Saturday, January 05, 2013

Making the Education Gap Disappear

I read an article in the local paper about how our state is coming to the realization that it is pivotal for our students to be reading proficiently by the third grade.

"The K-3 period is absolutely critical,"

The article goes on to talk about how the legislature and various experts are going to have schools test, track, and push low students more and more.

Another example of closing the door once the horse has left the barn.

I taught inner-city school for 8 years.  The majority of my students were grade-levels behind their suburban counter-parts.  According to a lot of the rhetoric, and the occasional movie documentary, this situation exists due to the schools.


Last year, I taught 4th grade in an inner city school.  At the same time, my son was a 4th grader at our local suburban school.  My son could out score every student in my class.  In fact, his scores in most cases were more than double.  He could read a chapter once at the beginning of the week, take a test at the end of the week, and pretty well ace it.  My students could read that same chapter every day of the week, have the book available to them during the test, and three-quarters of them would still fail it.


Did my Jake have magic K-3 teachers ?  Were the K-3 teachers at my school that lazy or incompetent?


I knew Jake's teachers.  I knew the teachers at my building.  Do you want to know what the difference was between them?

Not a damn thing....

They were all enthusiastic, run-o-the-mill, cut from the same cloth, early elementary school teachers. You could have done a complete swap of the K-3 teachers at Jake's school and the K-3 teachers from my school... and you would have seen no end-result difference in Jake or my students.

So what was the difference, if not the school?  My Jake lived in a completely different world that that of my 4th grade students.  Unlike many of them, he was reading before he entered school for the first time.  In his environment, prior to kindergarten, he was surrounded by people and activities that expanded his knowledge base, deepened his vocabulary, and set in place many of the disciplines he would need to make his schooling productive.

He started that race 100 miles ahead and hit the ground running.

Those kinds of realities were never mentioned in the above article.

Nor did the article state that those realities don't change once the children enter school. The circumstances that created the gap are still present.

So, once the children entered kindergarten, that gap was going to grow.

Since my son had a broader foundation, a deeper vocabulary, and countless hours more academic practice, every lesson given to him in a classroom made more sense to him, had more life connections, and stayed with him much more easily. He was filing away reams of knowledge - while my students, most being years behind academically, were still trying to get through the first sentence on the page.

Presently, our education system is trying to come up with a way to get those inner-city students to score like my son. This may sound defeatist, but they won't - not with the approaches listed in the article.

They will occasionally point to the successful outliers and say, "See, see! It can be done." But there is a reason we call outliers outliers in mathematics. You can't direct policy or measure outcomes based on outliers.

I don't know what the solution is, but after teaching in the inner-city schools for 8 years I can tell you one thing:  Putting inner-city teachers and students on a hamster wheel, throwing rocks at them, and yelling "Faster! Faster!" will not work.


dritta said...


~ Ms. P.
Special ed. in a title 1 school

Paul Sunstone said...

What do you think of "No Child Left Behind"? Was it the disaster for education that people say it was? If so, were their any redeeming aspects of it?

Catwoolf said...

@ Paul....I've been teaching for 21 years, mostly inner city. NCLB was almost completely a disaster.

It was trying to fix the problem of low performing schools by setting unrealistic goals, and penalizing teachers when they weren't reached. Teachers have no control over the circumstances that cause a student's at-risk-ness: low income, single parent, ethnic minority, 2nd language, and high mobility. The punitive approach to NCLB splintered faculties...caused teachers to point fingers at each other, to close their doors and try to outperform their neighbor. It created a joyless, toxic, environment.

If there was one redeeming quality, it's that it created more dialog about assessing students to measure growth and how to do it fairly...but it was a bloody journey along the way. I just can't believe anyone of sound mind would try to breathe life back into such destructive policy.

Catwoolf said...

Wait! There's more! If teachers' effectiveness was going to be measured by how well his/her students did on the tests, then the teacher needed to find out what was going to be on the test and expose his/her students to that content over and over and over again. So, ya, we taught to the test. We stopped thinking about what was in the best interest of the child and started focusing on what would help the child do better on the test. Doing well on the test was better for the teacher than it was for the child.

Social Studies, for example, wasn't tested. So guess what? Social Studies wasn't taught as much. The rights and duties of citizenship, history, democracy...not so much of that in the classroom any more.

And then there was that kid, that poor kid, who by no fault of his own had been through the ringer...parents lost their jobs, prison maybe, homelessness, some force beyond his control that caused him to darken your doorstep that morning (often involves leaving friends and losing the family pet)...rather than welcoming him to a warm and safe place, offering assurance that even though things may be a little crazy at home, he's come to the place where he can feel secure and settle in to a rich and safe learning environment where he can grow in the ways he needs to, make friends, and even get food if they don't have any at home...rather than all that, the teacher sizes him up and secretly prays, "Please God! Let him know how to read...and if he doesn't know how to read, please God, find him some housing in the boundaries of a different school!"

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