry from SUNY, Stony Brook. She is a native of Chile but lived many years in Argentina before migrating to the U.S. in 1994.

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One thought on “Pedro Noguera with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

  1. Pingback: Sonia Nieto with Estrella Olivares-Orellana | Esteem

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