Part II: Lagging Black and Latino Students Pressurizing Politics of No Child Left Behind

By Jim Allen, Editor, Nu Vote Reach and DC Politics

The Bush (43) administration’s 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act pushes states to compete for Department of Education funding, rather than automatically receiving it based on a formula. It has spawned a generation of purveyors of the controversial “teach-to-the-test” model. In September 2012, President Barack Obama, introduced a plan to allow states to opt out of the NCLB requirement that all children be proficient in reading and math, by 2014, if states meet conditions such as setting standards to prepare students for college and careers and setting performance-review standards for teachers and principals. Thirty-three states have received such waivers of NCLB performance mandates and too many school systems still appear to be no closer to closing educational achievement gaps between certain groups of students.

In order to meet President Obama’s NCLB opt-out requirements, the Virginia State Board of Education, after looking at the passing rates of students by ethnic group, drafted a controversial new set of education goals that are higher for white and Asian kids than for Afro-Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities. For example, in math, the passing rate is 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for Afro-Americans and 33 percent for kids with disabilities.

“So why do we have these different subgroups? Because we’re starting with black children where they are,” said Winsome Sears, one of three Afro-American board members at a September state board of education meeting.

“We can’t start them at the 82 percentile because they’re not there. The Asian students are there. And so the real question is why aren’t black students starting at the 82 percentile? Why? Why are they not there?” Sears said.

No matter how one might feel about the coarse competition for education dollars sparked by NCLB, the fact remains that school systems have to do something to deal with the poor performance, discipline, social issues, and truancy of a growing number of pupils (1-10 DC public school students are truant).

In terms of solutions, a growing number of charter schools have opened in many jurisdictions as an alternative to public schools where students have substandard performance.

Teaching to the test essentially evaluates so-called “value-added” (VA) teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores. A study published in January 2012 by researchers from Harvard and Columbia University, The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Students’ Outcomes in Adulthood, which tracked one million students from 4th grade to adulthood concluded, “We find that when a high VA teacher joins a school, test scores rise immediately in the grade taught by that teacher; when a high VA teacher leaves, test scores fall,” wrote the researchers.

So you say Asian students are outpacing all students in educational achievement in Virginia and many other US public schools, hmmm? Before we get to the role of parental involvement in educational preparation and the early learning of students, let’s focus on teaching methods in Japanese schools, highlighted in an NPR-published story by Alix Spiegel, who reports:

In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.

“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube.

Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ “

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says`. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”

Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.

It’s a small difference in approach that Stigler believes has some very big implications.

There’s some great food for thought there when considering solutions to address the critical issue of improving educational outcomes for public school children.

Spiegel’s reporting shows that in the Japanese classrooms Stigler studied, teachers consciously tried to push their students slightly beyond their capabilities. Once the task was mastered, the teachers point out that the student’s accomplishment came through hard work and struggle.

Virginia educators believe dumbing down testing parameters, in response to NCLB, is a viable stop-gap measure. At a September meeting of the state board of education, Patricia Wright, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, defended the policy.

“Rest assured, all of us hold all students to the same academic standards, but when it comes to measuring progress, we have to consider that students start at different points,” Wright said.

“The concept here is that if indeed within six years we can close the achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing schools — at least cut it in half — that would be acceptable progress,” Wright later told NPR.

That may not be a consensus great solution, but they are trying to keep their NCLB money – which they must – and trying deal with the reality of poor test scores among many students in certain minority groups.

What one does not hear much talk of is how to possibly, intervene into unfavorable community social structures to address the critical issue of preparing children to be educated.

Excerpting from his singular, but little known 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, about 45years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in an address to the 10th Anniversary Convention of the Sothern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta on August 16, 1967:

“In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than the white schools. One twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, 75 percent hold menial jobs. This is where we are. Where do we go from here?” King said.

Where, indeed?

The National Academy of Sciences says early childcare environments and early childhood education are the best indicators for effective early learning, language development and school achievement.

To me, that indicates that parents and guardians, not teachers and schools, bear the brunt of the responsibility for the educational fate of students.

But suppose mom is a marginally educated and single, and dad is less educated and gone?

Suppose the latchkey starts too early for kids of the honorable working poor.

