Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some words on the achievement gap

At our last two workshop meetings the Board of Education has been listening to staff members present on the work that they have been doing to address what has sometimes been called the achievement gap. I have mixed emotions about blogging on this point, because we have a lot of difficulty here in St. Cloud talking about anything that has a touch of race or class in it. For some reason, it polarizes us and otherwise civil intelligent people seem to lose perspective and at times civility. But, you know, I think we need to work harder on maintaining a civil dialog in American and certainly in Central Minnesota, on topics touching on race, ethnicity, and poverty. So I'm going to give it a try.

One of the reasons that I have mixed emotions about raising this topic is that there is nothing racial, nothing ethnic, nothing about poverty that has anything to do with learning success. Statistics are just that. Statistics. They tell us something about the distribution of people who have barriers to overcome, but they don't tell us a thing about the path to overcoming those barriers.

The road to learning success is the same road for everyone. It begins with mastering the English language, and understanding how words and sounds are put together. It requires hard work; it takes persistence; and above all, it requires the kindling of a fire within that says learning will lead me along a road to success. So every time we connect achievement to race, or ethnicity, or poverty, we run the risk of missing a fundamental point about education. If the spark that is learning burns within, it doesn't matter your race, religion or creed, nobody can stop you from succeeding. More than anything else, the key to the achievement gap, whatever it is, begins the discovery by a young person that if you learn, you can become whoever you want to be, if you just work hard enough. This personal covenant to succeed no matter what, is at the root of everything else.

There are all sorts of strategies that are known to have an impact in the classroom. In our school district we are using many of these "best practices," but today I'm not writing about them. Those are the domain of professional educators. The main point that I want to make is that when people say that race, poverty or racism is the key to unlocking educational potential, they are headed down the wrong path.

Listen. The slave Frederic Douglas, overcome brutality and slavery, and learned to read and write in secret:

When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet. She was breaking the law against teaching slaves to read. When Hugh Auld discovered this, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. .......As detailed in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood and by observing the writings of men with whom he worked.

No amount of deprivation; no amount of brutality, can prevent someone who lights the spark of learning within from using education.

Everyone has a different view of what the achievement gap is. For me, the achievement gap has very little do with race, because race has nothing to do with learning. It begins with a focus on the barriers to educational performance of what I call "first generation" children. These are children whose parents and grandparents didn't graduate high school ready for college. These are the children who, in their family, are going to be, or could be, the first in their family to graduate to post high school education. For some children, whose parents cannot provide even the basic skills necessary to learn in the early grades, the disadvantage can be overwhelming. But the disadvantage is not racial; the disadvantage works the same way, whatever your race. When a family can deliver the keys to educational readiness in the early years, then the children come to school with a monumental advantage.

If I have left the impression that only families whose parents have a college education can provide these learning skills, of course that is completely incorrect. The issue is not the parents final grade in school. Its whether the family is inculcating the learning idea and the learning ethic. Children who receive the gift of the learning idea have a huge advantage. Children who do not, have a barrier to overcome, and the key to overcoming the gap is figuring out how to overcome that gap.

Children who are read to; children whose parents keep books around the house; children whose parents engage in vocabulary building in the first five years of life; children whose family passes along the fundamental keys to success, these children do well, and they do well no matter what their race, ethnicity, religion or economic status. All these people who create bar charts and report statistics comparing free and reduced lunch or racial factors to educational success are leading us down the wrong path, because they are implying that there is some logical connection between economics, race, or ethnicity and learning, and there simply is none. Black and white children who are provided the keys to learning succeed. Black and white children who are not provided the appropriate advantages, can also learn, just like Frederic Douglass, but they must overcome greater odds.

So the achievement gap is about recognizing that kids don't arrive in school with the same advantages and figuring out how to light that internal fire within that says, I can do it; I can overcome the odds. They need to realise: I'm not stupid. I'm just behind. There is a stairway to success open to me. I can do it.

