Holey Smokes!

Our pre-k to college pipeline is pretty leaky, with barely more than half of America’s children of color not making it out with a high school degree (pdf) and then college completion rates like this.  And despite the grim data, the public is not well aware of this catastrophe that unfolds under our noses.   That’s not surprising because it turns out that many educators are not either, which is why this new Civic Enterprises report on the problem, the views of educators, and policy/practice solutions (pdf) that was released today is so important.

9 Replies to “Holey Smokes!”

  1. I would never minimize the challenge of helping children of color make their way to college. But I wouldn’t demonize it either; it’s not a dragon to be slain or some Herculean labor. But this is just what we’ve done – thanks in part to our new zeal for educational statistics. Now, most people think the whole thing is just another ultra-liberal boondoggle when, in fact, we are closer to solving this problem every day.

    While it is true that “the numbers” are staggering. They are also misleading. If you take a look at raw scores on many state tests, you’ll find that many kids (colored and white) miss the mark by the equivalent of a question or two. And that this shortfall is well within the tests’ margin of error. Furthermore, when you factor in the teaching these kids get, it’s easy to see how the situation could be improved dramatically.

    Recently, my company spent three years working mostly with Spanish-speaking kids in a major city school system. We found three very interesting things the belie the current statistics:

    1. CHILDREN OF COLOR WORK AS HARD AS YOU ASK THEM TO. These kids started out reading approximately zero books a year, and writing zero essays a year. When we finished, they were reading 20-30 books a year and writing 20-30 essays. And sure enough, with each month of heavy work that went by, they got a little better. The only problem we had was that the district’s requirements for these kids were so low that we were freaking out the traditional teachers who began complaining to administrators that we were setting the bar “too high” and thereby violating some kind of district curricular policy. Once again, the dual demons of low expectations and institutionalized racism were our – and the kids’ – undoing.

    2. CHILDREN OF COLOR LEARN WHAT YOU TEACH THEM. After seeing how hard they could work, we started throwing harder and harder material at them. And while some of it was clearly challenging to them, they started, slowly but surely, to learn it. And they got quite a buzz out of it, too. Many told us this was the first time they ever liked school. This was, in large part, due to our use of the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop model which gave kids a lot of choices and a lot of responsibility for getting their work done. We also used a self-assessment system which helped the kids (probably for the first time) get a true understanding of what they could do and what they had yet to learn.

    3. ADMINISTRATORS ARE THE BIGGEST IMPEDIMENT TO CHANGE. Despite all the cheery press releases about how hard everyone is working at central office, we found that what they were working hardest at was maintaining the status quo. At one meeting, I suggested a tool we had used to bring groups of teachers along together in the use of new sets of teaching practices. In response to this, the administrator said, “Don’t you think that will change the culture of the district?” (Said culture involved not asking teachers to do much of anything.) To which I replied, “I certainly hope it does, don’t you?” Needless to say it was off the table despite the fact that it was already in use successfully at one district school. Proof of success in their own district, even when supported by quantitative and qualitative data, is not enough for most administrators to endorse a new idea. Time and again, district administrators and school principals threw up phony arguments and red herring rules (rules we had already studied and knew we were not breaking) to keep up us from being more successful. The main reason: too many complaints from traditional teachers who felt threatened by a 100% voluntary program they never needed to have anything to do with.

    The simple truth of getting kids to college is this: just dig in and do the work. And we have found that student skin color has nothing at all to do with this. High expectations, rigorous curriculum, cutting edge teaching techniques, and a hard-nosed attitude get the job done just fine.

    If we want to look for the “real” problem in why so many children of color do so poorly in school, let’s start looking at the “real” problem people: district administrators and building principals who abdicate their leadership in the face of even the slightest (or silliest) pushback.

  2. Steve, I agree with your concluding statement:

    “If we want to look for the “real” problem in why so many children of color do so poorly in school, let’s start looking at the “real” problem people: district administrators and building principals who abdicate their leadership in the face of even the slightest (or silliest) pushback.”

    I do wonder though if you are overlooking the role of unions which can be load and ugly when they have a change in front of them. You stated you had success within the same district but that alone doesn’t make me sure it would be worth the fight at the other school. Did you have discussions with the unions in this district? If the unions were supporting making teachers work harder I would love to know who their union representation is. It is to easy to see an administrator as scared to change when in reality they are avoiding an ugly public fight.

  3. Steve,

    What is the principal change that made a difference in the school you describe above? Can you describe the factor(s) that you think DID make a difference, despite the difficulties with the administration?

  4. DOUG: Thanks for your comment. RE: Unions. I think Unions are a red herring in the reform equation. First of all, they are not very strong anymore and represent more bark than bite. Second, in my case, I’m working “below” the union level. That is to say that I’ve never had a union issue come up in 15 years of work and union rules never prohibit what I do because it’s always a voluntary effort on the part of the teachers. To address your issue more directly: Unions can’t support teachers working harder or any differently because that’s not the function of a union. Unions exist for two reasons and three reasons only: to secure employment, pay, and working conditions for their members. That is what unions MUST do in order to be unions. And they must not deviate from their charge. We can make reform work with our without unions. They are, at this point in time, irrelevant to the real work of educational change in America.

  5. ANDREW: Good question. The only real requirement we have is “a willingness to change”. And we can have a significant impact even if that willingness is modest.

