Achievement Gap -vs- Achievement

The achievement gap has garnered a lot of attention since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (2002). It is the raison d’être for numerous individuals, and offices, within schools, districts, states, and the federal Department of Education (not to mention the nonprofits focused on it). We think, and talk, and think, and talk, and think some more, about how to eradicate this persistent “gap” in our children’s educational outcomes. But nobody (or, nobody I know) is asking, “what are the children on the ‘wrong side’ of the gap learning” (they focus on what the students are not learning)? Because, they are learning something. Is anybody else curious about that? Or do I stand alone (a place I’m fairly accustomed to). These kids, the ones who fail to achieve the rank of “proficient” are not dumb— nor are they lazy or “bad”; they are kids who are growing up in a world that many people know nothing about.

Measuring achievement is nothing new for schools. Standardized tests have been around in one form or another for more than half-a-century. The idea of understanding what kids know, how well they know it, and at what age they are learning it, is not a bad idea; it helps teachers figure out how better they can help those who are falling behind in particular areas. However, the newer ideas of sanctioning schools (under NCLB), students, and teachers, based on these tests, is not helpful. Preventing a school from receiving needed funds, or a high school senior from graduating, is not conducive to furthering educational outcomes. Furthermore, the idea that we need to have these high stakes tests (read: high stress for students, teachers, administrators, et al.) administered annually between 3rd grade and 12th grade (some variability by state), defeats the purpose of a well-rounded education—as we see more and more time spent on tested subjects (math & reading primarily) and test prep, meaning less time for everything else: social studies, phy-ed, art, music, recess, technology, languages, etc.

As we begin the new school year, it might be helpful to start thinking about the reason we send kids to school in the first place. While the world has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, the reason for providing a free education has remained relatively stable—we want to prepare succeeding generations to successfully carry on, and improve upon, what’s been done prior to their arrival, while ensuring that they understand the importance of their role as members of our citizenry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how scoring proficient on a given test can be used as a means of measuring a child’s ability to succeed in the world. To assume that they are not adequately learning because of a test score, is akin to assuming that Brett Favre was a terrible quarterback because he threw so many interceptions. Both assumptions are false.

There are all kinds of things that come into play in any child’s education. For starters, where they are born and spend the first few years of their life is extremely important. Children who experience violence, hunger, poverty, instability, abuse, for an extended period of time, are more likely to lack the all-important ability to trust others. Furthermore, the connections that are used to identify situations and react accordingly (synapses) are more likely to be “short-circuited” before they are able to fully develop. Because the human brain develops more in the first three to four years than it does for the remainder of one’s life, the child’s early environment will have an enormous impact on the remainder of his/her life.

“Because of the brain’s plasticity during the early period of rapid development, the younger the child the more vulnerable is their developing brain to the effects of the environment. Adverse environments can be particularly harmful and have long lasting effects, altering the developmental trajectory of a child’s learning” (Goswami, 2008).¹ 

Second, the surroundings of their early years (3-10 y.o.a.) play a significant role on whether or not they are able to develop the skills needed to perform well on these tests. Children who are in a near-constant state of fear, depression, anxiety, i.e. stressed, are less likely to have the ability to focus on those tasks that are not immediately relevant to their general well-being. Any kid that experiences poverty at a young age can appreciate the realities of being hungry, not having seasonally appropriate clothing, uncertainty about whether there will be electricity in the house, or if the house they were staying in last week is different from the house they are staying in this week. Add to that list the possibility of growing up in a neighborhood that experiences greater instances of violence and one has the makings of a very difficult childhood where survival is the primary goal and everything else is secondary.

These children (and not all of them score below proficient, but of those that do, these kids make up a disproportionate number) are extremely smart, highly motivated, and have the ability to adapt and overcome circumstances that we find in places like Chi-Raq or Bodymore, Murderland. The fact that the majority of these kids grow up to graduate high school is proof of their tenacity. And yes, you can question the curriculum, the teachers’ subjectivity, the “rigor” of a particular course or school, but you cannot question the child’s desire to be successful and figure out what they need to do in order to achieve that success (however they choose to define it).

