Rising Above: Creating Opportunities for Learning
Derek Mitchell presenting at the National Education Conference.
Derek Mitchell, who spent time teaching in classrooms across the country early in his career, now looks at the classroom from the outside, considering global, data-driven solutions to problems that many urban schools face, particularly those with low-income students of color.
Since 2009, he has served as CEO of Partners in School Innovation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit educational consulting service. Mitchell and his team currently work with 11 school districts across the country, comprising more than 30,000 students. They provide innovative solutions by using data and working alongside teachers and administrators, rather than imposing cookie-cutter mandates.
"I had tried in a number of ways...to infuse data," Mitchell says of the school systems he had worked in prior to joining Partners in School Innovation (PSI). "So finding out that this organization was good at actually getting folks to use the data was a real interest to me."
PSI was developed as an AmeriCorps project in 1993 to find innovative ways to help schools with struggling students. It's about using data, such as test scores and student grades—"data the students produce themselves," Mitchell says.
"These data are much more robust and much more powerful to help teachers know what it was about their instruction that helped or hindered students' acquisition of knowledge and skill. It's about the instruction, not the child," Mitchell says.
While earning his Ph.D. in educational psychology at UCLA, Mitchell saw the ways in which the nation's educational system is designed to stratify society rather than uplift it. Disinvestment in schools with large numbers of Black and brown students, yet still expecting those underfunded schools to meet the same standards as those with ample funding, leads to a cycle of perceived futility.
"I learned that getting the educational system to do anything but what it is designed to do was going to be really, really hard," he says. "I wanted to support places like the place Taft 'rescued' me from."
Mitchell grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he attended public schools that didn't have the resources or skills to serve those ready for more rigor. A science fair at a well-appointed school in a Chicago suburb opened his eyes to the systemic class stratification and racism that permeates the American educational system.
Mitchell and his mother took buses and trains to get there. When he saw how much equipment was available to the mostly white students of that school, he wondered why schools for children like him were so underfunded. The suburban school had an array of science and lab equipment that his own public school could only dream of having. "My school barely had chalk," he adds. "We had Xerox copies of book chapters, not books."
"There's a set of expectations for kids who look like me that basically says that investment would be wasted," he says. Reduced investment in schools with many students of color perpetuates the class system, and working with schools that are struggling takes leadership, he says—leadership that works collaboratively with those being led.
"The idea of leadership is not just forcing people to follow your will. It's not sustainable, and it won't get results," Mitchell says.
When PSI is contracted to help a struggling school, Mitchell said his staff members make sure that teachers and administrators know that improving schools is a team effort. The group works with schools that have 75 percent students of color and 75 percent living in poverty, and with at least five years of underperforming test scores.
"We come in and we say, 'Listen, you didn't create this problem. This is not your fault. These problems long predate you, Mr. Superintendent, Mr. Principal, Mr. Teacher, but here you are,'" he says. "And you've got 28 little ones or a school full of them showing up today. What have you got for them?"
PSI also works with schools and districts to prepare them to better support teachers. "That involves a full host of things, from helping the principal articulate a vision or creatively collaborate with their teachers to develop one," he says. "They show up every day in incredible and even now life-risking circumstances, to teach and inspire other people's kids every day. And our job is to show up for them."
Mitchell's organization will spend time in classrooms, observing how the teachers work with their students, then suggest ways to support the teachers with new learning techniques. It's hard for districts to look at problems globally, he says, which makes it hard to implement meaningful changes.
"It's hard to look right and left, it's hard to look up and get a broader perspective on a problem because you're essentially in the midst of churn all the time," he says. "We bring our opportunities to kind of look up and out to ask the broader questions and learn from what others, either in their own system or across systems, are doing that could help them be effective."
Mitchell says he knows about the lives of the schoolchildren in the schools they help because "I was that kid. I know that kid. I know his possibilities. And I was lucky. I don't want luck to be the way most kids excel anymore. It needs to be success by design."
Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow '84 is a freelance writer living in Fort Wayne, Indiana.