Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents (?)

There is a nugget of truth in the observations below. Parental pressure can raise educational achievement. But it is no substitute for IQ. My son had zero pressure on him during his schooling and I was an "absent father" throughout. His mother and I split up in the same year that he began school. But he was always a couple of years ahead of his class in reading age and now has a first class honours degree in Mathematics from a distinguished university and is well set for an academic career. How come? I am a high-achieving academic and he has academic genes. He didn't need pushing. He mainly just coasted but the work was easy for him so he still did well.

I myself grew up in a working class family, which, like most such families, had no expectations of high achievements among its children and I was in fact discouraged from continuing my education beyond junior school. But my parents were both great readers of books and both had siblings who did exceptionally well at school. So I obviously got good genes from them which enabled me also to cruise and still do well academically.

The explanation for low black achievement given below does have one virtue: Absent black fathers are not going to change any time soon so if it is absent fathers that are the problem, we have to conclude that the "gap" problem is insoluble. And it is insoluble, though not for that reason

"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?" In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."

Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.

I was stunned. These were good kids; I had grown attached to them over the school year. It hit me that these students, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, understood what I knew too well: The lack of a father in their lives had undermined their education. The young man who spoke up knew that with a father in his house he probably wouldn't be ending 12 years of school in the bottom 10 percent of his class with a D average. His classmate, normally a sweet young woman with a great sense of humor, must have long harbored resentment at her father's absence to speak out as she did. Both had hit upon an essential difference between the kids who make it in school and those who don't: parents.

My students knew intuitively that the reason they were lagging academically had nothing to do with race, which is the too-handy explanation for the achievement gap in Alexandria. And it wasn't because the school system had failed them. They knew that excuses about a lack of resources and access just didn't wash at the new, state-of-the-art, $100 million T.C. Williams, where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses. Rather, it was because their parents just weren't there for them -- at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.

In an example of how bad the fixation on race here has become, last year Morton Sherman, the new superintendent, ordered principals throughout the city to post huge charts in their hallways so everyone -- including 10-year-old kids -- could see differences in test scores between white, black and Hispanic students. One mother told me that a black fifth-grader at Cora Kelly Magnet School said that "whoever sees that sign will think I am stupid." A fourth-grade African American girl there looked at the sign and said to a friend: "That's not me." When black and white parents protested that impressionable young children don't need such information, administrators accused them of not facing up to the problem. Only when the local NAACP complained did Sherman have the charts removed.

Achievement gaps don't break down neatly along racial lines. Take Yasir Hussein, a student of mine last year whose parents emigrated from Sudan in the early 1990s, and who entered the engineering program at Virginia Tech this fall. "My parents were big on our family living the American dream," he said. "One quarter when I got a 3.5 grade-point average, the guys I hung around with were congratulating me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They took my PlayStation and TV out of my bedroom and told me I could do better."

Yasir said it wasn't just fear that made him study: "Knowing how hard my parents worked simply to give me the opportunity to get an education in America, it was hard for me not to care about getting good grades."

But Yasir's experience isn't what community activists and school administrators at T.C. Williams or around the country focus on. They cast the difference between kids who are succeeding in school and those who are not in terms of race and seem obsessed with what they call "the gap" between the test scores of white and black students.

This year, community groups in St. Louis and Portland, Ore., issued reports decrying the gap. After a recent state report on test scores in California schools, Jack O'Connell, the state's superintendent of instruction, said the gap is "the biggest civil rights issue of this generation" -- a very popular phrase in education circles.

But focusing on a "racial achievement gap" is too simple; it's a gap in familial support and involvement, too. Administrators focused solely on race are stigmatizing black students. At the same time, they are encouraging the easy excuse that the kids who are not excelling are victims, as well as the idea that once schools stop being racist and raise expectations, these low achievers will suddenly blossom.

Last year, two of the finest and most dedicated teachers at my school -- one in science and one in math -- tried to move students who were failing their classes into more appropriate prerequisite courses, because the kids had none of the background knowledge essential to mastering more advanced material. Both teachers were told by a T.C. Williams administrator that the problem was not with the students but with their own low expectations.

"The real problem," says Glenn Hopkins, president of Alexandria's Hopkins House, which provides preschool and other services to low-income families, "is that school superintendents don't realize -- or won't admit -- that the education gap is symptomatic of a social gap."

