Our Nation’s Untapped Treasure!

As the demographics of our nation change, increasing the numbers of poverty students within our schools, we must look deeply at the structures of how we educate students.  These structural changes must include how we identify and serve our most gifted and talented students, especially those of poverty, English Language Learners, and students of color. Our traditional methods of identification often have a bias that benefits mainstream students. This under-identification of minority and poverty students leads to their not receiving services that develop their abilities. However, even with bias-free identification methods, we must provide services to nurture the gifts and talents of our high ability students.

In too many poverty schools, the emphasis is on remediation and passing the state assessment. Enrichment and differentiation become additional tasks placed upon overwhelmed teachers.  Training often focuses on intervention strategies and data collection rather than differentiation.  Teaching to the middle and supporting the struggling students is a matter of survival for educators in our lock-step system.

We must change our paradigm.  We must set aside our deficit mindset as we look at poverty and minority students. Our high ability students must all have the opportunity to develop their full potential. In order to do this, we must have an inclusive mindset when it comes to enrollment in advanced classes.

Because research shows, many of our poverty students enter school already behind their wealthier peers, we must be willing to provide acceleration for our poverty and minority students to close the achievement gap so they are prepared for advanced academic options. A focus on acceleration must be a priority at the state, district, and school level.  Teachers must embrace an inclusive mindset which supports the preparation and enrollment of more students in high level courses.  Districts must be prepared to provide additional teachers in order to keep classes sizes small enough for teachers to provide individualized attention.  The state must fund schools so that differentiated learning experiences can be provided.

Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities is a 2015 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation on high ability, low-income students.  Citing statistics that show how well individual states are doing to identify and serve these students, the report calls this the “excellence gap” and recommends changes to insure low income high ability students achieve at the same rate as their high income peers.

The report recommends:

  1. Make high-performing students highly visible – meaning collect data that reveals the economic status and performance levels of all students. Are our poverty students excelling…not just passing state and national assessments?
  2. Remove barriers that prevent high-ability students from moving through coursework at a pace that matches their achievement level – meaning dual enrollment, acceleration, early entrance options.
  3. Ensure that all high ability students have access to advanced educational service – training teachers and administrators, monitoring gifted programs for quality, increased enrollment in AP and dual enrollment courses
  4. Hold LEAs accountable for the performance of high ability students from all economic backgrounds – states should disaggregate data for high ability, low income students and measure their growth on state assessments.

Report findings:

  1. In most states, attention to advanced learning is incomplete and haphazard
  2. In the absence of comprehensive policy support for advanced learning, economic conditions appear to drive outcomes
  3. Although some states have impressive outcomes for their high-performing students, no state can claim impressive performance outcomes for students from low income backgrounds.
  4. Data describing advanced performance are not readily available.
  5. All states could do more to support advanced learning.

The EXCELLENCE GAP is costing our country its future…with increasing numbers of poverty students, we cannot as a nation ignore the potential of the gifts and talents of these children.



School Culture is the Foundation for School Improvement

As a new middle school principal, I learned a hard lesson.  After two years of working on all the pedagogical elements of the school, I discovered that school culture is where ultimately the ability to sustain improvement rests.

Many educational leadership books highlight the need for an articulated school vision, a safe learning environment, and  strong instructional strategies that include formative assessment, feedback, data analysis and intervention. We look at change within the structure of school as we know it.  Most of the improvement advice targets what teachers do in the classroom with curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  The changes most authors recommend are “high leverage” or “research based” strategies rather than a more foundational change in the school as a whole.

As we seek to improve struggling schools, we must consider that what we are currently doing in the school system is NOT working for the school’s students. We cannot continue to tweak curriculum, instruction, and assessment methods and hope to get any drastic improvement. We must go deeper into the change effort.

