Dr Pedro Noguera 

Gearing up for the new school year, Santa Barbara and Goleta educators received an inspirational presentation from UCLA Professor of Education Dr. Pedro Noguera, a critically acclaimed scholar and speaker on race, equity and education.

Noguera, known for blending humor and warmth with no-holds-barred candor, challenged local educators to question the status quo, reflect on their own practices, and set standards equally high for all students, no matter their background.

“You are teaching the next generation of engineers, writers, artists and scientists. That’s who you have in your classroom,” he said. “The question is, can you cultivate that talent in the kids, and get them to believe that they are capable of that. I encourage you to approach this year like you’re starting over again. Forget the past. What can you do differently to reach kids who you haven’t reached before? Our kids will rise to the level of our expectations. I encourage you to expect the very most from them. We gotta take the work on, we can’t blame others, we can’t make excuses … The biggest barrier I see is complacency.”

Noguera is a renowned sociologist and researcher who travels the country learning from campuses that are beating the odds by narrowing the academic achievement gap that has troubled public schools for decades.

He was invited to speak to local educators and school staff through a collaboration between Goleta and Santa Barbara unified school districts.

Noguera shared that his research has led him to campuses – and in some cases, individual classrooms – across the country that are inspiring positive results with the most disadvantaged student populations through innovative teacher practices. He described one teacher who ensures every student “gets it” before moving on to new content, and another who has inspired student engagement through more interactive classroom structures.

“Name the kid: Homeless? English learner? Dyslexic? I can tell you right now a school that’s doing well by those kids,” he told the crowd of more than 1,000 teachers, counselors and staff assembled at the Jo Ann Caines Theatre at La Cumbre Junior High on Thursday. “What does that tell us. That tells us that the kids are not the problem.”

During the two-hour presentation, Noguera spoke frankly, encouraging teachers to become agents of change for an inclusive democracy, or continue as “ushers on the school to prison pipeline.”

Noguera outlined the two purposes education serves within our society. “The first purpose is to help students so they can get jobs, so that they can participate fully in the economy, so that they have the skills they need to vote and serve on juries, and hopefully lead a good life. That’s one purpose, and it’s a very practical one,” he said. “We also look to education to solve the problems of the previous generation. Through education, we hope that the next group of children will be smart enough, wise enough, creative enough, good problem solvers, so that they’re not afraid of the problems we are sending to them … But here’s the problem. In many of our schools, we don’t create the space for that kind of education, the education that encourages creativity and critical thinking and problem solving. That’s a problem, because as we know, if our kids get good test scores, and get into good colleges, but aren’t able to think outside of the box, aren’t able to think independently, they’re not going to be able to have the impact that we need.”

Noguera said that the inequalities that permeate our society – disparities in income, access to health care and transportation, for example ―often reinforce the inequities in academic outcomes that we now call the achievement gap.

“Think about what your affluent kids did for the summer, and what your poor kids did for the summer, and how that affects learning,” he said, also pointing out the widespread and disturbing correlation between academic achievement and students’ socioeconomic background.

“You can predict with great consistency how well the student will do if you know how much the family earns. In fact, if you know how much the family earns, and how much education the parents have – particularly the mother, because the mother is the first teacher – you can predict how well they will do,” Noguera said. “Just think about your classes. Ask yourself, how many of my honor students come from low-income families? How many of my AP or gifted students are homeless or kids who are English learners? If you can just look at a room and already predict what kind of class it is, then we have a problem. We have a problem because it means that education is not making a difference… if education doesn’t cultivate the talent in children, we just reproduce the existing patterns. You know what that really means, as educators, we are not making a difference.”

Noguera, who has also taught at Harvard, NYU and UC Berkeley, authored the book “Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student.” He told the audience that schools improve when they focus on five essential ingredients:

  • A coherent instructional guidance system
  • Ongoing development of the professional capacity of staff
  • Strong parent-community-school ties
  • A student-centered learning climate/culture
  • Shared leadership to drive change

Noguera’s speech often drew applause and cheers from the crowd. “I believe that if we take this on together, we can create schools that our children deserve. And doing that will be so vital to the future of this country, so that the future of this country will be determined by not what happens in Washington, but by what happens in the schools.”