How Many Kids are Failing and What Does It Tell Us?

Here are some numbers to gnaw on from a well-respected, diverse midwestern public school district reporting on students who did not pass both the Math and ELA components of the state’s competency exams. Please note that the public school teachers and administrators to which we refer are all well-qualified, are dedicated professionals, and work hard to help their students. Although there are low-performers in every profession, the majority of our nation’s teachers are unsung American heroes.

Elementary school

Black students not passing both exams = 1,343 (76.6%)
Hispanic Students not passing both exams = 825 (64.4%)
Children of color not passing both exams = 2,816 (68.2%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,498 (46.0%)

Total Elementary students not passing = 4,314 (58.4%)

Middle School
Black students not passing both exams = 1,030 (81.7%)
Hispanic students not passing both exams = 558 (66.7%)
Students of Color not passing both exams = 2,078 (72.5%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,190 (52.5%)

Total Middle School students not passing = 3,268 (63.6%)

Total students unable to pass both exams = 7,582 (60.6%)

Many states commence the process of testing students for levels of competency in the third grade and continue testing through the eighth grade. Thereafter, competency testing shifts toward assessing eligibility for graduation. When results are reported, we will see that a certain percentage of students were unable to pass the Math and English Language Arts components of the assessment tool, as in the case of the above public school district. In another jurisdiction, the results may be reported as students being at, above, below, or approaching “proficient.” The term “proficient” typically implies a high level of mastery in subject matter and also and ability to utilize that knowledge in the real world. In others, the broad descriptors may be relative to where a student is relative to “grade level.” Always, the results offer some manner of comparison to state academic standards.

Although results vary depending on the level of diversity or segregation of school districts with respect to race. ethnicity, and relative affluence the above data are representative.

This is just one of more than a thousand school districts reporting comparable performance, and of course there are many smaller school districts with students who struggle, and even our nation’s highest performing districts have some students who perform poorly. Think about the numbers for a moment. We are talking about many more than ten million American children who are performing poorly in school, and these data reflect performance only in public schools. Private, parochial, and charter schools also report students who are not performing well in school.

There are a few patterns that emerge from the results of competency examinations that deserve discussion.

The most common is that, typically, black students perform well below their white classmates and moderately below children from other minority groups. Hence, the “performance” or “achievement” gap, and public education in general, are often referred to the Civil rights issues of our time. That so many children of color perform poorly in our public schools has tragic consequences for our nation and its future.

With respect to relative affluence, students from low-income families generally perform below their more affluent classmates. Another pattern with respect to children who perform poorly on competency assessments, is that their performance often drops by the time they reach middle school. Each of these patterns have been widely discussed and researched for decades. This is not “News!” fake or otherwise.

What concerns me are the students who consistently perform poorly on competency assessments, from one year to the next. My assumption, which you are invited to challenge, is that the “population of children” who perform poorly, beginning in third grade all the way through eighth grade is comprised of the same boys and girls as they move from grade to grade.

What does it say about the education process if the same children who fall short of expectations beginning in the first round of competency assessments, administered when they are eight and nine years old, are the exact same children who perform poorly every year thereafter? What does it say when there is a decline in the performance of this population of students after they reach middle school?

If, indeed, we have these huge populations of children who perform poorly all the way through elementary and middle school, what does it say about our focus on the purpose of public education? What does it say about our strategy. Does it work?

My answer to these questions is that it is time to re-evaluate our assumptions, our purpose, our strategy, and our practices.

It is my assertion that this phenomenon exists because the education process—what educators are asked to do and how—is not consistent with our purpose or mission. Rather than focus on making sure each child is ready for middle school by the time they reach the age of 11 or 12; for high school by the time they reach the ages of 14 and 15, and ready for the responsibilities of citizenship by the time they reach the age of 18, teachers are expected to move students from point to point on the outline delineating the academic standards adopted by a given State as a group, whether they are ready or not.

What the results of competency examinations tell me is not only is our focus misdirected, it is also uncompromising. The education process demands that teachers permit students to fail because giving them the time they need to learn each lesson is not even a consideration, let alone an expectation. Certainly, many teachers strive to give extra help but, depending on the number of struggling students in a teacher’s classroom, rarely is there sufficient time.

