I received the questions below, posed as a simple, quick-response survey. I didn’t find it quick. I thought it was hard. I’m not sure whether I have painted a complete picture I agree with below, but for the purpose of furthering a complex debate, here are some of my thoughts on the so-called achievement gap and my role in perpetuating/alleviating it… Questions for Faculty and Mentors:
1.Do you think the achievement GAP? can be closed? Why or why not?
- Hmm. This is a hard question since I’m not sure if I agree with any particular definition of the achievement gap. I tend to think more along the lines of Ladson-Billing’s 2006 Presidential Address in which she contends that we would be better to think of an education debt that must be paid down in a variety of ways over time and includes systems and structures that are outside of schooling. I’ve a written some papers on the subject and I think our general use of it has made the challenges of creating effective educational structures for poor students and students of color seem simple and solvable in a way they it is not.
- Is the question: Do I think there is a short route to getting poor students and students of color who have historically underperformed on standardized testing to do as well as their peers on these tests? If that’s the question, I think that more talented people in schools caring about kids both is helpful and increases the likelihood that some of those students will succeed on standardized tests and on whatever else they may hope to achieve.
- Having said that, I think we need, as Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) and others suggest, an era of new, young, different schools that serve many different kinds of purposes. Such an era would have to entail changes in some of the fundamental institutions that effect the lives of people in their communities and the lives of children. Rather than attempting to create universal and homogeneous school practices, we should uncover and share a wide array of practices that can be adapted to the needs of each individual school community.
- Finally: I’m a teacher and I absolutely believe that all students can learn and that if we can teach students to read and do sixth grade math and we care about them, they will do fine on the PSSAs or equivalent (most of those tests are not even particularly difficult). I am worried that we are on the wrong track with schools right now and that it is a very hard time to be a teacher, but I 100% believe that all students can succeed on standardized or other measures. I am filled with endless optimism, but we have our work cut out for us. The work is messy and hard and cannot be bottled and sold.
2. How has your thinking about the achievement GAP? changed since working with corps members?
- I continue to think that high levels of hope and high intellectual capacity really matter for teachers being able to help students. Teachers who have high emotional intelligence, are hard-working, and are optimistic are generally easy to help be successful in the classroom, almost regardless of their backgrounds (although true masters are experts in their contents and not just competent)
- I would say that one major difference is that I have come to realize that structural knowledge is really important for teachers. It is very hard to teachers to truly help students if they themselves don’t understand how the systems that students interact with work. Basic knowledge of the history of schooling really helps teachers anchor their own experiences and make meaning out of them and helps them support students realistically and effectively.
- I think also that the limitations being placed on teachers in Philadelphia by the school district or in some cases by their principals are shocking and deeply troubling. I have teachers who are required to keep students sitting silently in neat rows 100% of the time, others who are required to snap at students and still others who are not allowed to provide individualized attention to their students. While I do believe theiI do not believe that any of these mandates are likely to close the achievement gap. They are certainly unlikely to keep talented teachers working in district-run schools.
3. What role do you believe the Penn program plays in eliminating the achievement gap?
- I think most importantly, the Penn program helps teachers better understand their work and context. When corps members either become long-term educators or when they go on to law or medical school (or become carpenters), they will have a much more profound understanding of the deep structures of inequity in our country and they will have some ways for thinking about the systems changes needed to solve those problems.
- I also think that each individual teacher who is more confident and more capable is directly affecting the “achievement gap.”
4. Why did you choose to become a faculty member/mentor in the Penn GSE/TFA Urban Teacher program?
- Because I love teaching, I love teaching and learning about schools, I love talking about schools and hearing about corps member’s experiences. I love feeling like I am of use to teachers who desperately need sources of help and hope. I provide context and sympathy. I also believe I help teachers see the big picture which allows them to focus more clearly on the work they need to do in the classroom.
5. Which course do you teach? Can you briefly describe the content and goals of the course? Why do you believe this course is important for corps members? If you are a mentor, in what ways do you feel the mentoring is important for corps members?
- I teach School and Society. I think the course is important for all of the reasons outlined above. It provides essential social and historical context. I’m attaching a draft of our unit plan with our goals etc.