Part 2: Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

During the past week, I have had friends declare on Facebook that they are reasonably intelligent, well-educated white women and yet they had never heard of Juneteeth before this year.  I confess I had not heard of it until two or three years ago myself.

One of the women asked, “When is public education policy going to enter the racism conversation? I’m angry at the things I was never taught in school and am learning now in my 40’s. I am horrified and embarrassed at my own ignorance.”

That ignorance is an example of how racism permeates the U.S. public school system.

Image from News Times article https://www.newstimes.com/local/item/Even-Odds-Part-3-23284.php

Last week, I wrote about how the Pygmalion effect creates two distinct school environments for students that teachers unconsciously categorize as “capable” and “less capable”.  I listed student characteristics that contribute to teachers labeling students as “less capable”.  Having black or brown skin topped that list.

I stressed that teachers do this mental categorization unconsciously.  I believe that; yet whether or not the process is unconscious, it is part and parcel of implicit bias.

More information on the Pygmalion Effect and Black students can be found here:

Implicit bias is the term used for the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

Much of implicit bias comes out in the classroom in the form of “microagressions”.  Wikipedia and other online sources define “microagression” as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups “.

Interestingly enough, when doing the research for today’s blog, I found only one article that focused on microagressions in the K-12 classroom.  The rest of the information I found was generated by colleges and attempting to remove these from college classrooms.

Still the lists of sample microagressions are relevant to K-12 teachers!

I recommend the following resources to learn more about microagression and what to do about it:

Implicit bias in teacher behavior is one aspect of how educational experiences are different for white students and Black students in the same school.  There is a persistent gap in academic achievement between white and Black and minority students.  There is also a significant difference in how each group is disciplined.

In some studies on how students are disciplined, Black students, especially males, were ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled for their behavior.  Other studies report the figures as 10% to 16%. 

I submit that part of the reason why Black students receive more hash discipline in K-12 schools starts in the earliest years of schooling.  Children who are viewed as “less capable” by teachers, even though this may be unconscious, have appreciably different educational experiences than do those viewed as “capable”. 

These radically different educational experiences cannot help but affect how children view schooling and how they view their ability to acquire an education.  Immature people do not express their displeasure at how they feel in mature ways.  Instead, they lash out, act out, become sullen, restless, fidgety, and “cop an attitude”. 

I dare say adults would probably resort to being less than well-behaved if we were in similar circumstances.

If you would like to read more about the disparity between how Black and Brown students and white students are disciplined in school, I recommend these resources:

Historians and social studies teachers are likely to say, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Another applicable quote is, “History is written by the victors.”  The origin of the quote is disputed, yet it points out a truth about the perspective of history taught in schools. 

Education within a society is geared towards producing upstanding citizens of that society.  This aspect of school curriculum was much more apparent during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Civics and social studies texts of that time unabashedly promoted the idea that U.S. citizens held certain values and rejected all forms of Communism.

We would like to think our curricula and social studies textbooks today are free of bias, but they are not.

Numerous studies have been done of who and what is examined in textbooks.  These began as early as the 1970s.  These studies showed that people of color were added to textbooks as sidebars, a bit of information that was set off from the rest of the text, and, as a result were often overlooked or skipped as unnecessary.  (Similar “inclusion” can be seen in science textbooks.)

One can only describe this method of inclusion as marginalization.  Literally!

Reading the content of textbooks gives more insight into how “history is written by the victors”.  Not too many years ago, McGraw Hill, a major textbook company, was righteously called on the carpet for describing enslaved humans as “workers” and the slave trade as “migration of workers” to “agricultural plantations”.

Name it and claim it - Comic Strip of the Day.com
Textbook labels enslaved people as “workers”

Labeled as outright racism, the textbook company said they would change their online books to more accurately reflect the slave trade, but the in-print books were already in circulation. 

I don’t know about your school district, but the ones in which I worked did not purchase social studies books very often, so I expect those books will be in circulation for some time!

Many schools do not use social studies or history textbooks.  They use multiple resources to meet their state standards.  These resources may be up to the teacher, or up to the curriculum director, or up to the state. 

Another example of history being written by the victors played out in Texas not too many years ago.  A very conservative person became the head of the Texas state level school board.  Under his direction, the state’s social studies curriculum was overhauled. 

The result was

  • Slavery and the slave trade were down-played.
  • The African-American diaspora or any events in history involving African Americans was not mentioned until the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Jim Crow laws and segregation were removed from information on the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was barely mentioned.