When we rely on standardized tests to provide us with data, we must consider the context of the child’s entire situation. Some students who are attending the “best” schools in America have test anxiety and don’t score proficient. Their teachers can vouch for their intelligence, ability to think critically and creatively, but they can’t explain why the student performs so poorly on a test. Conversely, we find students who are experiencing homelessness and yet they find a way to achieve at the highest level. What’s going on in their brains (which includes what happened during the brain’s formative years) is playing a remarkable role in the current scenario. So how is it that we continue to make such extreme outcries about the achievement gap when we fail to address the problem at its core.

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There are places that are addressing the problem from the start. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and other Promise Neighborhoods across the country, are working with communities to promote healthy living, stable housing, and intensive educational assistance before the child enters kindergarten. Additionally, many nonprofits have a niche and they work tirelessly to bring about change in their area. This is work that must be done in order to bring about a transformation that will provide greater access and opportunities for these children. These are great first steps in a long process, but we need to think deeply about what the future holds for our youth and what will provide them with the greatest opportunity to succeed. Will tests determine their worth or give them an edge when applying for a job, or would we be better served to focus their efforts on more meaningful classroom objectives?

Students achieve regardless of what a test score tells us. They achieve in various ways. Some students, who can’t pass algebra their first time (or second or…) find jobs working in retail or restaurants. They have basic numerical literacy and therefore are capable of running a register, making change, doing the simple accounting required on a balance sheet or an inventory list. They don’t have to know the quadratic equation to do those things, they have common sense. And, if they decide to remain in the business, and the business requires them to learn more advanced math, they’ll figure it out; because it becomes part of their routine, it’s not some random equation asking them to determine the function of x given y (or vice versa).

Making test scores more important than they actually are is damaging to students, communities, and teachers, in the form of a stigma that attaches to anyone involved in the outcomes. The more important outcomes, the ones that we should be celebrating and learning from, are those achievements that don’t show up on a test. When students figure out what their passion is, and then begin the process of moving towards getting paid to work in a capacity related to that passion, that’s achievement. That’s what success looks like. Why should we tell kids that success is dependent upon something that they find trivial or boring, or not worth the time. I realize that this comes across as radical, but I believe very strongly that once we start providing children with opportunities to learn about a passion they have, we will see graduation rates increase and greater successes both in and out of the classroom. Stefanie DeLuca digs into this idea (identity/passion projects) in her book, Coming of Age in the Other America; it is an extremely important piece of the achievement gap conversation.

Apprenticeship programs (Pipeline etc.) are a feature of Minnesota’s long-standing commitment to helping people find work that is both meaningful and pays a decent wage. Students can benefit greatly from the introduction that is provided, both to the work and to the network they build while learning a trade. And, the employers benefit from the opportunity to show a young person the right way to do a job— which will pay benefits to the broader society (economy) regardless of whether that young lady stays with that company for 40 years or takes on a new opportunity a year after completing her apprenticeship.

So here’s the thing, do we want to live in a society that picks “winners and losers” based on test scores? This means we are identifying those who “deserve” a shot at real success and those who are relegated to a lifetime of unsatisfying work… when they can get it. This is the way it’s been for too long in our nation; the kids born into the “right” circumstances, are afforded the greatest opportunities with nearly unlimited access to exploit those opportunities. While the kids born into less than perfect circumstances are relegated to whatever’s left, e.g. school funding, employment, housing, etc., etc.

The issue is not terribly complicated, nor are the means of addressing it. It is the political affairs that complicate matters. Here are a few ideas, some of which are in practice in some school districts around the nation, but not everywhere.

1) Fiscal policies that provide greater equity in funding are a good place to start. We know that the challenges are greater in schools that serve a larger percentage of students experiencing poverty; so why not give them significantly greater funds to address those needs. That might mean shifting some property taxes to surrounding districts, which could cause an uproar, but uproars are part of the deal (elected officials are supposed to hammer out these types of details…compromise). And, while using the equity lens— 2) lets ensure that weighted student funding is being used, and used properly. We need to target the children with the greatest needs, be they physical, mental, or emotional.

3) Expanding the Promise Neighborhood model can provide the type of outreach and assistance that make real differences in the community’s future. This does not imply a similar scale for every new program, as smaller sites could provide similar benefits; it is the actions undertaken that fuel the change. 4) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) (1994-2004), a program designed to study the effects of providing housing vouchers to low-income families (random assignment with a control group), had some fairly significant effects, 20 years later. Providing stable housing, in neighborhoods that are not populated primarily by families experiencing poverty, makes a big difference, especially for the children.

