Powerful forces are poised to rip control of education out of the hands Teachers and communities

Yesterday’s (5/8/14) report, by Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press, under the headline: “Nation’s students not improving: Exam finds no gains in seniors’ critical skills since ’09,” is certain to renew exclamations that our teachers are failing America’s children.

However absurd such proclamations may be, it is time for teachers, working collectively and with their communities, to take the lead in advocating substantial reforms of the educational process. If teachers permit educational reforms to remain exclusively in the hands of the government and corporate reformers, they are putting America’s children at risk and are leaving the teaching profession unprotected.

It is not sufficient to take a defensive posture and cry out against such reformers. What is needed are proactive proposals that the entire teaching profession can support with all of its political influence and might at the local, state, and federal level.

The reforms themselves must be substantial and they must literally reinvent the American educational process so that it:

• Is focused on success in real and substantive ways that allows teachers to teach children how to be successful;

• Shifts the focus back to subject mastery rather than test preparation, using the NAEP definition of “proficient” as a model where the expectation is to help students acquire the ability to apply what they learn to real-life situations;

• Puts teachers in a position to teach in an intimate environment in which they can form close, nurturing relationships with both students and parents;

• Help children experience the fun of learning under the tutelage of a “favorite teacher” rather than deal with the stress of looming annual, standardized exams;

• Integrate student assessment and teacher accountability into the instructional process, much like industry has done with quality systems, obviating the need for annual standardized examinations to demonstrate competency;

• Provides teachers with state-of-the-art technology and other tools to facilitate rather than obstruct what they do, where the technology is as seamless and productive as the smartphones most of us carry in our pockets and purses; and,

• Begins the challenging process of re-establishing the highest possible level of trust between parents and their children’s teachers.

Teachers must also use their collective might to aggressively pursue grants for creative programs that engage parents as partners in the education of their children (I encourage teachers to count the number of such programs of which they are currently aware).

I offer my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, as a model for implementation at the local level in schools and communities all over the nation. It is a model that can also serve as catalyst for brainstorming or as a springboard for the development of other models.

In any case, it is time for teachers to act before their credibility is completely tainted and their social capital squandered.

Will More Minority Teachers Make a Difference?

Will more minority teachers make a difference in the performance gap between white students and their minority classmates or will we have to close the performance gap in order to get more minority teachers?

On Monday, May 5th and article was released by the Associated Press and published by newspapers throughout the U.S. The article, about diversity among teachers, is interesting not only because the data is revealing but also because it gives us an opportunity to broaden the dialogue about the performance gap in education between white and minority students. This performance gap is the single most glaring fact in all of education and yet it is rarely discussed in any depth other than to make passing reference to it. Then, it is explained away with a series of clichés that have evolved from unverified assumptions that are influenced more by our prejudices than by reasoned observation and research.

We will not have solved the problems of public education until the performance gap has been significantly closed and ultimately eliminated and we cannot close the performance gap until we examine it scientifically and unapologetically.

Yes, it makes sense that it would be a good thing if more students “can look and see someone who looks just like them, that they can relate to,” as suggested by Kevin Gilbert, in the Associated Press article. It seems somewhat of a stretch, however, to conclude, as Gilbert does, that “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”

If Gilbert, a professional educator in Mississippi and board member of the National Education Association, was correct we would expect that minority students would perform at a high level whenever they found themselves in a classroom with a teacher of the same race or ethnic background as themselves.

There is little documented evidence to support Gilbert’s assertion and we can only speculate what would be the impact on the “performance gap” if we could somehow increase the number of minority teachers in American public school classrooms.

My daughter’s experience, teaching in an all-black elementary school in Washington DC provides an example. Other than my daughter, every other teacher in the school was African-American. Her school was one of the lowest performing schools in one of our nation’s lowest-performing school districts. The racial makeup of the collective faculty had no appreciable effect on a reality in which only a handful of students were motivated to learn and where the parents of those few students appeared to be the only parents who cared or accepted even a modicum of responsibility for the success of their sons and daughters.

The teachers whom my daughter came to know and be inspired by were not drawn from the bottom of the barrel of qualified teachers, they were dedicated men and women who gave their all to help as many students as they could in the midst of one of the most dreadful teaching environments in the U.S.

Irrespective of race or ethnicity, what almost any teacher working in a public school classroom will tell you is that the overwhelming majority of their students could be successful if only they cared and if only they would try. These same teachers would add that without the support of parents it is incredibly difficult to break through the indifference.

For those readers who will be quick to suggest that it is the teachers who do not care, unless they have walked in the shoes of their children’s teachers they know not of what they speak. The overwhelming majority of our public school teachers care very much, even in the face of years of frustration and disillusionment.

Putting more minority teachers in American public school classrooms may or may not have an impact on the performance gap but, clearly, if only we could close the performance gap between white students and their minority counterparts there would be many more minority teachers to fill those classrooms. We can also say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of public school districts would love to have more minority candidates from which to choose when attempting to fill teaching vacancies.

Below are a few facts from the National Center for Educational Statistics about both the performance gap in education and also about the number of minority students who go on to college; the population from which future teachers can be recruited.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures the percentage of 8th grade American students earning an assessment level of “proficient and above” in math and reading. The NAEP defines “proficient” as having “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” Since it is vital that the knowledge and skills a student acquires transfers to life as an adult, the phrase “application of such knowledge to real-world situations” is particularly noteworthy.