We instruct our teachers to record, in their grade books, the results of each lesson in each subject area before moving on to a new lesson. The natural consequences of this practice are students who are increasing less prepared to be successful as they move from lesson to lesson and grade to grade.

Now, step back a moment, and let’s think about what we know about the children who arrive for their first day of school, at age 5 or 6:

• We know that the disparity in their level of academic preparedness runs the full range of the continuum;

• We know that the pace at which they learn is equally disparate;

• We know many are away from their mothers and other family members for the first time; and, therefore, need to connect quickly with a caring adult;

• We know that there are some children who have few adults who care about them, if any at all; and,

• We know that many are unprepared for most of the new experiences they will face.

Now, think about our purpose but do not rush to answer.

What is our objective with these children? Think hard about what it is that their community will, someday, need from our children?

As simply as we can state them, their community needs each child to grow into:

• A well-educated young man or woman who is prepared to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy;

• Who has sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding of the world to give them choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning; and,

• Who can provide for themselves and their families.

What is the best way to accomplish these objectives?

Is it to push them along so they move from lesson to lesson, grade to grade, with their classmates, ready or not?

Or,

Is it to help them progress; from where they are intellectually and emotionally on that first day of school to become the best version of themselves that they can be and to learn how to create success for themselves?

If it is the latter, what we do today is not what children need and, clearly, it does not work. The data is indisputable.

Someday, we might be able to eliminate high-stakes testing, but that is not within our power, today. The best we can do is figure how to utilize the process to our best advantage and for the best advantage of our students. The same is true for the grading process in use in our classrooms. The purpose both types of assessments must not be to pass judgment on our students and teachers rather to gage our progress so that we can determine next steps, as we strive to fulfill our purpose.

Our primary goal is to prepare children for life after completion of their formal primary and secondary education. Our intermediate goals are to help them get there, one step at a time. We want to start at the exact point where we find them on their unique developmental path and begin to lay a foundation for intellectual and emotional growth and development. Once we have laid that foundation, our purpose is to help them master, one successful step at a time, the knowledge, skills, self-discipline, and understanding they will need in life. We are concerned about the whole child:

• We want them to have the healthy self-esteem they will need to control most of the outcomes in their lives;

• We want them to be able to develop healthy relationships with the people in their lives;

• We want them to be able to express themselves through all forms of human communication and interaction;

• We want them to understand and appreciate the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences;

• We want them to understand history so that they can apply what we as a people have learned from our mistakes throughout the millennia;

• We want them to have sufficient understanding, through science, of the complexity of the world in which they live, so they can make thoughtful decisions about issues facing society;

• We want them to be able to create value for themselves, their families, communities, and society; and, finally,

• We want them to have a sufficient understanding of the role and principles of government so that they can participate in their own governance.

We cannot help children develop these crucial things by lumping them with a group of other children; by assigning them to teachers in such a way that forming close personal relationships is problematic; by imposing arbitrary time frames, or by allowing them to fail. Kids learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn. Failure is when we say to them, “I’m sorry but we cannot justify spending any more time with you on this subject matter; we have more important things to do.”

We can reinvent the education process to give our nation’s children the quality education they deserve if we are willing to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the way we teach our children and then open our hearts and minds to a new way of doing what we do. My education model, which is designed to do just that, is available for your examination at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I encourage you to read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather in hopes that it might.

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Vignette #4 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, My worst day as a substitute teacher!

Vignette #4 took place in a high school gym class and turned out to be the single worst day of subbing over a ten-year period.

 

In this half day assignment, the gym teacher for whom I would be subbing was still in his office when I arrived. As he explained about the one class I would be handling, he instructed me to take attendance both at the beginning and, again, at the end of the period. He said this was a very large class, approaching sixty students, and the kids would skip out early if I did not pay close attention, particularly since this was the last period of the day. He said the only ones who will receive credit will be the students who are present for both beginning and ending roll calls. The class was fairly equally divided between male and female students and was over fifty percent African-American students, which was also true of the school as a whole. The rest of the students were evenly distributed racially with equal parts white and Hispanic students and with a smattering of Asian students.