Those are just a few of the revisions to history this particular set of state standards made.

If you would like to learn more about how K-12 textbooks whitewash history, I suggest these resources:

So what does all this mean for Black and Brown students? 

One result is the academic achievement gap.  Another is what is referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.  You can read more about that at the Teaching Tolerance website:  https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline

The most recent statistics I could find show that 80% of the nation’s teachers are white.  Yet only 44% of K-12 students are reported as white.  This means that the majority of Black or minority children never have a teacher who looks like them.  Research on this phenomenon is very clear:  all students benefit when they have Black or minority teachers.

You can read more about that research here:  https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/education/minority-teachers-students-same-race-research/

[Many factors influence recruitment of Black and minority teachers at the college level.  I won’t go into those in this blog at this time.]

All of the information I’ve touched upon has been the subject of many studies.  It all adds up to the fact that the current way we educate children helps perpetuate the marginalization of African-Americans and minorities.  In other words, our education system as it stands right now supports racism in the U.S.

What can an individual teacher do about it?

First of all, each teacher must search his/her heart and soul and recognize that we contribute to this!  It is not easy to do.  It is not fun.  But it is vitally necessary!

Second, we must address implicit bias, the Pygmalion Effect, and microagressions.  That can mean having some very uncomfortable conversations with our students, our colleagues, administration, and the community.  That takes bravery and a willingness to listen.  However, it takes brave souls to be teachers, so we can do it!

Third, we have to step up to be part curriculum teams.  We need to point out to students that textbooks don’t always get it right.  And we need to promote thinking in our students, not just memorization of facts and figures. 

I believe education is the most important activity in which a society engages because it shapes the future of that society and the world.  I believe educators are the most important part of education.  They can sit back and let others shape education for them, or they can stand up and help do the shaping.

We can do this!  We MUST do this!

Equity and Education in the Age of COVID 19

Image result for equity in education

On March 23, 2020, Ms. Betsy DeVos, the head of the federal department of education, issued a “guidance” on special education and distance education. According to an NPR article, the directive is a response to the many districts and states that have said online learning for K-12 students should be enrichment-only because not all students have access to the internet, or to the specific educational services outlined in their IEPs. The directive states:

“this reading of disability law [is] ‘a serious misunderstanding.’

“In bold type, the publication declares: ‘To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) … and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.'” https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/23/820138079/education-dept-says-disability-laws-shouldnt-get-in-the-way-of-online-learning

I am very concerned about this directive. It seems to say that it is acceptable to provide educational opportunity to those students who can be classified as “haves” and not those who are “have nots”, AND it says that those who, though no fault of their own, require specialized educational services can be ignored or “left behind”.

Should we allow the current crisis to move us backwards to when PL94-192 was first passed in 1975?

Many do not recall what education was like for “exceptional needs” students before that law was passed. Consider this: students who were failed and failed year after year because they did not learn at the same pace as “normal” children; students who were refused an education in districts and told they must be institutionalized instead; students who were labeled dumb or sub-normal.

Do we really want to return to those days?

Image result for special eduation

Since the passage of PL94-142, society and education have changed how it views equity for children with exceptional needs and for other students as well. We have embraced the idea that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, creed, beliefs, or disability have the right to a free and appropriate education.

In fact, the Department of Education website declares:

“The Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces several statutes that protect the rights of beneficiaries in programs or activities that receive financial assistance from ED. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), sex (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), and age (Age Discrimination Act of 1975).

The state in which I live, Iowa, has expanded upon this, requiring that all school districts comply with non-discrimination policies that include: race, color, national origin, sex, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, creed, religion, socio-economic status in its educational programs or hiring practices. https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/2015-2016%20Guidance%20for%20Nondiscrimination%20Notices.pdf

To be sure, society has not yet achieved equity in all of these protected areas in education throughout the United States. However, should we, as a society, be willing to erode the gains we’ve made?

John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Yes, he was of an era that used the term “man” to mean “human beings”, yet the meaning is clear: if we ignore the educational rights of students with disabilities, whose rights shall we relinquish next?

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 2

Image result for curriculum

Last week, I discussed some trends in curriculum, focusing on “pacing guides”.

This week, we look at technology.

The U.S. Department of Education says:

Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. Technology also has the power to transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching. This model links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.
https://www.ed.gov/oii-news/use-technology-teaching-and-learning

One cannot dispute the fact that technology can open up a world of information accessible at our fingertips.  In fact, I am not at all sure what I would do without being able to check email, touch base with people around the world through social media, or relax while watching a streaming service. 