In 2012, of the students in 8th grade math, 44 percent of white students were assessed as “proficient or above,” compared to only 13 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students. In reading, the scores were similar as 43 percent of white students were assessed at “proficient or above,” compared to 15 and 19 percent of black and Hispanic students, respectively. Clearly the performance gap is as real as it is ominous. That we would consider 44 percent to be an acceptable level of achievement is sad commentary on American education.

When looking at students enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities in the same year, 59 percent were white, 15 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic. I suspect it is not a coincidence that the numbers are similar to the percentage of students assessed at “proficient or above” on the NAEP Assessments.

When looking at students earning bachelor degrees in the 2011-12 school year, 70 percent of the graduates were white while only 10.7 were African-American students, and 9.8 percent Hispanic. Clearly, not as many minority students are making it through to graduation compared to their white classmates.

Given that not every college graduate chooses a career in education, we should not be surprised that minority teachers are under-represented in American public school classrooms. It is a reality that can only be altered by closing the performance gap and this is where we must place our focus. Everything else is a diversion that obstructs our progress.

Excerpt #6 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, The Introduction, cont.

All educational policy makers, decision-makers, administrators, and practitioners are challenged to step back to a vantage point from which they can examine the system as an integral whole and challenge their fundamental assumptions about the educational process. We will show how this can be done, very specifically, in a later section of this work. All players in the system must be tasked to break out of their encapsulation and to think exponentially. What we need from teachers is that they acquire a willingness to try new things and be willing to leave their zones of comfort. Not everything we try will work but we will find no new solutions until we do try.

We can predict with a high level of confidence that increased student motivation and parental participation will make a difference in any educational setting. What is not so clear is whether the innovations in curriculum and instructional methodology utilized in these special schools would translate to all students across the spectrum of our diverse population of American children.

Honors programs in our mainstream public schools provide supportive evidence for this argument. In such honors programs, students have been selected on the basis of their demonstrated accomplishments. These are highly motivated students, almost all of whom are supported by committed parents who view themselves as full partners in the educational process. Within honors programs, the students, already successful academically, enjoy some of but not all of the advantages enjoyed by students in special schools. Often, principals assign their best and most experienced teachers to honors programs. In addition, the students in honors programs are sheltered from much of the negative peer pressure that pervades the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds of most urban public schools. Honor students, for example, rarely are required to deal with the harassment of students who view education with disdain. They might have to deal with it in the corridors but not in an adjacent seat within an honors classroom.

The attributes that distinguish honor students, who are essentially self-selected for the program, from the non-honors students of their school are their motivation to learn, a demonstrated proficiency in an academic arena, and the fact that they are supported by parents who rigorously support the educational process. Our argument is further supported by the fact, to which many teachers will attest, that there are many other students who could be honors students if only they cared and if only they could be encouraged to try. Excellent teachers can and do provide such encouragement and we know that the encouragement of committed parents can be a powerful influence. The encouragement of teachers and parents working in partnership, however, creates the absolute best environment for the success of students. It is imperative that we work relentlessly to bring all American parents into this partnership. Although I have no evidence to prove my assertion, I believe that even teachers at the lower end of the performance curve do their best work with those students whose parents make an effort to show up at conferences and call or drop by to see how their children are doing.

An important difference between special schools outside of the mainstream system of education and highly successful honors classes is that while special schools are able to employ innovations in curriculum and teaching methods, honors programs must rely on the same curriculum and educational methodology found in the mainstream classrooms of their state. The only apparent difference for the honors classrooms are the motivation of students, their demonstrated accomplishments, and the rigorous support of families. This suggests to this author, that student motivation and parental responsibility are the most important components of educational success, wherever we find it. Honors students are also children for whom the traditional educational process is ideally suited. The flip side, here, poses a serious question: Could this be construed as evidence that our traditional educational processes are not a good fit for the majority of the students in our public schools?

The motivation of students and the active support and participation of parents are clearly the crucial difference makers in education, both public and private. The sooner we acknowledge this reality and begin to restructure our strategies accordingly, the sooner we will begin to see a transformation in the quality of American education for all students. Our second over-riding priority must be to challenge an educational process that seems to be both designed and focused on identifying and celebrating the accomplishments of a small percentage of elite students for whom academic success comes relatively easily, to the great disadvantage of the millions of other American children.

As we shall see when we examine the results of competency tests in the State of Indiana, thirty percent of the students throughout Indiana are unable to pass the ISTEP+ or the End of Class Assessments, which are meant to determine eligibility for graduation. Just because they passed does not mean that these students scored high on the assessments. Many passed by the slimmest of margins.

Over the coming century, the success of our nation requires a diverse range of skills. Excellence in any one venue will be as vital to our nation’s success as any other. Ron Flickinger, an educational consultant who provided feedback to me when this book was being written observed that, “The larger social system will value some skills more than others and will obviously pay more for those skills, but the culture has to find a way to communicate to its young that the guy that gets your plumbing right enhances the quality of your life just as much as the mayor of your city.”

An urgent need to completely rethink the reasons why so many children fail in our mainstream schools throughout the whole of the United States seems apparent.