What If We Change the Way We Keep Score for Both Teachers and Students?

In this last segment of our series of articles in examination of the performance gap we will shift our focus to taking action.

A year or so ago, actor Michael J. Fox put out a poster that challenged educators. It said:

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

We do not like to think of our classrooms as hostile environments, as envisioned by legal scholar Randall Robinson (see Part 1 of this series). Teachers work hard to make their classrooms as welcoming and interesting as possible.

The hostility Robinson describes is a function of a competitive environment in which we expect children, who arrive with any number of disadvantages, to compete on equal terms with children who have been primed for academic competition. We start all students off from the same point of departure even though the level of readiness of the students can only be described as cavernous.

That this disparity has a significant impact on the ability of some students to keep pace with others is a fact that we all know, intuitively, but are programmed to ignore.

Recall “5 Things Well-Meaning White Educators Should Consider If They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap,” by Jamie Utt, published at his website at www.changefromwithin.org (see part 1).

The fifth thing Utt suggested that must be done, which we have modified, is:

“Envision and Create Schools Where People of Color are Centered (And Whiteness Is Not) and Where All Children Are Centered for Who They Are As Unique Individuals, Irrespective of Color, Language of Birth, Religious Tradition, Relative Affluence, or Sexual Orientation.”

This is far and away the most vital of the “5 Things” because this is one that is well within our power to control whether we are a school superintendent, school principal, or even a single teacher in a classroom.

One of the easiest ways this can be accomplished is by changing our expectations of teachers and the things for which they are held accountable. Rather than evaluate teachers on the percentage of children who achieve passing scores on annual standardized competency examinations, what if we were to evaluate them on the percentage of students who score 85 percent or better on short mastery quizzes following individual lesson plans?

The goal is that 100 percent of each teacher’s students achieve 85% or better on mastery quizzes following every individual lesson plan they are given. It does not matter whether every student earned 85% or better the first time they took a quiz or even the second or third. What matters is that they achieved mastery, that the student’s accomplishment is celebrated and rewarded, and that the teachers’ efforts are formally acknowledged.

Neither does it matter if some students, within a given grading period or semester, achieved mastery on two, five, ten or more lesson plans. What matters is that a student is not permitted to move on to a new lesson within a given area of subject matter until they have mastered the preceding lesson. Each lesson mastered is a success and each success is tallied and valued equally with every other success.

The single most powerful driver of the number of lessons a student is able to master is the level of confidence they have gained through repeated success, absent even the hint of failure.

Even within the current educational process, where we move everyone along the same path and test them on the same material each year, we have learned that by the time they finish the 12th grade they will all be at different levels of accomplishment. Some are off to college, some leave school illiterate or barely literate and are destined to a life of poverty or crime—probably both—and also a life of virtual disenfranchisement, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Whatever their destination, what distinguishes graduates from one another is the strength of the foundation upon which their charted destinations are constructed.

What is better? Is it a student who was given 1000 lessons but failed 80 percent of them and is proficient in only 10 percent? Or, is it that they are proficient in each of the lessons they were given whether 100, 200, 500 or a thousand?

Even though we want to downplay the value of standardized testing as much as possible, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) definitions bring the matter into brilliant focus. The NAEP defines “proficient level of academic performance” as:

“. . . solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The crucial variable is that kids must be able to apply “such knowledge to real world situations. . . .” Ultimately their ability to utilize what they have learned is the only thing that matters. If they cannot use it effectively, they haven’t really learned it.

It is when students are unable to apply the knowledge and skills we strove to teach during 12 years of school that they are doomed to a life separate and apart from mainstream America. We like to blame poverty for this separation but poverty is the inescapable outcome that burdens adults who were unsuccessful in acquiring the skills necessary for life as a productive American citizen.

The fact that most of these kids and the adults they ultimately become are poor, black, or other minorities is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are folks for whom English is a second language or are illegal immigrants. The educational process is poorly designed to meet the needs of this fastest-growing population of American children.

The glaring and tragic truth is that these young people are set up to fail. It is bad enough that they are victims of a flawed educational process. Worse is the fact that the teachers into the hands of which these kids are entrusted are inadequately prepared, under-resourced, poorly supervised, and are held accountable for outcomes that are counter to the best interests of their students.

This is a reality that must be altered before it is too late. It is already too late for millions of Americans who were the victims of a dysfunctional system and every day we delay, more kids are lost.

All that we need to in order to change this reality for all time is to step back and evaluate the American educational process as an integral whole, re-examine our purpose and assumptions, and make a few structural changes in what we do on a daily basis the most important of which is nothing more than changing the way a game is scored.

As soon as we change the way we score success, players and coaches (teachers and principals) will begin developing strategies and structural designs to support the new objectives. There is nothing magical or mystical about this process. It is simply the way systems function within the context of organizations.

What stands in our way of bringing about such transformational change to education in America, whether public or private? Other than our intransigence, not one damn thing!

The reader is invited to read my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, where I offer a blueprint for bringing about the systemic changes we have discussed. The reader is also invited to check out the rest of this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream for a full discussion of how we can overcome the challenges of public education in America. I am not suggesting that the reader will find all of the right answers in my book and blog but they will find many of the right questions.

Both the blog and book can be found on my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com.

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.