“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.

 

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Graduation rates rise, but are still too low…

First, let me begin by saying I am not here to discuss particular districts or to throw anyone under the bus, my purpose is to present issues and begin a dialogue about the state of urban education and the need for reform.  To preface, the school districts I am referencing represent typical, large, urban school districts that serve low-income communities.  I was surprised to come across a local news broadcast on how two notoriously under-performing, large urban districts in Massachusetts saw noteworthy increases in their graduation rates from 2013 to 2014.  That being said, I dug a little deeper into the numbers of these districts and some similar districts and here is what I found:

  • Overall student graduation rates are between 60 and 65 percent
  • Graduation rates among students with disabilities is nearly half that amount
  • Graduation rates among Hispanic/Latino and African American/Black subgroups are on average 5 percent below overall rates
  • Graduation rates for English Language Learners are significantly below the overall rates
  • 9/10 non urban, non low-income serving districts have graduation rates above 85%

It is absolutely wonderful that these districts have seen an increase in students graduating, that is not the issue here.  What is disturbing is that four in ten students living in these districts are not graduating from high school.  In case you don’t see the problem, please the the economic importance of this in my previous post, ‘College “prep” goes beyond the classroom’.  With this troubling data, why are we not discussing the inequity within our public schools?  Why are we not screaming from the top of our lungs for reforms that will address this issue?!  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that more accountability and more standardized tests are not going to address this gap.  In fact, we may even see the gap widen….

The great digital divide…

Last semester I took a course on Curriculum Design and one of our texts emphasized the importance of integrating technology into the curriculum.  There is no doubt a digital divide between students in low-income communities and their suburban counterparts.  With such large class sizes in many low-performing schools, adaptive technology can help teachers differentiate their instruction which is essential to getting all kids to grade level, yet there are no reforms being made to integrate technology.  The following is an essay I wrote in my curriculum class that emphasizes the importance of technology in closing the achievement gap.

Closing the proficiency gap is a top priority for most principals serving students in low-income communities.  In addition to lower proficiency, access to instructional technology within these schools, as well as within student’s homes, limits teacher’s ability to engage students.  Despite these circumstances, some schools have been able to narrow the proficiency gap by building positive relationships with students while integrating technology.  In his article, “Teacher Excellence Narrows the Achievement Gap”, Mariko Nobori (2011) attributes the turnaround of Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, N.C. to professional development that supports an approach the school calls Interactive Learning.  A TIME Magazine article, “A is for Adaptive”, by Kayla Webley (2013), describes a personalized learning technology called Knewton that is able to adapt to specific student’s needs and improve student achievement.  The common thread of these two articles is that technology can be used to engage students and narrow the proficiency gap by making it easier for teachers to differentiate.  Nobori (2011) attributes the success of one school to a strong emphasis on using technology to raise achievement while also building strong relationships with students.  It seems as though a hybrid of relationship building, student-centered instructional strategies, and technology integration may be the way to close the proficiency gap.

At Cochrane Collegiate Academy, teachers use an instructional model called Interactive Learning (IL) which specifically promotes collaboration, inquiry, and a high degree of interaction.  Teachers must implement ten IL non-negotiables in every class.  Some of these non-negotiables include activation strategies, clear outcomes that are communicated to students, limited lecture, and student movement.   In addition to adopting this model, Cochrane’s school district implemented a standards-based, targeted-assistance program called TI MathForward (Nobori, 2011).  “Each student receives a graphing calculator so they can do practice problems and get instant feedback on the classroom’s electronic whiteboard.  Teachers get a precise reading on how well the students understand key concepts, and the students stay engaged thanks to the cool gadgets (Nobori, 2011).”  To support the implementation of IL and TI Math Forward, Cochrane’s academic facilitator, Shana Oliver, has taken a modeling approach to professional development.  Oliver runs her sessions just like a class, using the same set of non-negotiables, and teachers confirm that seeing and experiencing themselves  how it can be done has helped them implement the strategies in their classrooms (Nobori, 2011).

