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'Learned Helplessness' Our Schools After 10 Years of Reform


When I became superintendent of the Baltimore City Public Schools 21 months ago, I knew I had to battle a monster. Too many children were failing. Too many children were dropping out. Too many children were simply giving up. The monster, I thought, took many forms: inadequate resources, poor management, ineffective teaching and outdated curriculum.

I was wrong. While these are certainly nasty "beasts" that we must overcome, they are not the greatest enemy we face. The enemy is us -- and our attitudes toward the educational processes. If we are to reform the city public schools, first we must change the way we think about children and how they learn.

We desperately need to repair our schools, but we have to stop finding reasons not to act. Yes, we need equitable funding; yes, many of our children come from fragmented families living in abject poverty; yes, our children suffer the effects of racism and social dysfunc- tion. And yes, these forces are beyond our immediate control. But our children are still failing, and we cannot expect someone else to come to our rescue. We are running out of time.

One of the greatest problems I have had to confront is "learned helplessness," an organizational paralysis that extends from central office into the schools. It is an inability to act, based on the belief that we have no power to make a difference. We have no confidence in ourselves, and, worse, we have no confidence in our children's ability to learn. We are getting in our own way. No wonder our children have given up on learning.

The school system's paralysis takes many forms. We educators often say we want students to reach their maximum potential, to become whatever they are capable of becoming. But, in fact, we ourselves decide very early what each child's capabilities are. We group or "track" children according to standardized measures of their abilities. We label them "gifted and talented" or "slow learners" or simply "average."

With these labels, we place limits on what they are able to learn. After that, our curriculum and instruction confirm our own self-fulfilling prophecies. Research shows us that children live up -- or down -- to our expectations. All too often, we expect them to be inferior. They usually don't disappoint us.

If we stop placing limits on ourselves and on our children, we can overcome our "learned helplessness" and revive our schools. The concepts and principles of a belief system called "Efficacy" give us the language we need to inculcate our beliefs. We plan to stop teaching the lessons of inferiority with what educator Jeff Howard calls "the efficacy of effective effort." Children who believe they can learn will learn. Intelligence is not given in a finite quantity at birth.

In other words, children are not born smart; they get smart. Their abilities can be developed far beyond what we assume. By effectively managing the learning process so children feel confident in themselves and in their abilities, we adults have the power to increase the learning potential of every child.

The principles of Efficacy tell us that any child who can master spoken language can master advanced language skills, such as writing a 25-page essay; advanced math skills, such as calculus; and a second language. In Jeff Howard's "Get Smart Paradigm," we see that children's abilities to learn are limitless. First, they must have the confidence to learn. It is up to adults to build self-confidence through active emotional support and positive expectations.

The basic assumptions of Efficacy are not new. In 1964, John Holt wrote in "How Children Fail" that our intelligence is limitless and can be developed beyond our greatest expectations. "Most of us have our engines running at about 10 percent of their power," he said. "What keeps some people revved up to 20 or 30 percent. . . . . What turns the power off, or keeps it from ever being turned on?"

In Baltimore, we intend to flip the switch on and rev up our engines. We will measure every priority and every program against the principles of Efficacy. Already, Tesseract, the Sylvan Learning Centers project and the Challenge Schools program are linked to Efficacy because they are child-centered and develop individual talents and self esteem. We intend to focus our energies on what happens in our classrooms -- through revisions of curriculum and instruction. Finally, we intend to train all of our staff to change the way they think about the children in the classrooms.

At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovers the ultimate irony of her adventure in Oz: She already possessed the power to return to Kansas. Like Dorothy, we educators have been searching for answers that we already have. We already know how to make our schools better. Research and experience tell us what makes schools and school systems effective.

Our application of the principles of Efficacy will not give us miracles overnight, but it is showing us that we have become the merchants of our own failure because we are paid to place limits on children. It is also showing us that we are not helpless; we do have the power to change and to overcome the monster of failure.

Walter G. Amprey is superinten-dant of the Baltimore public schools.

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