And finally, 5) stop with all the testing. Provide students with more course options (to include the return of industrial arts and home-economics in addition to new classes that reflect markets with high job growth potential: aircraft maintenance, cyber-security, renewable energy, bio-technology, etc.); make connections between what is being taught and its relationship to real-world work; take advantage of current apprenticeship programs and develop new ones; and implement passion/identity projects that will capture each student’s imagination and provide them with extra incentive to take full advantage of their educational opportunity.  In this way, we can make education relevant to all students.

One other thought related to current practices; the high achieving students (like the 9th grade girl who is doing college level math) should not be stuck taking random courses that are preventing her from reaching her full potential. Those students who are able to move more quickly through the system (1-5 percent), should be able to do so. Why hold them back when they have the ability to succeed at a more advanced level? Do we tell the 9th grade basketball phenom that he can’t play on the varsity because he’s too young? No, we allow him to take control of his future by using his talents to expand his opportunities. It’s not that difficult to allow students to move more rapidly, the system only needs to accept the change.

At the end of the day, it’s not enough to thoroughly analyze the data provided by these tests. We can’t make assumptions based on some scores and potentially inaccurate or incomplete observations concerning students’ lives. Students deserve better than that. They are entering a world vastly more complex than the world of just 20 years ago. They don’t need to learn rote memorization skills, they need creative and critical thinking skills. They need people to believe in them, inspire and motivate them, and then, help them up when they stumble (and stumbling is all-important here, learning from mistakes is critical to any kids development). The real-world is not standard in any way shape or form. Life is messy so we might as well embrace that messiness and let students know that it only gets more difficult after graduation. By giving them a few tools, we can help them move through the next stage.

So there it is, a fix for our achievement gap problem, rather simple. Why didn’t anybody think of this before. The playing field in education, and life, is inherently unequal, that’s the nature of our world. And while it is in everyone’s best interest to work on leveling the playing surface, it will not happen in the near future, and maybe not even in the distant future. That, however, is no reason to stop trying. But until that day comes, focusing our efforts on providing the kinds of opportunities that are more likely to result in real achievement, measured in paychecks and well-being, ought to be the goal. Anything less is shortchanging the students who have already been robbed of their lunch money… change is all they’ve got left.

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¹ Winter, Pam. Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story – Neuroscience and early childhood development: Summary of selected literature and key messages for parenting. March 2010.

http://www.scseec.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Publications/Early%20childhood%20education/Engaging%20Families%20in%20the%20ECD%20Story-Neuroscience%20and%20ECD.pdf

Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Since that time, hundreds of African Americans have been shot by police officers (and many White, Hispanic/Latino, & Native Americans have also been shot). Tens of thousands of African Americans, in this same time, have had interactions with police officers, many that involved a disproportionate use of force (based on police records). For those who do not study criminal justice, social justice, or the history of injustice in America, it is easy to assume that because police have so many interactions with Black People, then Black People must be committing more crimes. But this is not the case. White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than any other group. Surprised? You shouldn’t be; White People make up more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. So if there are more White People, than Black People (by a nearly 5:1 ratio), and according to the FBI statistics, White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than Black People, why do we see greater use of force against Black People and greater incarceration rates of Black People? This, in part, is why Black Lives Matter exists.

To understand more fully why the Civil Rights Movement has been reenergized, we must have a better understanding of African Americans’ history in the place we call America. 400 years ago, this continent was inhabited by many Nations of First Peoples, and a few Dutch, French, English, and Spanish, amongst others. As the population of settlements grew, the need for “hired” help grew along with it. In 1619, Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia (against their will), to work the land; along with the labor provided by European indentured servants, the building of a nation had begun. For a short time, Africans were looked upon as being similar to the indentured servants, save for their religious practices, language, etc. However, it wasn’t long before the European nobility/landed class began to differentiate in their treatment of Africans (and first African Americans) and European laborers.

As slavery took shape in the Colonies, it differed from slavery in other places (and this is really important for everybody who likes to say “Black people owned slaves in Africa before White People owned slaves in America” (which wasn’t yet “America” when slavery started)). That is true; in different Kingdoms various forms of enslavement were practiced. However, many historians that have studied slavery on the continent have found no evidence supporting the idea that the chattel form of slavery practiced in the New World, was practiced in Africa. And chattel slavery, as practiced in the place that would become the United States, was about as severe a practice as one could imagine.

