A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, January 12, 2007

Running up that hill

For the past two years, our school has been spending staff development time talking about the minority achievement gap. Did I say that we had accomplished anything tangible? No, I did not.

We have talked about that there is a gap. We have talked about how big it is, exactly. We have talked about how long it is that we have been aware that there is an achievement gap. We have all been told-- including the teachers who are themselves members of minority group-- that we are prejudiced and we are oppressors and that our failure to learn every student's name on the first day of school is the reason why students feel that they "don't receive the respect they deserve."

What we haven't done is talk about tangible steps we can take to try to bridge this gap. I am, to say the least, on the verge of screaming, I am so frustrated. And, of course, strictly taboo is discussing any attitudes on the part of students or families that impinge their interest in getting an education, which I have noticed is actually not racially based but rather is common among certain socio-economic groups. You know, attitudes like letting your child stay home from school 1-2 days a week and claiming they're sick when really they just don't want to go or they didn't finish their homework or study for a test. Like believing that the only way your children will become successful is by becoming an athlete or entertainer. Like believing that education has nothing to do with your responsibilities as a parent.

I will say that I am dismayed when I see students who actively seek to take advantage of educational opportunity be labeled as "sell-outs" or "nerds" or, if they do belong to a minority group, as "acting white." And I have heard these comments while walking amongst the kids during my hall duty or cafeteria duty. I am dismayed when I see students act as if they are entitled to a credit or a grade or a future well-paying job "just because." I believe that everything you do with kids-- every kid-- involves holding students to high standards and making it clear that you know that they have the ability to meet those standards. I believe success lies in eschewing simplistic worksheets in favor of activities which require real thinking. But I also know that when students talk about what makes them feel "respected" it has to do with people letting them do whatever they want. I heard, "let me turn in late work whenever I want," or "let me leave the room as many times as I want," and only a few really serious responses. And of these demands, let me just say that I am not "down with that."

I am repulsed when I hear teachers or counselors (many of them minority members themselves) claim that certain students can't succeed in school due to their skin color, or that they can't take challenging classes.

What about you? What have you seen that you think contributes to the minority achievement gap?

14 Comments:

At 1/13/07, 12:00 AM, Blogger La Maestra said...

You guys need AVID. www.avidonline.org.

Of course, it doesn't stop the idiot adults or their attitudes, but it does show a better way, and it's proof that all students can succeed as long as they have the individual determination to do so.

 
At 1/13/07, 12:42 AM, Blogger Mamacita said...

On this forum, there is a discussion about racism in the schools that is bone-chilling.

http://forums.atozteacherstuff.com/showthread.php?t=30720

 
At 1/13/07, 5:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommend that you look into the work of Dr. Ruby Payne on generational poverty. The book is a Framework for Understanding Poverty. It is powerful and should give you some tangible ways to begin the process of reaching each of your students. If you don't reach them all, there is no way to teach them all.

It is difficult to be an educator with so many tragic and seemingly incomprehensible factors that interfere with teaching and learning.

There's a rather trite cliche about all this... they don't care what you know until they know that you care. I hope you will read and absorb Ruby Payne; it will add another dimension to your excellent practice.

 
At 1/13/07, 9:38 AM, Anonymous mrschili said...

Dr. Jan, I'm off to find some Payne writing. I'm finding that this topic is not just a high school problem.

I teach at a tiny community college in my hometown. Since English is considered a General Education requirement, I see the entire spectrum of student, from those seeking certificates in criminal justice to the kids attending the (very well respected) culinary program.

What astounds me on a regular basis is the sense of entitlement many of these students bring to my classroom. The skills that I have to teach them - hello? COMMUNICATING! - are somehow deemed unnecessary and are seen as a detour on their way to their REAL degree. I am CONSTANTLY met with whining and complaining about the assignments I give, and have been approached more than once by students who felt that I'd treated them unfairly by not giving them credit for work they didn't do.