Although the students were loud and not all were willing to participate in the planned activity, there were no problems of significance during the bulk of the ninety-minute period. The students who did not wish to participate sat along the wall and talked amongst themselves. The biggest challenge, given the size of the gym and of the class, was keeping tabs on them. In addition to the doors leading out of the gym into one of the interior corridors, there was an unlocked door leading to an outdoor athletic field and a door to an internal storage room for athletic equipment; also unlocked. Anytime my attention was directed elsewhere, one or both of those doors would open.

As instructed, I took attendance at the beginning of class. As we approached the last ten minutes of the period I got the class’s attention and explained Coach _________’s instructions for the end-of-the-period attendance. Of course, the students began complaining that the Coach never took attendance at the end of the class.

I began calling names and attempted to make eye contact with each student as he or she answered. About a quarter of the way down the list, an African-American female student answered in response to the name I called. She was standing directly in front of me, less than ten feet away. A short while later, as I proceeded down the list, this same student answered a second time, when another name was called. I immediately addressed the student, telling her that, as she had responded to two different names, I needed to know who she was and, also, which of the two students whose names I had called was not present.

The student immediately and loudly insisted that she had responded only to her own name. When I repeated that I had clearly observed her responding to both names she began screaming denials at me, coming closer to me as she did so. Within seconds, two other girls, also black, came to her defense and also began yelling at me and, by that time, all three girls were within inches of my face, screaming at the top of their lungs; saliva splashing in my face as they did so. I had been standing against the wall next to the door and I was trapped against the wall.

“Coach ______ doesn’t take attendance at the end of class!” one of the girls yelled. “You’re just doing this because we’re black!” she screamed.

Another of the group screamed that “we all look alike to you white people!” and repeated her friend’s claim that I was just doing this because they were black.

By this time, my heart was racing and my ears were ringing. I could also feel my face turning red as they pressed even closer to me and as I struggled to maintain any semblance of poise. I could also see that other students were taking advantage of my predicament and leaving before the bell had rung.

Striving to keep an even voice, I asked the girls to calm down but there was no recognition that I had spoken and no lessening of their screeching. By that time, my head was pounding. As I felt a sense of panic creep into my throat, I was desperate to create some separation between the three girls and me. At this point, I reached out with both hands and gently took hold of the elbows of the girl directly in front of me to push her away.

As soon as my hands made contact with her, she reacted suddenly and violently, and screamed even louder, “Don’t touch me!” she said, “don’t you ever touch me.” She then pushed both of her hands against my chest and shoved me back against the wall. All three of the girls were now screaming so loud and my ears were ringing so badly that I could understand nothing they were saying.

I kept hoping another teacher would hear the racket and come to my assistance but no one did. Given the distance of the gym from the main hallway, it is entirely possible that no one heard the screaming although I would have thought it could have been heard at the far end of the building.

By the time the bell rang, my whole body was trembling and I was feeling a rage grow inside of me. Fortunately, within seconds after the bell had rung, the three girls were gone. All I could think about was that I didn’t even know the names of the girls who had confronted me. As the last few students streamed out of the gym, I asked if anyone could tell me the names of the three girls but the students just walked faster, avoiding my question.

Fortunately, this was the last period of the day. When the last student had departed I sat down, feeling exhausted, and tried to calm myself. Before leaving for the day, I wrote notes to the gym teacher and to Student Services, explaining what had happened, in detail.

At no time, after leaving the school that afternoon, did I hear from the gym teacher, the principal, or any of the school’s administrators.

What is the truth about claims that American public education is in crisis and what is the evidence to support such claims?

As much as I admire and respect public school teachers, and as important as it is that we pledge our support to them, they are no better positioned to judge the efficacy of public education in America than cooks, waiters, and bus persons are positioned to judge the quality of the food their restaurant serves. Such judgments must always be left to the customer and, as we shall see shortly, sometimes our teachers are a customer of the system.

It is clear to this observer that the American educational process is failing in spite of the valiant efforts of the men and women who stand at the front of a classroom. While it is a gross disservice to lay the blame on our teachers, we must look objectively at the system’s performance.

So what is the evidence that suggests that our systems of public education are in a state of crisis?

Let’s start with what motivated the business men and women, whom we often refer to as “corporate reformers,” to focus so much attention on education. These business executives are motivated by the frustration they feel when it is so incredibly difficult to find qualified workers for their operations and it doesn’t matter whether they are seeking skilled or unskilled labor, or professionals.

