Monday, November 19, 2012

Part of the Problem or Solution

Last week we reported on the new Virginia plan for meeting federal waiver requirements from No Child Left Behind. Pass rates were set at 82, 68, 52, and 45 percent for Asians, whites, latinos, and blacks respectively. After talking to several other educators, the state's explanation-- "if we look at where these children are starting from, we're making efforts to move them forward"-- sounds somewhat reasonable.  Maybe you remember a little of your "forms of reasoning" from philosophy. If the premise is true and the logic is sound then the conclusion is true.  For example-- all birds fly, penguins are birds, therefore penguins must fly.  We could argue all we want about how sound the reasoning is, but anyone can see that penguins don't fly.  We got something wrong.

To all of my educator friends-- if you think the logic behind this plan is sound, just look at the conclusion, something is wrong.  If not the logic, then our premise. It would do our system well if instead of defending such an egregious plan we would step back and figure out how we got here because somehow good intentioned efforts at progress just resulted in some pretty serious regress.

First, the ever present statement that "teachers are the most important factors in student achievement." Most everyone who uses this line fails to add the caveat of the most important in school factor. Many out of school factors impact student achievement. Remind policy-makers and other high-ranking ed officials of this and the reply goes something like this-- "we only have the ability to control what is in our power to control"-- leading us to complacently accept the reality that no one is addressing the issues outside of school that impact our students. So yes, students are coming into our classrooms with different abilities, many times as a result of their environment.

Second, if students are coming into our schools (their starting point according to the Virginia Superintendent of Education) at such various levels of performance, why don't we try to find the reason. When colleges find that too many incoming freshmen are in need of remedial classes, don't we first look to the high schools from which they graduated as the reason. Why satisfy ourselves with the excuse of lower starting points instead of asking why these children are already underperforming by the time we get them.

I have a feeling that race may not be the answer. If it is, what does that mean? It means that there is some inherent difference in ability based on race. We know this isn't true, so what else could be the cause? George Bush is famous for saying that we need to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but I don't know who added "instead of addressing the hard bigotry of  poverty." Why are we still separating these children into categories in 2012? Won't we find the greatest correlation between school performance and economics rather than race?

In the end, consider the national narrative regarding education for the last ten years. We've increasingly focused on racial differences in performance and ignored the harsh reality that economic differences have the greatest impact. Last year, when the Teaching Underground attended the NCSS national convention, we listened to Geoffrey Canada's keynote address. He shared his heuristic on decision-making in his Harlem Kids Zone-- "when in doubt, do what the rich people do."

In this ongoing debate between so-called education reformers-- the people who want to measure everything, expand test-based accountability, evaluate teachers on growth models, get unions out of the way-- and people like us at the Teaching Underground, we're often cast as a voice for the status quo.

Come by my classroom one day and look out at the brilliant black students that are taking my AP Psychology course and explain to them why it's a good idea to have a lower pass-rate for "their people." When you put it like that, status quo doesn't sound too bad.  But then again, maybe the progress we're being sold isn't really progress at all.

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