When I read all the government, foundation and university ideas about how to fix American education, part of me wants to laugh but part wants to cry. Test data and even algorithms to predict dropouts seem to be the answer for many. We crunch numbers and wring our hands, not about how best to educate children, but about how best to make them reach our numerical targets to which dollar bounties are attached.  We are confused.

Once, in New York, in the 1960s, I was a lost boy. My single mother struggled to feed five children on welfare payments and factory pay, and lost herself on the way. I perpetually had holes in my shoes and ill-fitting clothes. I was embarrassed to go to school. I averaged 100 absences per year.  I was threatened with legal action by the same principals who were called in every time I handed in a piece of writing that my teachers thought I could never have written.

Then one day as I was walking into high school English class, my teacher said something remarkable. He said "We missed you yesterday." I just stared a moment, speechless. He had acknowledged my existence. He praised my writing. He gave me books. He told me I had a chance at college, and took me to the counselor. He may have saved my life, considering how many of my childhood friends ended up dead or incarcerated.

Today, more than 40 years later, if there is one thing I have learned from a lifetime as an educator, it's that schools need to have a heart more than an algorithm. Instead of being data-driven, we need to be compassion-driven, wonder-driven. If we make kids statistics, they will turn away in despair. But if we create places where kids are loved as well as challenged, where they are exposed to the joyful, compelling fascination of this world, where adults believe in their ability and their worth, then we can help them find a path forward. It might be good to bring children and young people back into the conversation now. I've missed them, haven't you?

With a Perspective, this is Alfonso Orsini.

Alfonso Orsini is the head of school at the Presidio Knolls School in San Francisco.

  • Dr. Elliot Gann, @tfs_beats

    This perspective deeply resonated with my beliefs and was truly refreshing to hear. There are too many children whose basic emotional and educational needs are not being met and instead the curriculum and in-class teaching caters to standardized tests, as mentioned in the perspective. I run a non-profit based on this belief, that children and young people, especially from lower-SES communities (who are vastly under served by our society) need individualized attention and to have relationships with teachers, clinicians and other adults who can give them these interpersonal and learning experiences to make a difference. This is the very premise of the non-profit we run in order to do this work.

    Dr. Elliot Gann,
    Director, Today’s Future Sound

  • Tziganka

    I am stunned that no one has commented yet on Mr. Orsini’s moving Perspective this morning. His impassioned words brought me to tears as I drove to work. Having been involved in arts education in the Bay Area for over twenty years it has been patently clear that children are not part of the equation. How lucky the students of Presidio Knolls School are to have him as a role model.

  • Thian Hoo Tan

    I wish Mr. Orsini all the best, and, after meeting him in person last Saturday in a school potluck, I feel good about him, because I saw a spark in his eyes, his mannerism is sincere, and his conversation full of positive thoughts. He evidently likes to provide the right environment to educate kids (in Presidio Knolls, bilingually proficient kids). I myself have been a beneficiary of a school teacher in my own life, a teacher’s belief in my ability, that led to my going to college. and my life, and I like to believe, a few others, have benefitted from that. So I know a thing or two about how one single teacher can turn lives around.

  • Dirty Harry

    What a perspective, thank you for writing this …

  • c-dub

    I’m a teacher and I agree that student’s needs are best met by those who care sincerely about their present and future welfare. However, I also believe that my students deserve better than the false dichotomy presented Mr. Orsini. We can, and should, be both data and compassion driven in our efforts to best educate our youth. (Anyway, what kind of “university” or “foundation” curmudgeon would be
    against promotion of wonder, joy, and love in the classroom or fail to
    believe in the intrinsic value of every child?) Compassion and information (i.e. data) are truly only mutually exclusive in the imaginations of some.

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