Knewton is a math program that uses algorithms to build a personal profile for each student.  The program takes into account how long it takes for a students to answer a question, their answers to hundreds of other questions, and the answers of hundreds of thousands of other people to similar questions before determining the next question on the screen (Webley, 2013).  This technology, also known as adaptive learning, is able to predict student outcomes and could be the future for differentiated instruction.  “It is impossible to provide one-to-one teaching on a mass scale, but technology enables us to get closer than ever before (Webley, 2013).”  The feedback that this technology gives teachers allows them to help struggling students before they fail and it is too late.  Additionally, the technology has the ability to remediate students on prerequisite skills.  “Students in the same math course go through different sets of lessons as Knewton adapts the material to fit their individual learning needs (8).”  For example, Cienna Bungard, a middle school student states, “Knewton is based on what you can do, not what the class can do (Webley, 2013).”   In addition to the technology keeping students engaged, they are able to get more out of their math courses because of it and it has transformed the classroom from one-size-fits-all instruction to tailored intervention.

The turnaround at Cochrane was not only possible due to the integration of technology and interactive learning practices, but also through a strong emphasis on building positive relationships with students.  These relationships are built on a level of trust that allows teachers to challenge their students.  Teachers greet students individually and pay attention if something seems off, they show up to sporting events, ask students questions about how they are doing and listen to the answers, and model politeness and respect.  Since implementing these changes in 2007, Cochrane has more than doubled the percentage of students performing at grade level and reduced the achievement gap by thirty five percent (Nobori, 2011).  “There are so many stigmas that seem to suggest that students from this demographic cannot learn; that they are destined to fail.  But now we have data that proves that our students can go so far.  That’s a testament to what education can do (Nobori, 2011).”  Teachers and staff acknowledge that there is still work to do and have recently launched a one-to-one laptop program while working to build better relationships with parents and continuing to hone their instructional model to reach more students (Nobori, 2011).

Both articles mentioned the ability for technology to engage students while providing teachers with quick feedback about student performance that allows for the differentiation and adaptation of instruction.  Coupled with a focus on student-centered instruction and relationships, technology has allowed Cochrane to be able to significantly reduce the achievement gap at their school.  What both articles miss is the ability to use technology in the classroom in creative ways that may further engage students.  Tim Tyson (2010) states, learning will be made irresistible when students’ positive emotional connection to curriculum is authentically engaged in a learning process that focuses on producing high-quality, digital-knowledge products for everyone – the students, their peers, their parents, the community at large (Jacobs, p. 123).  Schools should also use technology to engage students in authentic, creative assessments that will make learning irresistible in all content areas.

The proficiency gap is a hurdle that many school leaders are faced with.  Unfortunately, there is often a lack of funding that allows for schools with low proficiency to integrate technology.  If this is the case, as Cochrane has shown, gains can still be made by targeting professional development for teachers in a structured way that will model student-centered instructional approaches as well as foster positive relationships with students.  The gap could be further reduced, or in many cases, virtually eliminated, by implementing technology that provides teachers with instant feedback to differentiate instruction while engaging students through interactive technology.  Furthermore, students can be engaged through technology not just through the use of “cool gadgets” but by using it in ways that will allow them to develop 21st century skills through the creation of high-quality products for authentic audiences.  Focused professional development that models student-centered instruction, building supportive relationships, and integrating technology could enhance the curriculum across disciplines, thus making learning irresistible and ultimately reducing the proficiency gap.


Further reading:

http://nation.time.com/2013/06/06/the-adaptive-learning-revolution/

http://www.edutopia.org/stw-school-turnaround-overview

Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World by H. H. Jacobs

http://www.theedadvocate.org/technology-and-mentorship-addressing-the-problem-of-urban-students/

http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4216

 

College “prep” goes beyond the classroom

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What is staggering here to me is the unemployment rate by education level. I continuously hear critics saying that students who don’t go to college or don’t graduate high school will become our “blue-collar” workers. The numbers here suggest that that is just not true. There aren’t nearly enough jobs for students in low-income communities where nearly half don’t graduate high school and even fewer go off to college.

I’ve always preached to my students the importance of going to college so that they could have choices in their lives, but as the data suggests, college isn’t about choices anymore, it’s about quality of life. College is how we can end generational poverty, and yet, we don’t support students in getting to or staying there.

