Tuesday, June 07, 2011

achievement gap: america hates poor kids.

lady liberty hates the achievement gap.
Some kids are doing well, and some are failing miserably; experts like to call this curve an achievement gap.  This achievement gap is so serious that folks are calling it the civil rights issue of our generation. The civil rights issue of our generation is the same civil rights issue of previous generations: creating access for all citizens and closing gaps in the application of civil rights where they might exist.
Many of the kids caught in the achievement gap are low income children. Most poor kids are white, most black kids are poor, and most poor kids are doing poorly in school. Teachers really aren’t the problem.
The failure of low income children in our public schools is not simply a case of our public schools failing low income children, so "reforms" aimed at teachers and teacher accountability are a waste of time. The concept of school reform needs to be applied more broadly to the neighborhoods, communities, and overall quality of life experienced by children who are not performing well in our public schools-- since the kids doing poorly in school are poor, let's consider addressing the issue of poverty.
Part of what makes having an honest, productive and critical discussion about this topic so difficult is its “otherized” undertones. Folks feel better having discussions about teachers, testing, and merit pay because they are often afraid to put a bigoted foot in their mouth. But we should all just be prepared to make lots of awkward mistakes , and move on if we are going to solve the issue of the “achievement gap.” You want to close it, right? If you continue to do the same thing and expect different results then, in the parlance of my students, you crazy.

The achievement gap is polite but insincere language with some lovely nuances. Experts in education use it to describe the gap in achievement among students; some test well, others do not. Some graduate, some do not. Some go to college, some do not. But let’s keep going with this line of reasoning, shall we? Some earn salaries that correspond to said college education, some do not. Some achieve a relative amount of security or success before starting families, some do not. Some will have access to preventative health care, some will not. Some will experience a high quality of life, some will not; this is the achievement gap. Folks want to apply this term to a narrow discussion about standardized testing and teacher accountability, but the achievement gap is about civil rights. 

Our nation’s schools are performing with about 80% success, or a B average; not excellent, but above average. There are pockets of failure in some pretty predictable locations, as well as pockets of high achievement and academic success in other predictable locations. So in the spirit of reform in a civil society, let’s start with the student and not the school—because the schools are, by and large, doing okay.

A teacher can make a huge impact in a child’s life, it’s true, but a teacher is generally not going to change the course of all her students’ lives. And this is what you are asking teachers in underperforming schools to do. Did I deliver a standards based education to my students at least 80% of the time? Yes. Did I make a difference in the lives of 80% of my students? Probably not-- but I made a difference in the lives of some of my students. I know I made a difference to Lilly, Jamellah, Michael, Rebecca, Jeff, and Justin.

I knew a boy. I was His art teacher. I knew Him when He was in 9th and 10th grades. He was a beautiful American: African, Native American, Spanish, Filipino, and Japanese. He had a smile that would light up a room. He was smart and a model student citizen. When I said good morning to Him, I could count on a good morning in response, each day. He was consistently good natured. He was well liked by His classmates—the smart ones, the troubled ones, the cool ones, the quiet ones. He was an athlete, an enthusiastic and speedy forward on the basketball team. He liked smart girls. As a ninth grader, He had crushes on the two smartest freshman girls, both of whom are now, by the grace of all that is good, college sophomores.

But He is dead. He died. He was shot. He was in the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time. He was Poor in America. He was visiting His sister. There was a shooting. And I want to know: How am I accountable for this achievement gap? How did the teachers at His high school get Him shot? It is not about bell schedules, standardized testing, or merit pay. It is not about unions.

Closing the achievement gap is going to involve investment in basic infrastructure issues in the neighborhoods and communities of poor kids. The overall quality of life of poor kids is connected to transit, job growth, community health, access to fresh food and open space. Closing the achievement gap is going to involve feel good fuzzy infrastructure too, stuff like healthy relationships with family, friends, and community.  Let’s discuss how some kids don’t have access to this kind of infrastructure. There are some critical and tricky issues related to race, gender, and equity that need to be put on the table in the very harsh light of day because the proof is in the policy. And right now, our policy is resulting in an “achievement gap.”

The children who seem to be getting left behind despite our best efforts to race to the top are poor kids. Let’s talk about poverty and race and nation accountability rather than teachers and testing and teacher accountability since most poor kids are white and most black kids are poor. Historically in the United States, black kids have been a consistent source of under-performance for a variety of reasons. In fact, there is a specific debt owed to black Americans and investing in black kids is a good place to start. It’s pretty simple.

When you make an investment in the children who suffer from the highest rate of infant mortality and the highest rates of miseducation—historically, and not just lately-- then you make a serious investment in the collective wellness of your nation’s youth. That’s just good business.  A radical achievement of civil rights for all citizens, starting with the youngest and poorest among us—that’s just good manners.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to need to read this a few times, but what's standing out to me is obviously accountability. I've heard so much about bad teachers and what needs to be done about them. I see way more bad parents and bad officials in the world than I do bad teachers. Let me read this again, but you are going somewhere good and profound with this and I like it!