Chattel is another term for “property”. This means that the enslaved Africans and eventually African Americans were property. They had absolutely no rights that had to be honored by any White man. The enslaved were bought and sold just as cattle, horses, molasses, tobacco, etc. were bought and sold. And, when enslaved women had children, they were not born free, they were automatically enslaved—for life. People who had no knowledge of this country were ripped from their families and communities and shoved into a new place where they were stripped of their names, their customs, their religious beliefs, and their sense of self. They were “housed” in small shacks with dirt floors, made to toil in physically demanding work from sun-up to sun-down (whether in a field or in a plantation house), provided just enough rations to sustain their strength (most of the time), and almost never had the opportunity to remove themselves from this hell. Then, to make matters worse, after adapting and overcoming the initial chaos of that existence, and having started new families, getting married, having kids, doing what they could to make their life less painful, they were shocked back to reality.

The plantation owners didn’t care about inhumane treatment (the enslaved were considered sub-human/property); if the plantation owners were having “difficulty” with some of their “property”, difficulty that could not be fixed through the usual methods, they might sell that “property” to a plantation that could be five miles away or five states away. They also sold off “property” if they were in a bind for money or were offered a particularly good deal for one or more “pieces of their property”, or if the mistress of the plantation didn’t like a particular enslaved girl that her husband had taken a liking to (in other words, rape, repeatedly, until she was sold off or killed, or the husband grew tired of her and turned his affection to a new “piece of his property”). All of this, and more, had the effect of breaking up families—again. And with each new dissolution of a family unit, African Americans had more reason to hate not only the system of chattel slavery, but also the purveyors of that system, to include the enforcers of the laws and the patrols that existed to police them.

This period of our history, that included State sanctioned extreme violence against human beings, is the low point for us, as far as Humanity & Civility are concerned. Chattel slavery, in this land, lasted for 246 years. It was a terrible stain on our nation and if that was the only event that the African American community were forced to endure, it would be enough. But it wasn’t.

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After the Civil War, the South underwent Reconstruction. This period lasted for approximately 14 years, 1863-1877, and witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and other hate groups), the suppression of Black votes, even though the 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to the newly freed, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens (while women continued to work for this right for the next 51 years), lynching, and general lawlessness, carried out by White People who could not stomach the thought of Black People being treated as equals. After Lincoln’s assassination, things got worse.

At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency (1865-1869), he vetoed the bill that would have enacted land distribution to thousands of Freedmen. This act, in concert with the 13th Amendment’s allowance for enslavement as punishment for crimes committed, and the new Black Codes that, amongst other things, made vagrancy a crime, served to put the recently “out-of-work”, back to work. What this meant for millions of newly freed Americans, who had little or no money (because enslaved people aren’t paid wages), is that they could be arrested for not having a permanent home. This worked out quite well for the plantation owners (who were also involved in politics, i.e. helped write these laws) as they were in dire need of labor. The law enforcement of the county would pick up Freedmen who were out on the road (they might be looking for family, looking for work, surviving), arrest them and then send them off to the fields to work, without pay—again.

In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end and Jim Crow (the set of laws governing what Black citizens were and were not allowed to do) was fully implemented throughout the postbellum South. Jim Crow laws acted as a barrier that prevented African Americans from taking part in the full spectrum of America’s democratic process, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and social interactions with White folk. What this meant was that in a matter of less than 15 years, the vast majority of African Americans had undergone two extreme status changes. From enslaved to citizen (albeit citizens who were terrorized and subjected to the Black Codes) and from citizens to 2nd class citizens, under the rule of Jim Crow. Progress? Yes. Enough? No.

The next era in our history was defined by the Supreme Court’s mandate of Separate but Equal. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it lawful to discriminate (under the guise of equal accommodations) based on skin color. After a series of Supreme Court victories, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine by stating the obvious, it is “inherently unequal”. This, however, did not put an end to Jim Crow. Over the course of the next 15 years, many States and individual school districts would fight the Court’s order to integrate (some never would) and many of the more affluent (and even less affluent) White families moved their children to private schools (where no Black students were to be found). But in the North everything was fine, right? So why didn’t all the Black People just move north? Well, it wasn’t always de jure segregation across the North and the West, though that existed, but it was often de facto.