Suppose there is no breakfast, no homework assistance, domestic violence, sexual abuse – oh yes, and no children’s books in a home?

Suppose mama is on crack – will she take a couple of hits off to check homework?

Suppose grandma or granddad, just can’t read or write very well?

Suppose kids are raised in an environment where “uh-huh,” and “ah-huh” are words?

Suppose in the phonetic structure in your house the “th” sound is replaced with an “f” or a “v” at the end of a word – as in, “wif” and “smoove”?

Suppose you are weaned on fast food?

A child’s experiences in the first few years of life (and proper nutritional intake) are critical to growth and brain development – charting pathways for learning. The early years are critical to language development, socialization, and higher thinking – key skills needed for success in school (and standardized tests) and beyond – lending credence to Head Start-type programs.

Do we just throw away, or simply lower expectations of the kids who through no fault of their own are the second-generation growing on up musical lyrics like “Die MF Die” — fully unabbreviated, which I heard blaring from a well-dressed young man’s car with a kid in a car seat in it, a couple of MLK Jr Day’s back — now a staple in their daily educational intake?

What do you do when the values of an increasing share of your community (young and old) are disproportionately influenced by marginally literate millionaire entertainers and/or athletes, solely by virtue of their affluence, and not “the content of their character”?

What if your boys think being a faux “thug” and your girls believe being an “around the way girl” are reasonable alternatives to contributory citizenship?

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” said Dr. King (1963: Strength to Love).

I think we have to wake up and give “the dream” a rest.

So many churches leaders today are pushing for the prosperity of their ministries (not the community or even their members) that they don’t have time to apply the type of sacrificial “balm in Gilead” to battle the ignorance, poverty, AIDS and addiction or attend to the “least” of us in a way that Dr. King’s generation of preachers did, which included my father, the late Rev. James Oliver Allen, Sr.

The words “Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists,” echo from Dr. King in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail (a must read!).

So maybe this phenomenon isn’t so new.

Don’t get me wrong, there are indeed some true spiritual warriors out there (and I know some personally, of all faiths) – but too few are in the trenches in these educationally deteriorating communities – given the headcount of those “called.”

I really had better enjoy this Thanksgiving holiday, because some of my friends and family are soon going to stop speaking to me.

So be it.

End of Part Two


About Jim Allen, Founder/Editor, NuVote Reach

Currently serving as Chief Operating Officer of Alejo Media, emerging as one of Washington, D.C.’s most artistic and innovative video production and post-production media companies. Previously, as Director of News and Media Services at the American Institute of Physics, he led the creation of the news platform, which includes Inside Science TV. He also previously served as Media Director, Energy NOW! and Clean Skies TV and as Special Reports Editor/Media Relations Director at The Hill newspaper. Jim has served in various executive, business development and/or programming roles for a number of media concerns including CBS Radio/Television, Radio One Inc. and the Los Angeles Times. Since 1995, he has been a contributor to the Reporters Notebook news roundtable program on NBC 4 TV, DC. He earned a music scholarship to Delaware State University, a Bachelor of Arts in English/Television Production at Virginia State University and, from 2003-2007, attended Concord University School of Law. His commendations include the Washington, DC Teachers' Union Media Relations Award and shared an American Academy of Nursing National Media Award. Jim also chairs a development task force for the faith-based, non-profit House of Help/City of Hope, founded and led by Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, which has provided substance abuse, mental health and continuing education programs and transitional housing for tens of thousands of homeless (and battered) women, families and men (including ex-offenders) at its shelter and treatment facilities in Washington, DC and Prince George’s and Charles Counties, MD.
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3 Responses to Part II: Lagging Black and Latino Students Pressurizing Politics of No Child Left Behind

  1. I’ve always felt that as a society we waste our country’s most important asset – our children – by not demanding more of our education system. It will require a cultural shift by everyone in society. Before we can truly improve learning, we must ingrain in our children, and ourselves, that struggle, discomfort and failure are pivot points in life where learning truly occurs. Our kids need to see us challenging ourselves, struggling to learn and mastering new things in life. If we’re ever going to achieve the Rev. Dr. King’s vision, we must start with educating the next generation.

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