Tag: Assessment

Creating Risk

Creating Risk

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Minnesota state officials recently released the Minnesota Readiness Study showing that children of color and children who live in poverty are “less likely to be considered ready for kindergarten”[1] than their White and middle class counterparts.  As we try to understand, I want to focus attention on the notion of what it means to be “ready” for kindergarten.

According to a 2010 report[2] summary, the Minnesota Department of Education defines readiness as:

The skills, knowledge, behaviors, and accomplishments that children should know and be able to do as they enter kindergarten in the following areas of child development: personal and social development; language and literacy; mathematical thinking; physical development; the arts.[3]

Although I understand given the pressure to produce a highly educated and qualified citizenry that there is such emphasis of skill and knowledge development for five year olds; I do believe that these indicators, don’t tell the full story.  Not only that, but I am even more alarmed when last year’s summary goes on to “[c]onclud[e] that the result of the School Readiness Study are predictive of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) proficiency outcomes at grade three, especially in reading and math…”[4]

Essentially this report, like so many others like it, indicates that poor children and children of color not only enter school behind, but are more likely not to catch up to their White and middle class peers even by third grade.  To go further, many education reports like these and the subsequent media coverage contribute to a narrative and mental model that lead people to believe that it is the fault of the parents, the home environment, the culture, or circumstances that no one can control that leads to such disparate outcomes.  This is implied due to the emphasis that these kids are behind even before they enter school.  However, for a moment, let’s suppose we take this at face value and agree children enter into kindergarten at different levels of “readiness” in terms of their skills and knowledge.  So what?  To me, the obvious solution is to teach them the skills they need to be “ready” for kindergarten.  Is that such a radical notion?  It is true that learning accumulates with some skills building from others, but does that mean that once behind, always behind?  I would guess that in a country like our own that prides itself on upward mobility and the self-making of each citizen, the rather obvious conclusion should be no.  Yet, that’s exactly what happens.  Why?

To answer this, I go back to one of the first texts I read as a graduate student, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words (1983)[5].  She studied three communities, Roadville, a predominantly White working class community; Trackton, a predominantly Black working class community; and the Townspeople, a more racially mixed middle-class community.  She examined the orientation and use of language that each community exhibited in their day-to-day interactions amongst each other, and especially with their young children and looked at how their relationship with literacy and language related to their children’s degrees of success in school.  Heath found that each set of students entered with different relationships, understanding, skills, and knowledge of literacy and that school heavily favored the orientation and skills that the Townspeople’s children brought with them to the detriment to the other students.  It wasn’t that children from Trackton and Roadville didn’t know, but that they had different ways with words.  Specifically Heath (1983) says, “The school’s approach to reading and learning establishes decontextualized skills as foundational in the hierarchy of academic skills,” (p. 353) which indicates the need to reassess how school approaches such skills and knowledge and examines who is privileged in this process and who is marginalized.  Without this understanding and without taking the time to examine the taken-for-granted knowledge and skills teachers bring from their own homes and then perpetuate in the classroom, the achievement gap will continue to exist.  As she says,

The school is not a neutral objective arena; it is an institution which has the goal of changing people’s values, skills, and knowledge bases.  Yet some portions of the population, such as the townspeople, bring with them to school linguistic and cultural capital accumulated through hundreds of thousands of occasions for practicing the skills and espousing the values the schools transmit…

In any case, unless the boundaries between classrooms and communities can be broken, and the flow of cultural patterns between them encouraged, the schools will continue to legitimate and reproduce communities of townspeople who control and limit the potential progress of other communities and who themselves remain untouched by other values and ways of life (p. 367-369).

My point is that such reports, while sounding the alarm are indicating all the wrong sources for the achievement gap.  It is not that students enter kindergarten deficit of skills, it’s that kindergarten in its current form is not created to recognize and honor the skills children bring with them and utilize those skills as a means of learning others.  It’s a lack of knowledge, interest, and skills built into the institution itself that fails to welcome all its citizenry with the same equitable embrace as those who best exhibit the institution’s own ideologies and ways of knowing and being.  Until we change that, I believe we will continue to create risk where none actually exists.

[1] See Tom Weber, “Achievement gap exists for kids even before kindergartenMinnesota Public Radio.

