Watching New Teachers

As my children and my neighbors’ children graduated from college and entered the workforce, several of them and their friends took teaching positions straight out of college. Every time, I was struck by how little they knew about the field they were entering and how huge the challenge they had taken on. Smart and dedicated, they simply had no experience managing a classroom, organizing instruction, thinking through how children learn, or any of the myriad problems posed by teaching. Some have stuck with it, and some have not. But those who have stuck with it have had to overcome a lot of confusion.

A few, however, knowing that they needed more support than is usually provided new teachers, have sought out programs that provide a year or more of training under a master teacher before they are given their own classrooms. It’s too soon to tell how well it will work for them over the long haul, but they have made a commitment to the profession, and their districts have made something of a commitment to them. That seems to me to be a more promising way to start a career than simply taking a bachelor’s degree to a district hiring fair.

And it turns out that most people agree, as I write about in the Huffington Post this week. In fact, about 80 percent of Americans think that teachers should pass something equivalent to a bar exam for lawyers — something that the American Federation of Teachers called for years ago.

Questioning the Deficit

Why do black and Hispanic students perform worse than white students? This is the question at the heart of achievement gap. The problem, though, is that this question places the blame on students, inferring that they somehow lack something and have to “catch up” to their peers. Simply asking that question renders one group of students less than another group.

BlackWhiteQuestionMark(1)This is called deficit language, and it has plagued educational research and public conversation around the achievement gap for years despite information about its harm. Deficit language ranges from the genetic inferiority of races (see: The Bell Curve, which posits that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites) to an assumption that hidden, self-perpetuating rules prevent the poor from rising out of poverty (Ruby Payne is best known for this work). In practice, it is when black and Hispanic students are not referred to gifted classes as often as white students or are not provided challenging curricula.

Unfortunately, the very data analyses we use to understand differences, patterns, and progress in educational achievement are often framed with deficit language. This inadvertently creates negative narratives about students of color and low-income students and sends the message that students are the problem. By falling victim to deficit language, advocates and researchers spend too much time focusing on what students don’t have versus what they do have. Student assets, like their background knowledge, experiences, and culture, are valuable resources that can inform the schooling process and potentially impact education systems.

Education researchers and advocates should change the questions and create a counter-narrative to describe the issue from a different lens — a lens that is not focused on student deficits, but on systemic school practices. Instead of asking, “Why do black and Hispanic kids perform worse than white students?” let’s start by ask questions like, “What resources prove most effective in helping black and Hispanic students achieve at high levels?” It is a subtle, but important, distinction. By doing this, we understand students through their success and systems that support and foster their success. Most importantly, we remove the counterproductive dialogue that reinforces notions of inferiority and underachievement.

We’ve added to our own counter-narrative with one of the Shattering Expectations papers. For that paper, we examined more than 60,000 high-achieving (top 25 percent) students of color to learn not only about their performance, but also about the course offerings, support structures, and postsecondary preparation that set them up for success. Simply acknowledging that high-achieving students of color exist is one of many important ways to move away from the dependence on deficit language.

For more than 50 years, our society has engaged in a deficit-focused conversation, and it has helped cement the educational divide. Often, our words have become our actions. If we are more thoughtful about the language we use, we can better find solutions to create education equity.

What If You Had a 5 Percent Chance of Graduating College?

Would you enroll in college (or send your son or daughter), if you (or they) had only a 5 percent chance of graduating?

What about 10 percent? 15 percent?

… No?

More than 450,000 students do it every year, enrolling in four-year colleges and universities with atrociously low graduation rates — so low, in fact, that students are more than five times as likely to drop out or transfer than earn the degree they were seeking. (Not sure which those colleges are? Check out our interactive map.) Continue reading

Common Core Helps — Not Hurts — Students of Color

Two researchers at Mount St. Mary recently penned an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. It highlighted a lack of diversity — in both authors and subject matter — among the list of recommended texts that are aligned to the Common Core: Of 171 books recommended for elementary children, only 18 are by authors of color, and few of them, in general, reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.

Those are abysmal numbers, and the recommended list should, indeed, reflect more diversity. But the title of the piece — “How Common Core’s Recommended Books Fail Children of Color” — sensationalizes the message and risks complicating an already-controversial cloud of conversation around new college- and career-ready standards. Continue reading

Need-Blind Is Just Like Colorblind: Why Low-income Kids Should Receive Preferential Consideration in College Admissions

Need-blind college admissions processes evaluate applicants solely based on a broadly defined definition of merit (wink wink), detaching information on students’ financial need from the application review and final admission decision. Since need-blind colleges, particularly those that meet students’ full financial need, never reject a prospective student because of an inability to pay, this process is often considered the gold standard in college admissions.

In reality, it is more like fool’s gold. Continue reading

Introducing New Features to College Results Online

We often hear a lot about what makes a good college, but not as much about what makes a bad college. College Results Online, our interactive tool with information for nearly every four-year college and university in the country, tries to demystify that issue by adding two new features to alert students and policymakers of colleges that may not have the best results for students.

CRO now tags colleges that have extremely low graduation rates (what we call “college dropout factories”) and colleges with little socioeconomic diversity (our “engines of inequality”). Colleges that fall in the bottom 5 percent of four-year colleges nationwide for graduation rates or low-income student enrollment will now be marked with the following symbols:

CRO_stopCollege Dropout Factories: These colleges graduate less than 16 percent of their students and may not be the best option for students, especially if they are first-generation or low-income and may require additional support. These colleges should draw the attention of states and policymakers, as well as the public, which are increasingly questioning the return on investment for a college degree.

CRO_warningEngines of Inequality: These colleges enroll less than 16 percent of students from working-class and low-income families and are not very socioeconomically diverse. This is a flag for students from these backgrounds — and for any student seeking a culturally diverse experience in college. To prepare students for the workforce, these colleges should commit to student body diversity in all forms of the word. Continue reading

Who Will You Meet at #EdTrust2014?

We’ve got powerful speakers lined up and an enriching, diverse list of breakout sessions to offer you at our national conference in Baltimore on Nov. 13-14. What’s left? The connections you’ll make with like-minded advocates and practitioners who are dedicated to the hard work of closing the achievement gap – just like you. Here’s what attendees had to say last year:

So I Get That You Probably Won’t Think This Is As Much Fun As I Do

Sometimes when I have a free minute, I look back at old “Where We Stand” columns written by Albert Shanker. Shanker was president of the New York United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and, later, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union.

For 27 years, a weekly advertorial, paid for by UFT and appearing in The New York Times’ Sunday Week in Review section, was written primarily by Shanker.

Those old columns hold a treasure trove of thinking about school issues that people across the political spectrum found provocative and informative. In my perusing, I recently ran across a column he wrote in 1979 about a British study I had never come across, Fifteen Thousand Hours. Continue reading