Is there some sort of switch that gets turned on in some people (but obviously not in others) that allows students to finally understand that THEY are the primary components that determine the quality of their own education? What is MY responsibility as a teacher to try to get that across to those who aren't hip to that fact yet?

I'm going to be watching this discussion very carefully. There's a lot in it for all teachers, I think...

 
At 1/13/07, 12:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've encountered some whining and entitlement, but more often than not, it seems the whiners are actually crying for more challenge. But then, I teach middle school, where many of the kids want adult guidance so badly yet resist it so mightily. Appearances can be whoppingly deceptive.

As for the achievement gap, the schools, sadly, do not meet the kids where they are. Take the case of English language learners with limited formal education. A student might land in eighth grade with third-grade math skills. Sure, a teacher can differentiate, but only up to a point. How well can you teach arithmetic to students in an algebra class, when you have to keep up with the curriculum? You can give different assignments to different students, but where will you find time to teach concepts at such drastically different levels in the same classroom? The problem has to be addressed in another way.

This does not mean that the kids lacking arithmetic skills are incapable of learning algebra. It just means that they need to learn that arithmetic first.

Where will they learn it? From parents who had limited education themselves, and who work long hours? From afterschool test prep programs that assume grade-level knowledge? Wealthier kids get tutoring for every conceivable area of weakness or underpreparation, but such tutoring costs money. Free tutoring exists but is hard to track down. Teachers who wish to offer their students extra help are often prevented from doing so by school policy.

So, to me, the solution to the achievement gap is simple and complicated at once: fill that gap. Instead of ushering in more test prep companies, have teachers provide one-on-one tutoring (or even one-on-two), for extra pay. Now, of course, this presents some problems. Who is going to tutor all the students in need?

Perhaps it's impossible to find tutors for all the students in need. Fortunately, many students "outgrow" tutoring. A school could set up a pilot tutoring program where interested teachers could work with students after school. The neediest students would be identified--and to stay in the tutoring program, they would have to do their part. Then, once they came up to a certain level, they could give their spot to another student.

Of course, for this to work, we would need to change the litigious atmosphere of the schools. Schools are afraid to have a teacher and a student alone in a room because of fears that a teacher might do something inappropriate (or at least face accusations). One temporary solution might be a "tutoring center" where a number of teachers could work with students in the same room.

Now, how many overworked teachers will agree to take on yet another job? I can say I would, because it is so effective. I have provided homeework assistance over the phone, and found that it made a difference, even with the limitations of phone tutoring.

One under-mentioned problem with No Child Left Behind is the "No Child" part. There's a hidden implication that no action is desirable that doesn't benefit all students. If you can't tutor every single one, don't tutor any of them. That sort of thinking stands in the way of solutions. I believe that if you provide extra help for a few, you will ultimately boost the level and morale of the whole. Selective tutoring may be unfair in some ways, but still better than no tutoring at all.

 
At 1/13/07, 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody washes a rented car. Make the parents pony up some real dough for their kids' education and you'll see attitudes change quickly.

 
At 1/13/07, 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that there is a minority achievement gap that is a result of our nation's history. However. I think that this gap is changing -- many minority families and individuals have overcome the weight of history. The gap is now becoming not a minority achievement gap, but a socio-economic one.

Your observations so parallel my own that I wonder if we don't teach in the same school! Overlying all of this is an attitude of 'specialness' -- every Kid and each and every one of that Kid's parents totally believe right down to their toes that Kid is better than anyone else on earth and is therefor entitled to whatever his/her heart desires, including results and rewards without effort of any kind. After all, the great tragedy would be if Kid felt 'bad' about anything. Except you, of course.

(Please forgive teh snotty tone, but I've been embroiled with one particular student and his family for awhile, and it's rubbing off on my view of the world.)

 
At 1/13/07, 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my whole thesis for my masters is on this very issue of closing the achievement gap, but by looking at parenting styles and parental involvement. Interestingly enough as some others' have commented, when you look at both race and SES, you find that SES has much more to do with the achievement gap than does race/ethnicity.