[2] Due to technical errors, the report from this year is inaccessible online; therefore, I used the summaries and results from last year’s report, which makes many of the same points.

[3] See School Readiness Study Summary found HERE.

[4] Also see the School Readiness Study Summary.

[5] Heath, Ways with Words Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Why “Closing Achievement Gaps” Is Not Our Rallying Cry

Why “Closing Achievement Gaps” Is Not Our Rallying Cry

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Closing achievement gaps.”  It’s a catch phrase that has become the rallying cry for equity advocates; the vision that provides the impetus for many education policies, regulations, and programs.

And it’s a catch phrase we are trying desperately not to use.

In our work, we have found that the phrase re-inscribes negative stereotypes about children of color and their families and sends us down the wrong solution path.  That is, the way we talk about a problem does several things:

  • It locates the source of the problem, which defines the solutions we consider
  • It conveys messages to others about what is happening
  • While sometimes it debunks beliefs, it most often reinforces them

For example, if we face a problem of underachieving students, almost universally the solution is to fix the kids (i.e., remediation, supplemental Educational Services, double-dosing, Reading First) or to fix the parents (i.e., parent “involvement”).  Toting around chart after chart that graphically display differences in performance between white students and students of color rarely signifies for an audience the deep and historic divides between white people and people of color related to access, equity, and outcomes.  Instead, it reinforces deficit thinking about students of color and their families.  It reinforces a deep-seated myth that “those” children just are not as smart as white children.  When we spoke with the National Assessment Governing Board, we shared with them how their representations of racial achievement mirror a figure that was in a prominent publication when I was entering kindergarten.

As long as we are only focusing on underachieving students, we shift the burden/ blame for low achievement onto students, their parents, and their communities.   It takes our focus away from the system and puts it at the feet of children as the source of our problems. 

Alternatively, if the problem is defined as underserved students, the solution set is different.  Understanding the problem this way, we might look for solutions related to targeting resources (per pupil expenditures, equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers) or improving instruction (using formative assessment, differentiating instruction, implementing research-based practice).

How often have you heard someone decry racial achievement gaps in, say, reading, and then go on to focus solely on reading?  Probably the most insidious problem with our hyper-focus on “closing achievement gaps” is that when excellence is defined purely as academic achievement, we can have “excellent” schools that still allow for racial insensitivity that harms children.  See Tyrone Howard’s TCR article, Who really cares? The disenfranchisement of African American males in PreK–12 schools: A Critical Race Theory perspective,[1] for examples of such lived experiences of students of color.  Or go back and read Ann Arnett Fergusons, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity.  Unfortunately, our hyper-attention to test score data narrows our focus and we ignore aspects of the student experience that matter deeply.

Why do we have widespread acknowledgement of racial achievement gaps but not widespread acknowledgement of race?

We are hopeful that explicit work on race could be what will allow us to crack the historic AND PERSISTENT challenges that most US schools have faced in serving children of color.  We have seen that when we define the problem we are trying to solve about schooling today as systemic racism, a whole new solution set is opened up to us.  Now we can begin to engage in courageous conversations about race[2] and systemic equity leadership as solutions to the problem of historic and persistent inequities.

We have been deeply moved by educators who are willing to examine their own racial identity and their complicity, even collusion, with white privilege—and the children they encounter as they work in earnest to change.  Unfortunately, very few of our education policy discussions get to this framing of the problem.  Are you tackling systemic racism in your school, school community, or education policies?  If so, we’d love to hear and learn from you!


[1] Howard, T.C. (2008). Who really cares? The disenfranchisement of African American males in PreK–12 schools: A Critical Race Theory perspective. Teachers College Record, 110(5).

[2] Check out our colleagues at Pacific Educational Group for a powerful example of a framework for courageous conversations about race.

Reflections on Elementary School

Reflections on Elementary School

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The last day of the 2010-11 academic year for my kids was four days ago.  It was a milestone day for both of my kids. My son finished his two years in junior high and is preparing to head into high school.  My daughter finished 6th grade, capping off her—and our—elementary school experience.  She is preparing to transition to the junior high school that my son is departing.