However, does technology itself live up to the promise of engaging and motivating students, teaching 21st century skills, all the while saving school districts money?

Image result for students with computers

Let’s look at these in turn:

Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.

There is no doubt that online textbooks save districts money.  Paper textbooks cost money to print and bind.  Online publications do not have to include those costs.

In addition, online texts can incorporate video and links to further information.

Some studies claim that about three quarters of students (K though college) prefer reading digital textbooks.  However, many of these studies have been funded by online publishers, so we have to take those findings with a grain of salt.

Other research has a more dire warning:  if one is reading more than 500 words, the equivalent of a very short article, then one is more likely to retain the information when one reads from an old-fashioned paper textbook.  ( https://hechingerreport.org/textbook-dilemma-digital-paper/ )  Despite this, students themselves tend to believe they retain more from digital sources.

More research needs to be done, especially research looking at kinds of reading (informational or fiction) and age groups.

The research right now, though, shows that more learning takes place when reading an actual textbook.

Image: World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education (2015)

Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century
There is an assumption among educational thinkers and curriculum directors that the so-called “digital generation” consume information best through screens.  Further, they assume that because the digital generation uses technology so much that they understand it, know how to use it, and are acquiring 21st century skills.

As a former college professor, I can attest to the fact that there are young people who do, indeed, know and understand technology.  Yet there are even more, in my experience, who do not. 

Further, the digital divide is real.  Some families have not embraced technology because of poverty or beliefs.  Some live in areas where WiFi is unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or patchy at best.  Others belong to cultures that put more emphasis on face-to-face or personal communication and interaction.

These lines seem to be along racial, cultural, and economic lines.

In my opinion, even those who have had access from a very young age rarely understand technology at the level professed by those who describe the so-called digital generation. 

The ability to use social media and download music do not mean that one has 21st century skills!  I have had college students who do not even know how to change the margins of a paper, let alone how to determine whether or not some tidbit of information found online is true.

Bri Stoffer ( https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills ) lists the skills employers want and need.  She says these are

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

Note that only points 6 and 7 really refer to technology.

In fact, the very expensive private schools, the Waldorf schools, do not use much technology at all.  In Silicon Valley, parents say “technology can wait”, that their children need to learn much more than how to use a computer.  ( https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/07/waldorf-schools-teach-without-technology-heres-what-it-is-like.html )

If the twelve points above are the skills employers are seeking and companies predict they will need when this generation begins their careers, then we educators have much more to do than wrestle with whatever the “flavor of the month” technology is!

Person Holding Iphone X

Technology is supposed to engage students.
Educators were given multiple reasons why, supposedly, technology was supposed to cure the twin ailments of disengagement and apathy.  Yet if my K-12 teacher contacts are correct, then technology has exacerbated those problems:  students use their “one-to-one” devices to engage in almost everything except academics throughout the school day, and mobile phones have become teachers’ worst nightmare.

In fact, recent studies show that having a cell phone in the classroom, even if it is turned off, kept in a pocket or backpack, or turned face down on the desk, poses a distraction.  ( https://www.edutopia.org/video/theres-cell-phone-your-students-head )  These studies say that students are able to concentrate more fully on class when their phones are out of the classroom altogether.

Why?  Our brains are not constructed in a way that allows for them to multi-task despite the belief of many.  Instead of really multi-tasking, our brains merely flip back and forth between tasks.  Each time that “flip” occurs, the brain must recall what it was doing and refocus on the task at hand.  Doing this actually decreases the ability to “deep focus”, the mental state needed for learning and for creative problem-solving.

Other studies have shown that a screen, any screen a student has is distracting to other students in the room. It seems we just cannot take our eyes off of those screens!

Cell phone “cages” found in a thrift store by the author.

Please do not take all of this as a condemnation of using technology in schools!  I do not think that is the answer at all! 

What I am saying is that we cannot expect technology to be a panacea for all educational problems.  In fact, I would recommend that our curricular focus should extend beyond using technology for technology’s sake.  Instead we must help students with the following:

  • Knowing how to use technology beyond causal skills.
  • Knowing how to use technology wisely and ethically.
  • Understanding how to evaluate the information they see online or read in traditional sources.
  • Knowing how to study efficiently and effectively.
  • Learning the whole spectrum of 21st Century skills.

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 1

Once upon a time, I was the curriculum person for a school district.  Since then I’ve watched what has happened in many school districts with curriculum with a certain amount of interest.