Applications for work are submitted, daily, from prospective employees who are unable to understand and apply basic mathematical and scientific principles, who are unable to craft a coherent sentence or to express themselves effectively, whether orally or in writing. They are young men and women who demonstrate minimal motivation to do their best and insufficient self-discipline to earn the status and prestige to which they consider themselves entitled.

The quality of this labor force requires that employers allocate enormous sums of money and inordinate time on the part of their trainers, supervisors and managers to teach these young adults what they need to know; what most of us believe they should have brought to the table in the first place. The sheer mass of the resources diverted for such purposes has a measurable adverse impact on both productivity and profitability of business entities.

Not sufficient proof, you say? Then let us ask the classroom teachers in our more challenging public schools, particularly in middle- and high school classrooms, about the disruptive behavior, lack of motivation to learn, willingness to copy a classmates work without the slightest remorse, and about the apathy and/or hostility of the parents of these youngsters who make no attempt to be supportive of their children’s teachers. Yet these parents are fully prepared to accuse teachers of incompetence and of unfairly picking on their children.

Ask the teachers in our best schools how many of their students could do so much better if only they tried; if only their parents were more supportive; if only teachers were able to give them more time, attention, and encouragement. All of these “ifs,” by the way, are activities and investments of time and resources that our current educational process is not structured to support.

Still not enough? Let’s ask the military services how many young men and women, the majority of which are high school seniors or graduates, who are unable to earn the minimum score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for enlistment. Ask them what percentage of the enlistees who do qualify are able to do more than the most basic jobs in the military? How many are qualified for the highly technical jobs or for officer candidacy? The answers are most disturbing.

Need more evidence? Let’s examine NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) results that indicate that only forty percent of American eighth graders are able to score well enough on NAEP assessments to be categorized as “proficient” or above. Let’s keep in mind that the definition that has been established for “proficient” is:

“solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this      level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

The emphasis is mine and it is vital that we consider the significance of this expectation that students gain the ability to apply what they have learned “to real world situations.”  It means it is not enough that students are able to earn certain scores on the assessments for given subject matter, they must also be able to utilize what they have learned throughout their lifetimes.

This means that a full 60 percent of American eighth graders have not acquired sufficient mastery over subject matter that would enable them to utilize, on the job or in solving other real-life problems, the math, science, reading, and writing skills that they were supposed to have studied in the classroom.

Let’s examine NAEP results further to see that only 10 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Hispanic students are able to earn the achievement level of “proficient” or above in math, science, reading and writing. This is the most glaring fact in all of education and most teachers and other educators are reluctant to even talk about this performance gap. Corporate reformers don’t talk about the performance gap, either, they simply offer vouchers programs so a handful of such students can escape their “failing schools.” We talk around the performance gap but we do not deal with it.

Ask yourself whether there are any circumstances in which we should be satisfied with these performance levels of American school children. Should we, in fact, be anything less than appalled by these data?

We won’t bother to go into detail about the performance of American students on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), as some have questioned the validity of such measures. Shouldn’t we be concerned, however, that our response in the face of unfavorable comparisons with between American kids and their counterparts in other nations, is to cry “foul?” Rather than accept these data as worthy of our serious attention and accept responsibility for them, we revert to claims that such assessments are biased and/or unfairly administered.

The unpleasant truth is that China, India, and other developing economies (not to mention Europe and Japan) are dedicated to replacing the U.S. as the richest and most powerful nations in the world. If we continue to scoff at these challenges, make no mistake, the future of American society will be decidedly unpleasant for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It is this author’s assertion that, in spite of the best efforts of dedicated American school teachers, our educational process and the system in which it functions are poorly structured and minimally prepared to meet the needs of American children, irrespective of their relative position on the academic performance continuum, on the affluence continuum, or their race or ethnicity. I would suggest to you that our educational process inhibits all students, even our most accomplished, from reaching their full potential and this reality demands our attention and compels us to action.

The United States is a competitor in a dynamic international marketplace. Like competitors in any sport, success is contingent upon the efficacy of one’s player development program.  I suggest to you that the American “player/student” development program has languished for long enough.

Will More Minority Teachers Make a Difference?