In reading S. Gruenert and T. Whitaker’s School Culture Rewired (ASCD, 2015), I found their insights reinforced the lessons I learned as a building leader of a Title One middle school.  The authors differentiate between culture, climate, morale and how beliefs, behaviors, and values contribute to the overall culture.  As a building principal, this differentiation is subtle but helps frame everyday practice.  They caution that changing a culture will take time, and they also state that changing a culture may upset the status quo. A leader has three choices when dealing with a culture that is not positively supporting student achievement: “they can ignore it, fight it, or use it.” (p27).  As a building principal, I did not know how to use the underlying elements of the culture to change it.  I did some things correctly, like building a system of shared leadership with my teachers and giving them time and a structure for collaborative discussions about their professional practice. Our teachers worked collaboratively to create a school mission and vision statement; these were revisited and revised every year as a building leadership team to make sure they still reflected our work.  We also referred to these statements during meetings as a guide for our efforts. But, there was so much more I could have done!

I know whenever we challenge the status quo the reaction is often fight or flight. School Culture Rewired offers several tools to help facilitate the foundational cultural change that will be necessary, if struggling schools are to improve.  The School Culture Typology Tool and the activities that accompany it can give a leader seeking to improve a school a means to start on the journey.  Their advice on building structures and procedures to change a culture gives hope in their caution that “culture will take many years to reflect new beliefs that guide behaviors…” (p16)

The hidden message schools send poverty students and students of color

Although recent twitter posts by Arnie Duncan laud a rise in graduation rates for American students, a recent report published by the Dana Point – U.S. Department of Education shows much work remains to be done. Report demographics of students who entered high school in 2009 and dropped out before the junior year (2012) show 4.3% are Black and 3.5 are Hispanic in contrast to 2.1 White and .3 Asian.  Additionally, the report shows students from families in the lowest socioeconomic status group drop out at a rate of 4.7% while those in the highest group drop out at .6%.  It would appear that students of color are at risk…and if they are Hispanic or Black AND poor…while they are REALLY at risk.

This is really not new.  Any one who has worked in a poverty school could tell you this. The calls for school reform have echoed for years. There are pockets of success – where students rise above and gain a foothold on their way to a better life.  But it is not enough.

When I would visit elementary schools, I would ask the students how many planned to go to college.  The arms of the students rose in the air and voices excitedly would call out, they wanted to be doctors, teachers, even the President.  These were poor children and most were Hispanic or Black. These are the same children who as freshmen, sophomores, or juniors are quitting school.  What happened to their hope for a bright future?

During those critical middle school years, we need to do things differently.  The traditional policies and structure have failed our poorer students, especially those “minority” students.  We need to show them in words, actions, and policies that we believe they can succeed. With parents working hard at multiple jobs and still struggling to make ends meet, our students need to see the possibilities for their future.  Media highlights stories of minorities as criminals– shot by police, marching against brutality — our students need images and stories that create an alternative for the future.

By middle school, students become aware of their family situation, the neighborhood condition, and the way the “world works” for “people like them”.  It can be hard to hold on to that young dream of going to college and  living the American dream.  Too many of our schools, contribute to the killing of student dreams with punitive grading, labeling struggling students, and reactive, traditional discipline policies — often in spite of individual teacher attempts to build meaningful relationships.

When a school assigns zeros, penalizes students for not learning as quickly as peers through late work deductions and lack of re-testing opportunities, or allows failing grades to be assigned without requiring reteaching/retesting, they allow some students to move through the systems without learning the required content and skills for success.  Setting them up for future academic struggles that will manifest in poor attendance, acting out, and gaps in their learning.

When a school creates lists of students, labeling them as “lagging” or “low” and assigns prescribed interventions for the group, including remedial classes that remove students from electives and mainstream classes, they lessen the student’s self-efficacy and self-concept.

When a school follows a policy that assigns suspensions — in school and out of school — that remove a student from the educational environment for a period of time, they contribute to the academic gap.  This practice also contributes to a student seeing them selves as a “bad” person.  Often in hopes of hiding their suspension rates, schools use different codes or words for classroom removal.  Even policies where students walk silently in the halls or are escorted out of the building at the end of the day send messages to students about how they are viewed by the school. This is especially harmful for our poor minority students who are finding their self-image in a world filled with negative media stereotypes.

If we want to get serious about solving the achievement gap for our poverty students and students of color, we need to take a long look at the message our policies send students about their ability to succeed. One of my favorite sayings came from the Negro College Fund:  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Too many minds are being wasted still!