The North had it’s own way of keeping White and Black apart. Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, destroying communities with public works projects, employment difficulties (last hired-first fired, unequal pay for the same work, unable to join unions, etc.), and violence against Black workers, to name a few. It didn’t matter where African Americans moved, they were going to face discrimination of one sort or another because of White America’s perceptions about Black People.  So after all of the work done, from 1865 to 1968 (the unofficial end of this particular stage of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement), African Americans were still not accepted as equal by large swaths of America.

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So that’s a lot of chaos to deal with (349 years worth of chaos, to be exact). Between 1619 and 1968 the Black community in America endured more hardships, more violence, experienced more senseless acts fueled by hatred, than any other group—(not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Poles, Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, Mexicans, Norwegians, Russians, Scots-Irish, Indians (not Native Americans), Catholics, et al.). And this is not to say that all of those groups didn’t experience difficulties/violence, they did, but not anywhere near the extent that the Black community suffered. And yes, Native Americans suffered for a longer period (basically from the time Columbus “discovered” Asia India Hispaniola and began killing Taino & Arawak Peoples). And yes, the history of Native Peoples in this entire hemisphere is littered with the erasure of numerous Native Nations and complete disregard for the lives of other non-White inhabitants. I’m not arguing that First Peoples experiences (with White People) have been mostly positive, on the contrary; however, the fact that African Americans were subjected, daily, to being treated as 2nd class citizens, at best, sub-human at worst, for this duration, is hard to refute. And if you thought that was the end of the story, you thought wrong; it’s 2016, not 1968.

We’ve seen what can be accomplished, more or less, with amendments: the 13th, 14th, 15th, but we haven’t yet looked at what can be taken away regardless of an amendment. The 4th amendment was written to prevent the government from snooping around just because they want to. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And that seems not only reasonable, but very sensible. The Founding Fathers included it as a means of preventing the same type of behaviors that the British had perpetrated against them, when they were colonists. So it is somewhat surprising, knowing the importance of our Constitution and the Rights it bestows upon its citizenry, that the 4th amendment has been significantly eroded over the past 50 years. What’s that you say, my 4th amendment rights, eroded? Preposterous! Unthinkable! This is heresy, By God! Well, here it is.

Beginning in 1968, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court sided with the State in deciding that it was within the law for an officer to “stop and frisk” a person/persons whom the officer thought might be plotting a crime (reasonable suspicion). It sounds ok, when you first read it, but when one looks at where it has led us (with many more cases since then, expanding policing powers: Florida v. Bostick, Ohio v. Robinette, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, etc. etc.) it might be useful to read the words of Supreme Court Justice Marshall from the 1968 case, mentioned above. In his dissent (it was an 8-1 decision) Marshall wrote, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.” And today, we are seeing the fruits of the Court’s labor— Stop & Frisk run amok in New York City; maybe not yet a “police state”, but one can see how Justice Marshall was correct to question this type of authority. But wait, what does this have to do with African Americans? Oh, right, that. Well, as shown by the statistics, provided by NYPD, an extremely disproportionate number (based on NYC demographics) of the individuals stopped are Black and Hispanic. Which leads us to the last issue that needs to be addressed, the war on drugs.

President Nixon thought it would be a good idea to declare a war on drugs (he had a lot of “good” ideas). Putting aside the arguments about which drugs are “dangerous” and which are “safe”, we need to understand how the drug war affected American communities, Black and White. Because while one is free to think whatever they want about any particular drug, when we look at the statistics of who uses drugs, who sells drugs, who ends up going to jail because of drugs, and how jail terms differ based on the ethnicity of said person convicted of drug use/sales, we find evidence that should make everyone question what exactly is going on in the confines of our criminal justice system.

Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services) we find that drug use amongst White and Black individuals falls within a 1-2 percentage point gap, for the years 2002-2010. So that’s not why we see more Black People incarcerated for drugs. Next, we find that White People, on the whole, are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, than Black People; data from studies done in 1980, 1989, 1991-1993, and 2012 (and 1980-2012 Bureau of Justice data), all provide evidence to back this up. So that’s not what’s driving incarceration rates. So it must be possession of drugs; that has to be what’s creating this disparity between Black and White…or not. Well, I’m stumped. If the war on drugs is targeting everybody, and White People, who are included in that “everybody” are found more often to be the dealers, the users, and, no surprise, those caught in “possession”, how on earth is it possible that more Black People are incarcerated on drug crimes charges?

