The Tragedy of the Performance Gap: Two stories, two casualties of our intransigence

The performance gaps between white and black students in this country, and to a lesser degree between white kids and their classmates from other racial groupings are not only destroying lives, they place our entire society at risk.

The existence of this performance gap is arguably the greatest contributing factors to the reality of a two-tiered society in which the citizens residing in poor neighborhoods in communities across the face of our nation live in a world that is separate and apart from mainstream America. The segment of our society that is separate and apart includes whites as well as minorities but blacks and other people of color or more readily stereotyped. Make no mistake, it is the existence of this separation that is at the root of the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri and similar incidents that have taken place in other communities throughout the United States for as long as most of us can remember.

It is a reality in which people reside in the same communities but do not share the same dreams and aspirations, do not trust one another, and cannot relate to the cultural differences between them. It exists when black men and women are unable to trust the agencies of government charged with public safety. It also exists when public safety officials look on certain neighborhoods and their populations with distrust; when, routinely, they look at black males in particular with implicit suspicion.

Our first example that personifies the existence of the performance gap was a young black man who was a high school graduate who was taking an admissions exam for the third time. He was a personable young man with a smile that lights up the room; when in conversation he was engaging and able to look one in the eye. On the first two attempts to pass the test the young man earned identical scores of “4” out of a possible “100.” On the third and most recent attempt, it just so happened that the young man was the last individual to finish the test. While waiting for me to pull and print his score from the system he told me that he was nervous about getting his score but added “I think I did well, this time.” In the sense that he improved his score by fifty percent, it was an improvement but the reality is that he only scored a “6” on this third attempt.

The second young man, also a black high school graduate, was taking the exam for the first time. During the registration process this kid made a good impression, looked me in the eye, and asked intelligent questions. About a third of the way through the exam the young man raised his hand. When I arrived at his station he asked a question that had such a profound impact on me that I will never forget it. He asked “How are we supposed to know this stuff?” He was in the part of the exam that was focused on math and language skills. That he asked his question with such seriousness after so recently becoming a high school graduate is staggering. He earned a score of “9.”

As these two young men walked away from me I felt great sadness as I wondered where life would take them.

To these two young men the gap between them and their dreams must have seemed unbridgeable. At this point in their lives their ability to bridge the gap and become a full partner in the American dream may still be possible but it is highly improbable.

While the data collected on the two young men offers no clue to their family’s economic circumstances, both were well-attired and well-groomed and displayed no evidence to suggest debilitating poverty.

Are these kids a victim of a racist system of education and racist teachers and principals? The legitimacy of such assertions is diminished by the knowledge that many classmates of these two young men, also black, received quality educations and went on to be successful in both college and vocational schools and will ultimately find a place in mainstream society. It will be a place where they can be productive citizens while still retaining their identity as part of their cultural heritage.

Both of these kids also attended high schools with a number of African-American teachers and administrators and one had an African-American principal. Both high schools were part of a school corporation led by an African-American superintendent.

Sadly, these two young men are not exceptions to the norm rather they are two of many young people who have been unable to take advantage of an opportunity for a quality education. Because education is the key to full participation in the American dream, these young people are effectively barred from entry.

Few things are simple in life and this is particularly true of the complex socio-political challenges of the Twenty-first Century. What we do know, with a high level of certainty, is that there is a burgeoning population of young people who place no demonstrable value on education and come from families that provide minimal if any encouragement to their children to work hard to acquire that education. What we also know, and to which the overwhelming majority of teachers will attest, is that nothing contributes to academic success as much as parents who stress the importance of it and who support their children and their children’s teachers as they pursue it.

As we have so often stated in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America and in many articles, in order to be supportive parents must truly believe that getting an education will enable their children to have a better life. For many of these parents, the evidence from their own experience gives them no reason to hope that their children’s experience will be any better than their own.

The missing ingredient is hope and the operative question becomes “What can we do to re-instill hope in the hearts and minds of millions of mothers and fathers who feel hopeless and powerless. Helping these American men and women regain hope and faith in the American dream for their children, if not themselves, is the key to solving the problems with public education in America and we go about our important business as if it is an unalterable given.

If we are unable to give hope and faith to these parents and guardians and to their children nothing else we do will matter and the barrier between us will become ever more intractable.

In our public schools we need to change the way we keep score, Part I

In any game, the strategies of the participants are driven by the manner in which the game is scored.

We evaluate student performance in the classroom by assigning a letter grade to the quality of work the student completes during a grading period or semester. We evaluate teacher performance, and also school performance, on the basis of their students’ performance on annual, standardize competency exams.

Public school teachers are rebelling against the heavy reliance on state competency exams as a measure of their performance. “It forces us to focus on test preparation rather than real learning,” they say. Teachers assert that how well a student performs on such standardized testing is influenced by much more than just the quality of instruction they were given by their teacher(s).

Teachers are correct that exam scores are an unfair assessment of the quality of effort teachers put forth because the exams do not take into account the myriad of problems with which teachers must contend. They are asked to accept responsibility for a diverse population of students with a wide variance with respect to academic readiness; motivation to learn; and ability to conduct themselves civilly. That variance extends to the level of support teachers receive from parents and the students and their family’s relative position on a poverty-affluence continuum. Some educators also argue that test results are an unfair comparison when their school is being compared against other schools with fewer special needs children.