I started the school year last year with an activity where students cut clippings out of magazines to represent their goals, hobbies, people they admire, and what makes them unique. The boards that students created were filled with images of expensive clothes, cars, beautiful homes, families, etc. Even in this middle school, where 85% of the students were considered low income, kid’s goals and aspirations were to have families, and support a comfortable lifestyle for them.

It’s not enough for a teacher to simply talk about college and for the school to post college banners in the hallways. When our students go to high school for four years, they may have college on the mind, but do they know how to get there?

Although I’m a first generation college student, my parents played an instrumental role in getting me to college. My suburban high school did little other than sign me up for the PSAT. My mother filled out the FAFSA, took me on college tours, and my dad prompted me to make fiscally responsible decisions; especially since paying off big loans would be difficult as a teacher. Without their guidance, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Whether they are absent parents, do not speak English, or just don’t make time to take their children on college tours, we need to be sensitive to the fact that students in low-income households may not have parents who have made college a priority for their children as my parents had.

This is an issue of equity. If we are truly going to close the achievement gap, we need to think beyond the 12 years that we have students. In high schools with hundreds of kids there isn’t nearly enough funding to allow for guidance counselors to do all the work. In my middle school of over 500 students, we only had two counselors and the case loads are not much smaller at the high school level. Furthermore, we need services in place to support students while they’re in college so that they can make it through. This is how we can close the gap and address the cycle of poverty.

Does Poverty Matter? Look at Scores on the Student Affluence Test (SAT)

Wealthy families often purchase SAT tutors for their students, a luxury that low-income households cannot afford.

Diane Ravitch's blog

How many times have you heard people like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein (remember him?) and other so-called reformers say that poverty doesn’t matter, that poverty is an excuse for poor teaching?

I have always believed that poverty imposes tremendous burdens on students and their families: hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, illness, etc.

The best evidence of the difference that poverty makes is SAT scores. The poorest kids have the lowest scores, the most affluent have the highest. The difference from bottom to top is nearly 400 points. To be exact, it is 398 points.

The Wall Street Journal suggests a new name for the SAT: the Student Affluence Test.

What does the SAT measure? Family income and family education.

Those with vast resources of their own probably think that poverty is a personal defect rather than the inevitable result of an inequitable tax system.

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Why standardized test scores are virtually useless to teachers

I spent the better part of the morning on Friday reviewing my student’s standardized test scores and here is what I learned:

  • My 2013/14 8th graders scored generally better than my 2012/13 8th graders in English Language Arts
  • My deep analysis of interim assessment data and focus on reader response writing seemed to pay off in 2013/14
  • Some students made great gains
  • Some students scores dropped from 7th grade to 8th grade
  • 69% of my students were proficient while only 44% of the 8th graders at the school were proficient
  • 79% of 8th graders in the state were proficient; while I’m narrowing the gap in my school, my students are still falling behind when compared to the state

Now, none of this really matters at this point.  These students are off in high school with some other teacher looking at their scores who knows very little about them at this stage in the school year.  To compare the 2012/13 students with the 2013/14 students seems odd to me since one of the classes I taught last year had higher scores overall than my classes the previous year.  I had more special needs students in 2012/13 and in 2013/14 I had zero special needs students and a handful of English Language Learners.  Also, the students I had in 2012/13 had different teachers in 7th grade than the students in 2013/14 did.  How can I truly tell that what I did differently from one year to the next made a difference?  There are some other clues, like interim assessment data that I received throughout the school year that do point to successes in my practice, but overall, to look at my data from one year to the next is comparing apples to oranges.

And this is why standardized test scores are meaningless to teachers.  Administrators, politicians, and parents want to hold us accountable, but how can you hold us accountable when we test students in the Spring and don’t receive the results until the Fall while we have a whole new group of students in front of us?  My point is that while the scores may tell us a little bit about our teaching practice, they tell us a lot more about our students; and by that time it’s too late.  I’m so proud of the students who made gains last year in my class, I’m also proud that I had a higher percentage of students proficient than my school did, but I won’t ever get the chance to see what went wrong with the kids who’s scores dropped or did not score proficient.  To reasonably hold teachers accountable for this data, we either need to receive the data while the students are in front of us or teach the same cohort for more than one year; otherwise, its a total waste of time and money.