    After that, we can take care of the rest. Now, this plays out a bit differently at each school, of course. In this particular case, we were fortunate to have the following in our favor:

    1. A series of three principals who understood what we were doing (rare) and supported it (even rarer).

    2. A series of department chairs (this was a high school) who were talented teachers and strong practitioners of our method. (Most HS chairs are ultra-traditionalists and won’t have anything to do with us.)

    3. Additional staff members we “recruited” from other schools. These people were excited about the method but did not find support in their original school and so were eager to move. Essentially, you might think of this as simply “community building”. We hung out a shingle and said, “Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop Taught Here!” and people signed up who were interested in that kind of teaching.

    4. An actual sense of caring (measured by actual acts of caring; not just lip service) on the part of teachers and administrators with regard to the academic welfare of the students. This is very rare at high school in my experience. One example: everyone pulled together to create a system whereby kids who fell behind on their work could receive additional time during non-instructional periods to catch up. Worked like a charm. We also used a grading system that is based heavily on student self-assessment so kids could really see where they stood and have clear goals for how to improve.

    5. A willingness to actually use the strategies we modeled for teachers in their classrooms. (Many of our clients simply pay us money to model success with their kids but do not decide to implement successful strategies themselves for some reason).

    The conditions that lead to success are never the same anywhere we go. Only the conditions for failure are: poor administrators, traditional teachers, and district or school policies which inhibit teachers and/or hurt children. This is the 1-2-3 prescription for failure at 95% of the schools in our country. And even this is relatively easy to fix if those in power will show even a modest “willingness to change”.

  6. I sure don’t want my principal catching me when I’m defending principals, but I recoil from the idea that one group of educators is more to blame. I’d prefer to say that the systems make administrators more resistant to constructive change. They have to change non-stop, like the waves atop an unchanging ocean, to borrow from Elmore. Especially since NCLB, sanctions have been dumped disproportionately on administrators. So, when people don’t have enough control over their environments have unreasonable tasks placed on them, of course the culture of compliance worsens.

    That being said, the system is full of so many mixed messages. Teachers are supposed to have high standards, but also just pass everyone on. Remediation and credit recovery tutorials are useful, but the often degenerate into expensive ways of padding the numbers, and teens (at least) figure that out.

    I wish we had focused on the area where educators have relatively more power, the creation of a learning culture. Secondly, we should have concentrated more on avoiding mistakes, repairing mistakes, and less on accountability that has inherent downsides. For instance the No Excuses, Raise Expectations, and Whatever It Takes mentality has a lot of virtues. But it encourages “one man teams.”

    This contributed to the mega-mistake on not emphasizing “self-assessments.” We can debate a lot of data-driven issues, but if you don’t have self-assessment, can you have a learning culture. If we don’t teach kids to self-assess, what do we have? The same applies to teachers.

    I’m trying to wrap my brain about Gwande’s last New Yorker article on disparate costs of health care in different cities. Towns with an entrepreneurial culture among doctors have higher costs. Towns where doctors have a collaborative culture, as those from Mayo, have much lower costs and equal health outcomes. That’s the quick and dirty summary. Sadly, society is moving toward the entrepreneurial effort to maximize profits, according to Gwande.

    And the administrators in the high cost towns really didn’t know that they were running up charges of up to three time per person for health care.

    I wonder if the conclusion that students will work as hard as we demand is equally valid in secondary schools. The only way that pattern holds is if you redefine “work.” The work of teenagers is growing up, so often the work of teens is insubordination. Regardless, teens will work better for real learning, to meet real standards, as opposed to complying with CYA.

    But getting back to unforced errors, some teens will do what it takes to excel at 7:20 am, when they work till 1 am. But most won’t. So, let’s go around the problem by scheduling school in a way that’s consistent with teens’ biological clocks.

    I just cite this as one example of why we need to get out of the blame game cycle.

    I would also add that the work of getting children of color into college is very time-intensive and adult-intensive. In my experience, it almost always takes a mentor. In my school we always invested hundreds of hours in encouraging, assisting, and hand-holding with kids becoming the first in the family to go to college. Now, counselors barely have a minute to invest in that task. I used to help write dozens of application letters. Now I barely help with one a year. We’re still working our tails off, but our roles have changed. Now its test prep not life prep.

    And the administrators don’t like it any better than anyone else.

  7. Stop blaming everyone because children don’t graduate from high school. Let these sco called students look at the mirror and they shall easily find the answer.
    Discipline has just about collapsed in far too many schools. Beginning in elementary schools and rapidly worsening in middle schools, students may do as they please without suffering any consequences for their outrageous actions.
    By the time they reach high school, they have that “freedom” of going from class to class. They eventually stop going. Period. Their school then consists of hanging out in the hallways, in front of the building, a block away from the school, or outside the neighborhood itself. Unfortunately, it becomes a pleasure when these students stop coming. From their elementary days, they have acquired the belief that no one learns while they’re around. They cause total disruption when around.
    We need work-study programs for older youth. I have to laugh when I hear about a longer day and longer school year being posed as a solution. These students are bouncing off the walls right now. Let those who criticize our education system get themselves a teaching license and begin teaching in one of our many Surr schools.
    We hear nothing about lowering class size or bringing back the 600 school concept for disruptive children. Why? What are we afraid of? If you don’t behave in school. regardless of religion or race, you have to be removed so that others who want to learn will do so in a safe, orderly environment.

  8. Ooh oops i just wrote a huge comment and when i hit post it came up blank! Please tell me it worked properly? I do not want to sumit it again if i do not have to! Either the blog glitced out or i am just stuipd, the second option doesnt surprise me lol.

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