According to studies, it looks like there are a few reasons. First, “open-air” drug markets are more common in Black neighborhoods while White People tend to go over to their friend’s house to buy their coke/weed/molly/heroine. Second, disparities in sentencing (most strikingly for marijuana, and along with every other area in the system) account for a significant portion of the numbers. Third, Stop & Frisk, targets Black and Hispanics disproportionately. And even though 10-20 percent are found guilty of “something”, that leaves 80-90 percent who have been hassled for no apparent reason, other than a cop thinks you “look suspicious”. What if Dr.s and mechanics and hair stylists and chefs got “it” right 10-20 percent of the time, we wouldn’t put up with it. But this is different, right? It’s for our public safety. Be honest with yourself, if you were approached and engaged by law enforcement while walking down the street, or driving home from work, or playing in a park, or riding a bike on the sidewalk, because of how you looked, would you really be ok with that? I doubt it. And what about those “criminals” who may have committed some sort of offense, like “selling cigarettes“, or dealing marijuana, or they were driving erratically, or experiencing a bout of mental illness, but are obviously of no threat to any one (other than their self) including the officers? We need to understand how this systematic discrimination (profiling) creates distrust between communities of Color and the police.

The war on drugs didn’t come about because the use of drugs exploded in 1971. Nor did stop & frisk come about because of an increase of robberies or violent acts. None of this data provides evidence that drug use sharply increased over the past 30 years, because it didn’t. Law enforcement focused more attention on arresting people with drugs, in part, because of the incentives that were offered to departments across the nation. And in this way, we’ve witnessed the “criminalization” of communities of Color, all across America. And this, brings us to 2016.

So now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons (not all, that’s several books worth of material) that the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, is embraced by so many people, of all Colors and Creed, from all Cultures and Communities, you still might choose to not embrace Black Lives Matter; but at least you will have some understanding of why so many people are so upset about what continues to happen to People of Color in our Country. It’s been 397 years since 1619. Millions of African Americans have encountered vitriol and violent acts simply because they are perceived to be different. And while it is true that everybody has something that makes them unique, and we should in no way minimize those attributes, we must get beyond allowing perceptions to colour our belief systems. We have made progress on many fronts but to believe that we are “there” is to deceive oneself.

On their “History” page, Black Lives Matter provides the background on what led to their founding of the organization and they offer some advice for our society:

Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

It would do society good to remember this. In addition to those who disavow Black Lives Matter because of their sincere belief that it is nothing more than a hate group… some “forward thinking” groups and individuals fail to apply context to current events in light of historical realities. It is 2016. We have to educate our youth, and each other, about where we are, how we got here, and then start having the conversations about how to move beyond this place. Policies that: 1) decriminalize minor drug offenses and provide treatment options for addicts; 2) mandate more training for police recruits –  specifically in the areas of deescalation and learning to work and interact with the diverse populations they are likely to encounter; 3) provide adequate funding to ensure police have what they need and can be paid better for the difficult job they do; 4) demilitarize our police departments (they are not fighting a war, they are serving and protecting their communities); 5) provide funding and incentives for public schools to spend more time teaching civics, talking about civility, and discussing the importance of context as they learn about our history. This will not fix everything overnight; but in time, we can all learn the importance of the roles played by every person that calls this land home; and more importantly, learn to respect those qualities that make each of us unique while recognizing our common bonds.

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The State of Education

We often hear people say that “the schools are broken” or the system has failed, or some other negative comment which is usually meant to cast aspersions on those schools having the most difficult time turning out “high achieving” students. Districts with classrooms bursting at the seams, dilapidated buildings in need of an extreme makeover that would baffle Ty Pennington, and a budget that had to cut all of the arts & music programs, are examples of the most visible needs at these schools. Add to that list a full-time nurse being cut to part-time (because we all know that students only get sick or injured on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings), and sports programs and other extracurriculars that are bare-boned and funded through private donations, athletic fees, and whatever money the district hasn’t spent on the basics. Several of the schools that fit this mold have been featured in books by Jonathan Kozol and others.

Conversely, we occasionally hear that people are very happy with the school district their child attends. Their school has a high graduation rate, most students score ‘proficient’ or above on standardized tests, and they experience no shortage of funds for the band, the football team, and the swimming & diving squad. The high schools in these districts often make Newsweek’s list of “Best High Schools” and they are just as good, if not better, than many of the private schools in their area.