All of these criticisms of the utilization of standardized competency examination results as a basis for school and teacher accountability are correct. These educators are absolutely correct when they say that the reliance on test results shifts focus to test preparation and away from real and sustainable learning.

Standardized competency examinations provide little if any benefit in improving the quality of education for the students who are taking the tests. With the exception of such tests that, in Indiana, are called End of Class Assessments (ECA) in English and algebra that must be passed before a student is eligible for graduation, there are very few formal processes to provide remediation for students who perform poorly on annual exams. Students unable to pass ECA exams are given one or more opportunities to retake the exams, often after having spent time in remediation classrooms that we often call math and English labs. If still unable to pass, students are given the opportunity to obtain a waiver by providing other evidence demonstrates their readiness for graduation.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I point out that annual, standardized competency exams are like quality inspections of an earlier era. I wrote that:

“Formerly, inspections were done at the end of an assembly line to insure that only output of the highest quality would end up in the hands of a customer. By the time the inspections were completed, however, the damage was already done and the discrepant material would only provide clues to indicate what had gone wrong, when, where, and, why. In the interim, production would continue producing both good and bad product and the scrap pile of discrepant material would grow, along with its cost.”

One could make the point that the English and math labs are the Twenty-first Century education equivalent of a 1950’s scrap pile in a manufacturing plant. The cost to the taxpayers of our communities is staggering; the cost to the lives of our children is a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations. We have taught them how to fail when our job was to teach them that they can learn.

From the 1960s until present time, manufacturing and assembly plants have developed sophisticated quality systems and companion performance management systems so that such problems can be identified at the time of production and then remedied to insure the highest possible quality of product while minimizing production costs.

The only thing preventing us from integrating quality and performance management systems into the traditional American educational process, much as we have done in industry, is our intransigence. In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, I show exactly how to assure a child’s success and how to integrate quality into the educational process.

Why is the educational process structured more to support earning grades and standardized test scores than it is to support learning?

In business, we know that organizations are structured to get the outcomes they produce. This is certainly true with the educational process that drives public schools all over the nation. The educational process is structured to support the objectives of earning grades and producing test scores.

In the case of grades, it is not so much a matter whether the grade is an A or an F rather that there is a grade to report. This suggests that we have completed our job for that grading period or semester and now it is time to move on. What do we know at the end of this process? We know that some students learned the material and some did not. We also know that there is a big group of students in the middle and we simply cannot be sure whether they have learned or not.

The fundamental question public school teachers and other professional educators must ask is, “are grades and test scores the outcomes we really want for our students? Most educators will respond that, “no, our true objective is to help kids learn.” The more astute educators, after taking a moment to think about what their job should be, would add that their goal is not only to help students learn but also to help them learn sufficiently well that they will be able to apply what they have learned in the face of real-life situations throughout the balance of their lives.

Those real-life situations might be applying what they have learned in past lessons or classes to subsequent lessons and classes throughout their rest of their academic careers; whether primary, secondary, vocational, or post-secondary. The real life situations might also be the application of the knowledge and skills individuals have mastered to earning a living; to fulfilling one’s civic responsibilities; to helping society find solutions to a never-ending stream of economic, ecological, political, and sociological challenges; to the mastering their unique crafts; to exploring the mysteries of science, theology, or philosophy; to finding joy through our relationships with other people; or, ultimately, to the never-ending quest for wisdom.

If educators could all agree that their purpose should be to help their students learn and master subject matter sufficiently well that they can then utilize what they have learned, the next question would be is the educational process structured in such a way that it will support us in that shared mission?

Questions we might ask would include:

Should the educational process be structured so that it starts every student off from the same point of embarkation or should we identify a unique starting point based upon the level of preparation and motivation that the child brings with them on their first day of school?

Should all students be guided to a common destination or should their destinations be determined by their unique talents and interests, along the way?

Should all students be expected to move along an academic path at the same velocity or should each be guided down the path at their own best speed so that no child is forced to move forward until they are ready and no child is asked to wait, idly, while others strive to catch up?

Should the educational process be structured in such a way that kids are evaluated against the performance of their classmates or should it be structured to support our efforts to evaluate them against their own progress?

Should the educational process be structured in such a way that some kids must, inevitably, fail or should it be structured in such a way that kids are taught that success is a process that all can learn?

Professional educators can, no doubt, add to this list so that we can determine whether or not the existing educational process is acceptable within the context of our mission, vision, and values.

If we were to determine that the current educational process is unacceptable, our attention should immediately shift to questions about how can the process be re-engineered to produce the outcomes to which we have all agreed and committed? In other words, what do we intend to do about it?”

Educators must also understand that if we default to passively accept a reality that is less than we feel we want or deserve then we are also accepting responsibility for the status quo and we need to stop complaining. Ultimately, we have the power to either accept or alter the reality in which we live. In the case of altering the educational process, no matter how daunting the challenge may seem, it is simply a matter of choice. Not someone else’s choice! Our choice!