At first look it was a nice school, the kids wore uniforms, the hallways were orderly, kids work displayed on bulletin boards, the classrooms were inviting, the kids busily involved, something was disturbing me. The work seemed, I’m searching for words, too easy, and I asked the principal.
“We teach at the grade proficiency of the students, not their actual grade. Our children enter school way behind and we want to build self esteem, we don’t want to discourage our scholars.”
I asked her whether, in fact, the kids were making progress at a rate that would bring them up to grade level, she sighed, “It’s a challenge.”
Was a dedicated, caring Afro-American principal exhibiting, “the soft bigotry of low expectations?”
We know, and have known for decades that children from lower socio-economic groups enter schools with a staggering vocabulary gap.
In recent years there has been growing concern about the “vocabulary gap” widening between children from different socioeconomic groups. By age three, it is believed that children growing up in poor neighborhoods or from lower-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.
Anne Fernald is a psychology professor at Stanford University who has discovered that the language gap between rich and poor children emerges during infancy.
… five-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status (SES) score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school. In fact, a March 2013 study by Fernald and colleagues titled, “SES Differences in Language processing Skill and Vocabulary Are Evident at 18 Months,” reported that signs of the vocabulary gap are evident before a child is even two-years-old.
Unfortunately, inequities that present themselves in early life can create a ripple effect throughout a person’s life. According to researchers, most of the high school achievement gap between poor, middle-income and wealthy students is already visible by kindergarten and the children who have weak pre-literacy and numeracy skills in kindergarten are, on average, the same children with weak vocabulary and math skills in seventh grade.
Fernald goes on to explain that the income related gaps are due to parenting styles and home learning environments and makes a range of suggestions on how changing these behaviors would have positive outcomes.
Unsaid, but implied, is that ‘high poverty” parents are not “good parents,” and, by implication, that these parents should adopt middle class “parenting styles” and “home learning environments,” in other words, “become whiter.”
A New Republic essay, “Why Do Rich Kids Do Better Than Poor Kids in School? It’s Not the “Word Gap.” challenges the “word gap” message,
… the “word gap” sends a message to poor parents and parents of color that there is something wrong with their parenting if it is different from the practices of affluent, white parents.
It unfairly takes the onus off of schools and teachers to provide sophisticated learning opportunities in which their students can excel and places the blame for failure squarely on parents’ shoulders.
As a result, poor parents and parents of color are viewed as less capable because of what they do not know, just like their children.
Lisa Delpit, author of “Silenced Dialogues: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” suggests that the progressive education that is commonplace in schools across the nation puts poor, non-white children at a disadvantage, and calls for an education that recognizes cultural differences,
Deliberately unstructured teaching strategies like “whole language,” “open classrooms,” and “process, not product” were putting poor, non-white children at an even greater disadvantage in school and beyond, Delpit argued. Instead, she suggested teachers should explicitly “decode” white, middle-class culture for their low-income students, teaching them Standard English almost as if it were a foreign language, for example, and introducing math concepts through problems with cultural resonance for disadvantaged kids, such as calculating the probability that the police will stop-and-frisk a black male, as compared to a white male.
In the world of sociology, “oppositional culture” theory explores how “historically oppressed groups” develop an antagonism towards the dominant group and their values, a theory that is highly controversial.
The oppositional culture explanation for racial disparities in school performance posits that individuals from historically oppressed groups (involuntary minorities) signify their antagonism toward the dominant group by resisting school goals. In contrast, individuals from the dominant group and groups that migrated freely to the host country (immigrant minorities) maintain optimistic views of their chances for educational and occupational …
Gershenson and Papageorge in “The Power of Teacher Expectations: How Racial Bias Hinders Student Expectation” take a deep dive into the matching teacher expectations to student achievement, with a troubling conclusion,
Our analysis supports the conventional wisdom that teacher expectations matter. College completion rates are systematically higher for students whose teachers had higher expectations for them. More troublingly, we also find that white teachers, who comprise the vast majority of American educators, have far lower expectations for black students than they do for similarly situated white students. This evidence suggests that to raise student attainment, particularly among students of color, elevating teacher expectations, eliminating racial bias, and hiring a more diverse teaching force are worthy goals.
Intellectual and policy arguments in teacher rooms, in my view, are fruitless. When I ran meetings the only rule was “we can only discuss what the people at the meeting can change; we must fight for changes in the larger arena through our unions and political activism, we can impact policy. Elections matter!!!
At the policy level,
- Expand early childhood education: New York City has a Universal Pre-K for four-year olds and is phasing in 3 for All; the quality of classroom instruction must be closely monitored.
- Although controversial I advocate for twelve-month schooling from pre-K through the First Grade. All education requires a firm foundation and getting kids off to the best start possible is essential; rather than remediating through the Twelfth Grade, pumping the money in the earliest grades will garner results in the upper grades.
At the school level,
- Upgrading curriculum and classroom instruction is the core issue; “easier” curriculum, which is commonplace, is foolhardy; culturally relevant curriculum is tricky. The afro-centric schools of the 90s were not successful; however, agreeing upon a curriculum across schools and school districts and states is a heavy lift. Standards, Common Core State Standards or the revised New York State Standards are not a curriculum.
- Creating schools with rich, instruction-driven, participatory school cultures is essential. Too many school leaders simply do not have the skills to both lead and develop a distributive leadership culture.
School leaders and teachers must always reflect on their practice. We cannot “blame” students, or parents, or society, we can change our practice. To use a sports analogy, we practice, guided practice, and, we change or adjust our game plan. If the lesson doesn’t work blaming the students is not going to produce better results. High expectations alone will not result in better outcomes, we must couple high expectations with lessons and curriculum that impacts the lives of our students.