The truth is, both of these scenarios are examples of some of our nation’s school districts. But many more districts fall somewhere in-between, and are not often featured in magazines or books. They serve a wide variety of students who come from a wide variety of cultures/backgrounds and fall all along the socio-economic spectrum. These districts produce world-class scientists, authors, athletes, civic and business leaders. They also see students who are unable to complete the K-12 system, some of whom become homeless and highly mobile, and other students who have difficulty functioning in society. This is what our typical school district looks like. It is not one extreme or the other, rather somewhere in between and always hopeful that with the next new program, they can alleviate some ill that is preventing their school from making the “Best” list.  Our educational system is not, on the whole, broken. But neither is it in prime condition. Major systemic overhauls are needed.

Many districts are in need of fixes in one or two or seventeen areas. Those fixes, the majority of the time, require funding. This does not always imply new funding; some cases require money to be shifted from a program that isn’t working to a new program that has exhibited promise elsewhere. But more often, it does require additional expenditures. This, financing, is often the area where policy matters get hung up (whether it’s education policy or anything else).

As we’ve recently witnessed in Maryland and Minnesota, deciding which programs are funded, and how the state decides to spend its tax revenues, is highly controversial. Governor Hogan (R-MD) made the choices that he, and some of his constituents, believe to be right. While other Maryland citizens, especially those engaged in the profession of educating children, disagree. Not every district in Maryland is in dire need of additional funding, but there are districts that could benefit greatly from extra funds.

Sometimes funding is necessary to upgrade infrastructure or some other tangible feature. But more often, funds are required to provide those things that are not as easy to put a price on. Professional development is one area that schools can choose to cut back on, if they are experiencing a budget shortfall. This may seem like a fairly inconsequential cut but imagine the auto mechanic who is asked to work on new cars, using new technology, and never receiving any instruction about the new automobile features or how the technology works. Providing ongoing professional development is the best way to keep teachers up to speed with the ever-changing world, which means their students will have the opportunity to keep pace with their peers in surrounding districts.

Another area that is often overlooked, until it’s out of control, is class size. Somewhere in the history of education, a consensus was developed about how many students should constitute a typical class size . It is pretty standard for 20-25 students to be in a class, in the typical elementary classroom, and a few more in the typical middle school and high school class. This has worked fairly well for many students—not all. The problem is not the average class-size in the typical school. The problem is when budgets are cut and class-sizes explode, and teachers are told that they have to deal with it, just like any other professional would. The problem is two-fold; many teachers will do what they have to do to make it work, which means they’re putting in more hours outside of school while making the same wage. Meanwhile the students, the BIG losers here, get less attention, fewer questions answered, and more competition for the same amount of resources. And if we look at which schools have the most overcrowded classrooms, we find the majority of them to be in inner-cities.

Which brings me to the issue that many people in education circles don’t talk about. An overcrowded classroom in the inner-city of Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or any other large American city is very different from an overcrowded classroom anywhere else. Inner-city schools, on average, have more students growing up in adverse conditions, than schools in suburban and rural areas (and for clarification, urban does not always equate to inner-city but all inner-city schools are within urban locales). Children growing up in inner-cities are more likely to experience poverty and violence (Thompson, 2014) and this makes learning more difficult, especially in overcrowded classrooms.

If we want to make one major policy change that will have the greatest effect on closing the achievement gap (something that I’ll get into more in another post), reducing class sizes in inner-city schools would be that change; in my opinion, and a host of others (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011). It’s true that reducing class sizes from 20+ to 10-12, or 35+ to 15-18, would cost a lot of money. But if we think about the amount of money we are currently spending on those former students who didn’t get a quality education (not for lack of valiant attempts by the teachers) we can’t afford to not make the investment.

Class size reduction is not necessary for every student to be successful; but if we are truly interested in providing every student with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” (assuming it can still be achieved by the average Joe or Jane), then we owe the students that are growing up under the most difficult circumstances access to more tools so that they might achieve results similar to those outcomes the more advantaged students are attaining.

The state of education is not all bad. Millions of great people wake up everyday and set out to change the world by inspiring young minds. They don’t do it for the money or the fame (shocking, I know), they do it because they care about their students. By providing these teachers and schools with the resources they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, we can make our economy more stable and our society more equitable. Both of which are relatively important for a nation’s long-term viability.

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Take time to stop and notice what’s not directly in front of you, like wild flowers.
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Education is not only a human endeavor.