Race, Education, and Discipline

As a white person, I often hesitate to address race. It is a difficult and touchy subject. One that can easily be miscommunicated and cause hurt and anger. But it’s too important to ignore. I fully acknowledge that my opinions are limited by my own experience, so please feel free to set me straight if need be.

I have been very interested in and concerned with the “achievement gap”. Educators refer to the differences in performance by black students and white students as the achievement gap. Although there is plenty that could and should be addressed about how schools meet the needs of other populations, for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to focus on the differences between white and black students.

The achievement gap has been renamed by some “The opportunity gap”. I think for many, that term is more appropriate. We already know that poverty has the biggest negative effect on school performance across racial lines. Poor students struggle in school. Poor white students, poor black students, poor latino students, etc. Increasing the economic opportunity in poor communities has an almost immediate effect on the success of the children in school. When parents and children don’t have to worry about being evicted from their homes or where their next meal will come from, school can finally become a priority. But certainly not all black students are poor, so that doesn’t explain the whole problem.

There is a tremendous shortage of black teachers in the US. In fact, the number of black teachers has declined since 1991 from 8.3% to 6.8%. There is all kinds of conflicting research about the importance of a black student having a black teacher as a role model. My own assumption is that if there are equally effective teachers and one is black and one is white, the black student will, in most cases, connect better with the black teacher, but that is certainly not always true. There are too many factors in human relationships for me to make any broad statements about that.

My concern with the very small representation of black teachers is a little different anyway. Most teachers choose that field because school was a powerfully positive experience for them. I can’t help but guess that only 6.8%-8.3% of black students feel that way about their schooling as compared to 80%+ of white students. For black students to choose to become educators, their experience in school has to be so tremendously influencial that they want to participate in educating the next generation. That starts with the children who are sitting in America’s classrooms today.

Which brings me to the next topic. The “School to Prison Pipeline” as it’s called.

It is well-known that black children receive harsher penalties for misbehavior in school. This is incredibly unjust and I’m sure contributes to the low numbers of students who want to return to the classroom after college.

The first thing that needs to be solved, obviously, is the equity in discipline. All students should receive the same consequences for equivalent behaviors. Whenever possible, it should be constructive and positive.

So what types of discipline strategies, fairly imposed, would have a positive, constructive effect on students? In many cases, the penalties issued are not only unfair, they are ineffective in changing student behavior – particularly black student behavior. Why? I wish I knew.

Here are some guesses. Feel free to disagree, dispute, enlighten, and teach me! I’m only guessing, since clearly I don’t know the answers!

Guess #1 – Learned helplessness. When children are punished early on in school – frequently and severely – they become immune. Why even try to behave if I’m always going to be in trouble?

Guess #2 – Culturally different expectations. In many black families and communities, strong, assertive voicing of opinions is valued and encouraged. Students voicing their opinions enthusiastically or loudly, may be interpreted by a teacher as disrespectful or oppositional. (School Practices for Equitable Discipline of African American Students. ERIC Digest
by Schwartz, Wendy)

Guess #3 – Culturally different views of authority. White parents are viewed by many black parents – and students – as too permissive. Black children that I have known show pride in the strict, demanding respect for authority that their parents require. I can only imagine how that might contrast to a school setting where students are encouraged gently to “make good choices”. i often wonder if students raised in more authoritative households recognize this type of “discipline” as authority at all. I’d love to hear how that can be changed or adapted to meet the needs of all students.

Guess #4 – Racism. Okay, this isn’t a guess. This is the sad, ugly reality. Institutional racism, personal racism, unrecognized white privilege, and many other manifistations of racism are very much in play in schools as in society.

I’d love to hear feedback on this. Maybe there’s a solution in it. Maybe just a step in the right direction. The kids in school today don’t have any time to waste.

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The Sky is Not Falling – Why Common Core Standards aren’t so scary

Not a day has gone by that someone hasn’t posted on Facebook about their hatred of the Common Core.  While I have very strong opinions on many things, I can respect  a differing opinion if it’s based in facts.  None of the opinions I’ve read on the Common Core are based in fact.  And the videos?  Who makes this stuff up??

Commonly held belief: The Common Core has created a needlessly complex method for learning math.

Fact: The Common Core has created no methods for learning math.  The Common Core simply sets a benchmark for what needs to be learned in each grade level.  For example: 

By the end of kindergarten students should be able to:

Represent addition and subtraction with objects, fingers, mental images, drawings1, sounds (e.g., claps), acting out situations, verbal explanations, expressions, or equations.

By the end of third grade students should be able to:

Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.

By the end of sixth grade students should be able to:

Write expressions that record operations with numbers and with letters standing for numbers. For example, express the calculation “Subtract y from 5″ as 5 – y.
There are no problems given.  That video we’ve all seen claiming that Common Core requires a person to subtract 12 from 23 by adding 12 and 3 to make 15?  Not from the Common Core.   These types of alternate methods of learning math that are featured in the video have been around since the 1983 when the University of Chicago began their program that eventually became Everyday Math.  Around the same time that US schools were adopting Everyday Math, other schools were adopting Singapore Math, which emulates Singapore’s national curriculum.
Both of these programs stress learning concepts in a concrete way – using objects and pictures to represent mathematical operations. Only after concrete understanding is developed are the abstract concepts introduced.

Whether you like these methods or not, they’ve been used widely in US schools for over twenty years.  If you’re upset about your school using them, go to a board of education meeting and suggest a change.  Changing the Common Core won’t help!

Another misconception is that Common Core is the reason for all the standardized testing.

Not true.

No Child Left Behind established a requirement that students in select grade levels be tested on basic skills every year in 2001.  The Common Core Standards did not begin development until 2009.

In order to change the testing requirements, No Child Left Behind must be reformed at the federal level. Opting out of the Common Core States Initiative only changes which high stakes test your child will be taking. Again, if you oppose standardized testing, make your voice heard about No Child Left Behind!

Along those lines, many people believe the federal government forced states to adopt the Common Core.

Well, they certainly encouraged it with the Race to the Top Grants.  Funding was distributed based on a 500 point scoring system.  Forty of those points could be attained by adopting “common standards”.  Several states that adopted the Common Core did not receive Race to the Top grants.  The states that have not adopted the Common Core did not complete the application process for Race to the Top.

Yes, there was certainly incentive to adopt the Common Core, but not adopting them was a zero sum game.  No gain, no loss.

Want something to aim your frustrations at?  Demand a revision of Race to the Top!

The other thing that I find surprising is how very few people seem to realize that there were standards in the states before the Common Core Standards.  Some states had more “rigorous” standards than others.  In states with already demanding standards, the Common Core has not been a tremendous upheaval.   You can look up your states’ standards.  They are not terribly different from the dreaded Common Core.

I encourage people to read the standards.  Read the standards for your child’s grade.  Ask yourself if they are unreasonable.  If you believe that they are, speak to the standard that you’d like to see revised. 

Then you, and only then, can you write informed letters to your representatives in government.

Until then, this push to “Reject the Common Core” is a red herring to some very real problems in education.

The most positive thing to come out of this is that parents all over the US have become passionate about how their children are being educated.  Just make sure the passion is aimed in the right direction.


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