Hopkins notes that student achievement is deeply affected by issues of family, income and class, things superintendents have little control over. "Even with best teachers in the world, they don't have the power to solve the problem," he says. "They naively assume that if they throw in a little tutoring and mentoring and come up with some program they can claim as their own, the gap will close."

Perhaps nothing shows how out of touch administrators are with the depth of poor students' problems more than the way they chose to start this school year. The Alexandria School Board had added two more paid work days to the calendar, a move that cost more than $1 million in teachers' salaries. So the administration decided to put on a three-day conference they dubbed "Equity and Excellence." We were promised "world-class speakers." If only that had been true. As part of the festivities, Sherman formed a choir of teachers and administrators that gave us renditions of "Imagine" and "This Land Is Your Land." Sherman closed the conference by telling us that if we didn't believe that "each and every" child in Alexandria could learn, he would give us a ticket to Fairfax County.

Now, six weeks into the academic year, some 30 fights -- two gang-related -- have taken place at T.C. Williams. I wish those three days had been spent bringing students to school to lay out clear rules and consequences, and for sessions on conflict resolution and anger management.

Last week, Sherman announced that a second installment of "Equity and Excellence" featuring a "courageous conversation" with Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, will take place at T.C. Williams tomorrow. I am eager to find ways to help my students succeed, but I am afraid that Ferguson -- whose book includes a chapter titled "Teachers' Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap" -- may underestimate what it will take to meet the challenges that we face.

There is one moment of those frivolous first days of the year that I do keep returning to: One of the speakers, Yvette Jackson, the chief executive of the National Urban Alliance, made it clear that the lip service and labels Alexandria is putting forward are not going to help children who are what she calls "school-dependent learners." These are students from low-income backgrounds who need school to give them the basic knowledge that other kids get from their families -- knowledge that schools expect students to have when they start classes. To her, the gap everyone is talking about is not a question of black and white but of the "difference between children's potential and their performance."

"No matter how poor they are, when little kids start school, they are excited; they believe they are going to learn," Jackson said. "But unless schools give them the background knowledge . . . so they can connect with what they study and feel confident, they begin to feel that school is a foreign place, and they give up."

For Junior Bailey, a senior in my Advanced Placement English class, school has never been a foreign place, a fact he attributes to his dad. "He has always been on me; it's been hard to get away with much," Junior said. He also told me that hardly any of his friends have their fathers living with them. "Their mothers are soft on them, and they don't get any push from home."

On parents' night a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to see Junior's dad, Willie Bailey, a star on T.C. Williams's 1983 basketball team, walk into my classroom. Willie told me that after seeing how the guys he grew up with were affected by not having their dads around, he promised himself that he would be a real presence in his son's life.

With more parents like Willie Bailey, someday schools might realistically talk about closing the gap between students' potential and their performance.


Convicts teaching British children: How indecent assault and drug use are no bar to working in schools

Dozens of teachers with criminal convictions are being allowed to remain in the classroom, a shocking investigation has discovered. Members of staff who have been convicted of crimes including harassment, battery, assault, indecent exposure, indecent assault and possessing Class A drugs have not been banned from teaching. They have either escaped punishment entirely or just received a 'slap on the wrist' from the profession's watchdog, the General Teaching Council. This is despite a public furore three years ago about a loophole that allowed sex offenders to work in schools.

Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats under the Freedom of Information Act show that in the last five years 133 teachers were convicted of offences. Ninety-two had sanctions enforced against them by the GTC. Three were unlimited prohibition orders - two for driving dangerously and harassment and one for forgery. This means they can no longer work in state schools. There was also a prohibition order for 12 years for six counts of indecent assault. The 88 others either had shorter prohibition, suspension or conditional registration orders enforced.

However 14 teachers had no sanctions enforced against them at all. Five had convictions for assaults; three for driving under the influence of alcohol; two for possession of drugs; two for obtaining property by deception; one for harassment and one for conspiracy to defraud.

Twenty-seven were given reprimands that stay on their records for just two years. Five had convictions for possessing class A drugs; five for driving under the influence of alcohol; four for indecent exposure; four for assault; three for battery; two for theft; one for making a false statement; one for causing death by dangerous driving; one for not declaring offences to an employer and one for outraging public decency.