Now, our future as a community depends upon our ability to increase the number of students who graduate ready for post high school education. It includes children of all races. It includes recent immigrants, and not so recent immigrants. Frankly, instead of thinking of it as a racial, or ethnic, or immigrant issue, I like to think of it as making sure that our most precious asset--children of whatever background--reach their fullest potential.

In an earlier post, I quoted from the 2009 Minnesota State Budget Trends Study Commission. The Commission, authorized by the legislature, was comprised of fifteen members including five members appointed by the governor; five by the senate and five by the house. The Commission Report discusses the threat to Minnesota's future posed by a major, long range demographic shift which has grave economic consequences for the state:

Today, as the first of Minnesota’s 1.4 million baby-boomers begin to reach retirement age, the state has reached an inflection point - a moment of profound change that produces an immediate shift from recent trend. This milestone requires a complete reassessment of the way the state’s economy is perceived. No longer can Minnesota sit by and watch as the crest of this giant aging wave grows larger. As Minnesota’s population begins to transform, new, long ranging factors will begin to weigh more and more heavily on the state’s tax base, spending needs, and overall economic progress. The wave is beginning to break and policymakers have not adequately prepared for the overwhelming implications this will have on state government finances.

The report continues:

A rising dependency ratio will have profound implications on virtually all aspects of state and local government. For instance, a larger dependent population will put upward pressure on government expenditures. Dependent populations rely more heavily on health care, education, economic assistance,and social service programs. .....Current trends signify that by 2020 the number of seniors in the state of Minnesota will exceed the number of school age children for the first time. ......

It is becoming more and more critical that we find ways to successfully educate a larger portion of our children, because the productivity of these children is critical to solving this rising dependency ratio. The strength of our country, the prosperity of Minnesota and the nation, depends upon solving this problem. We can argue all we want about this issue: we can use it as an excuse to get angry, we can play Fox versus MSNBC, but it won't change the fact that we have to figure out a solution to the challenge that we face, or pay a heavy price. We are going to need everyone to contribute and everyone to count. Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalis, African Americans, Indians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and all the rest.

With that said, what do we need to do in public education, and what do we need to do in our community, to make that happen? And what are we doing? For the children who come to us with limited English proficiency, we need to get them speaking English as soon as possible. Forget about where they come from. Stop worrying about the things that don't count. Speaking and writing English is, of course the key to unlocking the door to education, and it is more. It is an important bond that brings us together as a people. Every immigrant parent, whether Somali, Hispanic, Asian, African, or of European descent wants this for their children. When I talk to Somali parents, it is absolutely at the top of their priority list. We want our children to learn English as soon as possible. Over the last several years, we've been working extremely hard as a district to respond to this important objective. The truth of the matter is that Americans have not been very good at learning and teaching foreign languages, and we've settled across the country for the idea that learning the English language takes way longer than it should.

But as I have said, in our school district, a lot of work has been done to examine what we are doing in the area of English language instruction, with a goal to getting non English speaking students to fluency faster. This should be a goal that brings us together as a community. I don't care what your political persuasion, or who you like or don't like, whether you are a flaming liberal or a wild eyed devoted conservative, this is a goal we can agree on. We're going to be a better community if we do everything that we can possibly do to make sure that immigrants to our community learn English as soon as possible.

In St. Cloud, there are too many people focused on race, and too few focused on unlocking the keys to learning. We have too many people, on the left and right, who want to identify race and poverty as the problem, or who want to claim that unless we overcome racial barriers, we cannot close the achievement gap. It is education that is the weapon against poverty; it is education that is the sword and shield against racism and bigotry. We don't get rid of racism so that our children can be educated; we educate, and by educating we defeat and destroy racism.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have more to say about race, poverty and education. I'm hoping that if it engenders some dialog, that the folks who comment will comment with a good will. I don't mean that you should necessarily agree with me. But let's have the dialog with discretion and sensitivity, and even a sense that we all have something to learn from each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments welcome