NCLB doesn't look at the whole child and the circumstances in which they come from. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, then our policy makers need to be as equally serious about closing the economic gap.

 
At 1/13/07, 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great comments everyone!

AVID has done wonders in our high schools and we're trying to implement it in middle school.

I attended one of the Ruby Payne workshops two summers ago and it changed my way of looking at my kids and how I teach. It made me a better teacher and helped me to understand my kids better.

I agree that it's not really a race gap anymore but rather a socio-economic gap. I see kids miss days all the time because they're baby-sitting, going shopping, sleeping in, etc. If parents don't see a value in education, then the kids won't.

The sense of entitlement, and the corresponding whining, drives me nuts. When I went back to college to become a teacher (I was 38), the 20 something students in classes with me were the laziest group of whiners I'd ever seen. I wouldn't let any child of mine be taught be these twits who bitched and moaned over every assignment. Perhaps we've produced generations of kids who've had it too easy (and buy in to the media hype that an iPod is a necessity) and who don't value work.

 
At 1/13/07, 8:01 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

Acheivement gap? Reasons: Culture, victimhood and racial identification over all. Oh yes, and the idea that 15 year old slackers whose primary accomplishment in life is getting drunk as often as possible deserve "respect" from accomplished adults.

I'm being a racist? I don't worship at the altar of Ruby Payne? I'm this ist and that ist? OK. Why, then do some racial groups, such as Asians, excel in school and life? Is if possible that Bill Cosby (among others) is correct that the most important factor in the success of any minority group is getting off their buns, shutting their mouths, and performing in school and in life?

Nah, couldn't be that.

 
At 1/13/07, 8:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I agree that it's not really a race gap anymore but rather a socio-economic gap. I see kids miss days all the time because they're baby-sitting, going shopping, sleeping in, etc. If parents don't see a value in education, then the kids won't."

I agree that it's not a race gap, but what you're describing isn't a socioeconomic gap, but rather a culture gap. The lackadaisical attitude in that particular culture could lead to a socioeconomic gap, or course. Or maybe it isn't lackadaisical, but rather a problem of misplaced priorities.

I've read that some inner city schools in Memphis see a 66% turnover in their classes during a given school year, due to people moving around for whatever reason they do that. I can't see the problems these children have as being anything the school system can fix, apart from having some kind of standardized curriculum, which they do attempt to do. The government can't fix it either. Don't know what the solution is.

 
At 1/14/07, 11:45 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

The AVID website looked real interesting. I've read Ruby Payne. But I can't teach 'em if they are not in school because of whatever reason and the parents constantly claim that they are "sick" 1-2 days a week. And then there's the whole "n"- word thing-- don't get me started.

What scares me is the lack of a belief in the transformative power of education in a vast majority of kids in school, their parents, and some of the people leading this country. Not to mention a huge misunderstanding of what an education is and how it is acquired.

I came from a family with very little money, and was the first person in my family to get a college education. Of course, I was one of those little geeks who snuck books into my science class and hid them behind the textbook. I didn't have great grades in some classes, but I didn't make excuses about that either. I still don't.

But the one thing I will do is try to make my students think. And I know that is painfully uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory for some-- but most of my students eat it up. Including my minority students. I guess, for me, that is the only answer that will ever be provided.

 
At 1/24/07, 6:57 PM, Anonymous mike curtis said...

Groups don't earn grades; individuals do. Be advised, you'll work extremely hard at finding a sociological correlation that isn't shattered on the wall of individual differences. I teach high school math to groups of individuals and grade the efforts of each individual in the group. If you screen your vision with colored lenses, you'll see everything in color.

 
At 1/24/07, 6:57 PM, Anonymous mike curtis said...

Groups don't earn grades; individuals do. Be advised, you'll work extremely hard at finding a sociological correlation that isn't shattered on the wall of individual differences. I teach high school math to groups of individuals and grade the efforts of each individual in the group. If you screen your vision with colored lenses, you'll see everything in color.

 

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