Will more minority teachers make a difference in the performance gap between white students and their minority classmates or will we have to close the performance gap in order to get more minority teachers?

On Monday, May 5th and article was released by the Associated Press and published by newspapers throughout the U.S. The article, about diversity among teachers, is interesting not only because the data is revealing but also because it gives us an opportunity to broaden the dialogue about the performance gap in education between white and minority students. This performance gap is the single most glaring fact in all of education and yet it is rarely discussed in any depth other than to make passing reference to it. Then, it is explained away with a series of clichés that have evolved from unverified assumptions that are influenced more by our prejudices than by reasoned observation and research.

We will not have solved the problems of public education until the performance gap has been significantly closed and ultimately eliminated and we cannot close the performance gap until we examine it scientifically and unapologetically.

Yes, it makes sense that it would be a good thing if more students “can look and see someone who looks just like them, that they can relate to,” as suggested by Kevin Gilbert, in the Associated Press article. It seems somewhat of a stretch, however, to conclude, as Gilbert does, that “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”

If Gilbert, a professional educator in Mississippi and board member of the National Education Association, was correct we would expect that minority students would perform at a high level whenever they found themselves in a classroom with a teacher of the same race or ethnic background as themselves.

There is little documented evidence to support Gilbert’s assertion and we can only speculate what would be the impact on the “performance gap” if we could somehow increase the number of minority teachers in American public school classrooms.

My daughter’s experience, teaching in an all-black elementary school in Washington DC provides an example. Other than my daughter, every other teacher in the school was African-American. Her school was one of the lowest performing schools in one of our nation’s lowest-performing school districts. The racial makeup of the collective faculty had no appreciable effect on a reality in which only a handful of students were motivated to learn and where the parents of those few students appeared to be the only parents who cared or accepted even a modicum of responsibility for the success of their sons and daughters.

The teachers whom my daughter came to know and be inspired by were not drawn from the bottom of the barrel of qualified teachers, they were dedicated men and women who gave their all to help as many students as they could in the midst of one of the most dreadful teaching environments in the U.S.

Irrespective of race or ethnicity, what almost any teacher working in a public school classroom will tell you is that the overwhelming majority of their students could be successful if only they cared and if only they would try. These same teachers would add that without the support of parents it is incredibly difficult to break through the indifference.

For those readers who will be quick to suggest that it is the teachers who do not care, unless they have walked in the shoes of their children’s teachers they know not of what they speak. The overwhelming majority of our public school teachers care very much, even in the face of years of frustration and disillusionment.

Putting more minority teachers in American public school classrooms may or may not have an impact on the performance gap but, clearly, if only we could close the performance gap between white students and their minority counterparts there would be many more minority teachers to fill those classrooms. We can also say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of public school districts would love to have more minority candidates from which to choose when attempting to fill teaching vacancies.

Below are a few facts from the National Center for Educational Statistics about both the performance gap in education and also about the number of minority students who go on to college; the population from which future teachers can be recruited.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures the percentage of 8th grade American students earning an assessment level of “proficient and above” in math and reading. The NAEP defines “proficient” as having “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” Since it is vital that the knowledge and skills a student acquires transfers to life as an adult, the phrase “application of such knowledge to real-world situations” is particularly noteworthy.

In 2012, of the students in 8th grade math, 44 percent of white students were assessed as “proficient or above,” compared to only 13 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students. In reading, the scores were similar as 43 percent of white students were assessed at “proficient or above,” compared to 15 and 19 percent of black and Hispanic students, respectively. Clearly the performance gap is as real as it is ominous. That we would consider 44 percent to be an acceptable level of achievement is sad commentary on American education.

When looking at students enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities in the same year, 59 percent were white, 15 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic. I suspect it is not a coincidence that the numbers are similar to the percentage of students assessed at “proficient or above” on the NAEP Assessments.

When looking at students earning bachelor degrees in the 2011-12 school year, 70 percent of the graduates were white while only 10.7 were African-American students, and 9.8 percent Hispanic. Clearly, not as many minority students are making it through to graduation compared to their white classmates.

Given that not every college graduate chooses a career in education, we should not be surprised that minority teachers are under-represented in American public school classrooms. It is a reality that can only be altered by closing the performance gap and this is where we must place our focus. Everything else is a diversion that obstructs our progress.