David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: 'It's astonishing that teachers found guilty of serious crimes are getting nothing but a slap on the wrists from the Teaching Council. 'We need to be confident that appropriate action is being taken when a teacher commits a serious offence.' Margaret Morrissey, of the pressure group Parents Outloud, insisted: 'If they didn't want to lose their jobs, they shouldn't have broken the law.'

An inquiry concluded earlier this year that at least 50 sex offenders who pose an 'ongoing risk' to children were cleared to work in schools. Some were approved by ministers or senior officials to continue working with children despite evidence they had committed sex offences. An investigation - instigated in January 2006 by former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly - ordered the barring of 50 offenders permitted to work with children.

The law was tightened and now all adults convicted or cautioned for sex offences against children are automatically placed on List 99, the list of people banned from working with children.

A spokesman for the General Teaching Council said yesterday: 'Each hearing committee needs to determine whether the criminal conviction or caution is relevant to the teacher's role as a teacher. It also looks at how serious the offence was.'


Fears for 'exhausted' young children as British government steps up the push to start schooling at FOUR

It seems that this scheme allows for parent choice so it may be worthwhile. Brighter kids could well benefit from an early start but less bright kids could well be stressed by demands that are beyond them and they should probably be excused until age 6. Sadly, however, the less-bright parents of less-bright pupils may well seize the opportunity to "unload" their kids early

Parents will be encouraged to send their children to school at the age of four under a major shake-up of primary education. Schools Secretary Ed Balls wants youngsters to start classes in the September after their fourth birthday, instead of waiting until the compulsory schooling age of five. The move comes despite a major inquiry into primary education in England last week concluded that youngsters should not start formal learning until they were six.

The current school-starting age - a term after a child's fifth birthday - is already among the lowest in Europe. This compulsory schooling age will remain, but Mr Balls wants to change the mandatory School Admissions Code, which will effectively lower the starting age to four as parents are pressured to enrol their children earlier. The changes, published for consultation today, will come into force in February and apply to admission arrangements from September 2011.

In a concession to critics who believe youngsters are being schooled too early, parents will be able to choose whether their children start reception classes full or part-time in the September, January or April after their fourth birthday. But critics claim that thousands of exhausted young children will be turned off formal learning as a result of the overhaul.

Parents will be able to opt for a free full-time place in a nursery if they believe their son or daughter is not ready for school. They may also choose to wait until the compulsory schooling age of five.

The change comes after Mr Balls accepted Sir Jim Rose's primary curriculum review, published in April. It stressed that children should be able to start school from the earliest possible point after their fourth birthday.

Mr Balls said yesterday: 'It is important that children hit the ground running (at) school. There is clear evidence the sooner summer-born children start pre-schooling, the sooner they close the gap on their peers.'

However, the Cambridge Primary Review last week claimed there was no evidence. It did, however, say there were suggestions an early schooling start could do harm, and called for a delay in formal lessons until the age of six.


British schools told: Shut for three more holy festivals

Schools are being ordered to close on Muslim, Hindu and Sikh holy days despite objections from teachers. The directive by two London councils means the schools must shut for the annual celebrations of Eid-Ul-Fitr, Diwali and Guru Nanak's birthday in addition to the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. The policy even affects schools with only a small number of Muslim, Hindu or Sikh pupils.

Headteachers have complained about the enforced holidays, arguing they should decide if the religious dates are marked with days off. The controversy surrounds Waltham Forest and Newham councils, which have publicised their school calendars for Autumn 2009-2010.

They both told schools to take off September 21 for Eid-Ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Diwali, which is celebrated by Hindus, was also included in the calendar as a holiday, but this year it fell on Saturday October 17. Guru Nanak's birthday is scheduled for a holiday on November 2. It is celebrated by Sikhs and Nanak's teachings form a central part of their scripture.

The policy in Waltham Forest affects all community primary and secondary schools in the borough, but not Church of England or Catholic schools. A review of the policy has begun after complaints from schools. Rachel MacFarlane, head of Walthamstow School for Girls, said the school is 'frustrated' by the holiday requirements.

Councillor Liaquat Ali, Cabinet member for children and young people in Waltham Forest, said it was important to teach children about different cultures and backgrounds 'as much as possible'. Nobody was available to comment from Newham Council yesterday.



Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our tactics and teach math via real life projects.

Alan Cook

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