Lately, I’ve been troubled by what I’ve been seeing and reading:

  • A move to technology because
    • Technology is supposed to engage students,
    • Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century, and
    • Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.
  • A belief that purchasing various programs will turn around student achievement.  That is, a belief that programs are what works in helping students learn rather than investing in teacher knowledge and expertise.
  • Creating “pacing guides” that dictate what teachers are supposed to be teaching and when.  I think of this as “if today is Tuesday, then we must be on page 86”.

All three of these trends are counter to what good research shows.

In this and the next couple of posts, I will address these changes.

First up:  Creating “pacing guides”.

For those of you who do not know, a pacing guide attempts to dictate that each classroom progresses through the district’s curriculum at a steady rate. 

At best, a pacing guide helps a teacher determine what students are supposed to learn in a school year.

At worst, a pacing guide becomes an unreasonable attempt to make every class move through the curriculum in a lockstep.  Ms. Jones’ class is supposed to be doing X.  Mr. Smith’s class is supposed to be doing X.  Ms. White’s class is supposed to be doing X.

It is this latter kind of pacing guide that has me alarmed.

I can understand that sometimes a school has a teacher who seems to race through the curriculum so that students are left behind and she seems to finish up the year’s work before the year is actually done. 

Then there is the teacher who seems to drag through the curriculum, finishing the year accomplishing only a fraction of what is expected for a particular grade level or subject area.

Both of these teachers leave students behind (to use an over worn phrase).  Neither teacher has ensured that all students have achieved what the curriculum says they are supposed to achieve. 

Creating a pacing guide is supposed to make sure that students are not left behind.  However, it seems to me that there is a better way to ensure that these two types of teachers focus on what students are learning and better meet the needs of the students.

Putting classes in lockstep is not the answer.  Telling every class that they must do this on this day and that on that day is not what is best for students or teachers.  It will not help school districts achieve state standards.  It will not close the achievement gap.

If teachers are effective professionals,

  • They need only be told that their students are supposed to achieve particular standards. 
  • They can use formative assessments to determine whether or not students have achieved the standard, or if students need instruction to meet the standard.
    • They can create enrichment lessons for those who have already met the standard.
    • They can create lesson experiences and practice for those who have not met the standard.
  • They can determine if students “get it” after lessons, and back up and re-teach topics if students have not reached the required level of proficiency.

A pacing guide that dictates classes are kept in lockstep does not allow for any of the three points above.

What about the needs of the students?  What about our commitment to focus on student learning, and not on teachers teaching?

A pacing guide that dictates that classes move along in lockstep does not help students

  • Who need more practice to achieve a standard
  • Who have already achieved the standard and need enrichment or an opportunity to move on to another standard

Some curriculum “experts” say students that don’t “get it” this round, will have an opportunity to learn something when the curriculum comes back to the topic. 

This assumes that all subjects have a spiral progression.  For example, science tends to have a spiral progression.  Students learn, say, about living and non-living things in the first round.  In the second, living things are divided into plants and animals.  Much later, students learn that there are actually six groups:  plants, animals, bacteria, achaebacteria, fungi, and protozoa.

However, some subjects do not have spiral understandings.  Math is one area that does not.  Students who do not understand place value cannot move on to addition and subtraction, much less decimals.  Students who do not know multiplication cannot move on to division, and so on. 

So leaving kids behind in some areas affects their ability to learn later on. 

A lockstep curriculum guide is as detrimental to these students as the admonition beginning teachers were told fifty years ago to “teach to the middle” and let the “lows” and “highs” fall where they may.  It perpetuates the idea that students who don’t “get it” are okay to ignore, and the idea that those who are advanced will simply teach themselves as needed.  Neither is the truth. 

So let’s get back to the teacher who zooms through material and the one who inches forward. 

Neither of the two teachers is being effective.  It should be up to the instructional leadership of the school or district to offer those two teachers coaching so that they can evolve into effective teachers.  And if the two teachers refuse that coaching, perhaps it is time to ask them to leave.

In my opinion, it should never matter HOW a teacher moves students to achieve standards.  It should be up to the teacher’s professional judgment.  S/he should be able to tailor lessons to the interests and prerequisite skills of the students in that particular class. 

Grant Wiggins confirms this opinion. He wrote a piece explaining his position in 2012! See it here: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/on-pacing-guides/

So how do we convince the district level curriculum “experts” of this?  Good question!  I am very much interesting in hearing your ideas on this!