As you can imagine, this has been a time of reflection and remembrance for our entire family.  Unlike me, both of my kids attended the same school in the same town for their entire elementary school experience.  It meant that school was a pretty important institution in both of their lives—and in mine.  It also meant that I got to be a part of a particular school community for nine straight years.  As we leave that elementary school for good, I thought I would share a few reflections about what mattered to us as a family over these past nine years in one elementary school.

Combined Classes: The elementary school originally was organized with all classes being combined every two years after kindergarten.  That meant my son had the same teacher in 1st and 2nd grade, another teacher for 3rd and 4th grade, and another teacher for 5th and 6th grade.  Each year, half his class would be new, as the upperclassmen moved on to their next teacher and a new crop of younger students filled in.  In 2005, the school decided not to combine 1st and 2nd grade anymore, so my daughter had a different 1st and 2nd grade teacher.  But after, she was in the combined classroom experience, too.

The chance for my kids to have teachers who knew them over a long(ish) period of time was valuable.  The chance for me and their dad to get to know the teachers over time was valuable.  By and large, the teachers really did get to know our kids—and us.  We saved a lot of time over the course of those nine years by not having to start over every single year explaining what mattered to us and what we most wanted to work on with our kids.

Not only did the combined classroom model allow for a deeper student-teacher relationship, it also allowed my kids to spend part of their time as the younger kids in a class and part of the time as the older kids.  With two children with summer birthdays, this was surprisingly nice.  They don’t suffer for being the youngest in their peer group, but it was a nice opportunity to be the older mentors at least part of the time.

Lest you cringe (like I did) at the thought of a kid being stuck with a teacher for two years when the relationship isn’t working out, I do know several students who moved out of a classroom between grades.  Admittedly, for some of the parents I know who did this, it was a tough decision to make; it was not common and the ethos was to stay in the assigned classrooms.  And it generally required strong parental involvement to make such a choice.  But, it was possible, which I thought was pretty important in each case I encountered.

Test data mattered, but SO much mattered more: Yes, we are in Iowa, where standardized testing has been going on for over 70 years.  Indeed, we are in Iowa City, birthplace of the Iowa Testing Program and home to ACT and Pearson.  In addition to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, our school district uses the District Reading Assessment, an interim assessment that gives teachers periodic snapshots of student proficiency.  And our teachers were quite adept at being able to use the data from the assessments to decide how to help each student progress.  As parents, we were given test score data in our parent-teacher conferences and we discussed with the teachers how they were interpreting the data.  I was able to see how data driven decision making made a positive difference in my children’s education.

I also, thankfully, was in a school that did not value test score data over and above other criteria that really mattered.  We had a strong principal and thoughtful teachers who did not ostracize us if our kids did not perform well on a test.  Admittedly, we were in a privileged position; the school was populated by some pretty privileged kids and was not in danger of being placed on a “watch” list or being bad-mouthed because of the composition and performance of our student body.  And it really did take leadership to make sure that test score data had an appropriate place in the educational process.

Which was great, because in the end, I cared so much more about how my kids felt about themselves and about school than I did about how they did on those tests.  That’s not say that I wasn’t concerned about their academic performance.  I just knew that if they learned in first or second or third grade that they weren’t “smart” or they weren’t valued or they were a problem—or that school was an unfriendly place or that they felt bad being there—then my children really would suffer throughout their school career.  I think we made it very clear to all the teachers, principals, and classified professionals what really mattered to us and why.  And, they agreed.  Almost to the individual teacher, they exhibited care and attention to my children as whole children.  Yes, there were a couple of exceptions, but to be in an overall school culture where academics are central but happiness and engagement matter was a good thing.

Race Matters: As I write this, I am reminded of my privileged position, as a white mother with two white children in a predominantly white school system.  It took me several years to realize that not all Iowa City schools were created equal and that not all schools had the kind of racial diversity that I had hoped for my kids to be a part of.  I know…, “Duh”!  We had picked an elementary school not based on test scores or student demographics, but because we found a house we loved and we believed it didn’t matter which elementary school our kids attended.  They all were great, we thought, and, given what we did know about the town’ demographics and the reputation of the school, we thought we were in a racially diverse school community.  We were wrong.

I realize now that I had a kind of disdain for the practice of picking houses based on the racial make-up and/or the test scores of the neighborhood schools—because too often that has been a way of racially segregating our schools.  And so I put on blinders.  Looking back, I wish I had looked at the school demographics.  It turned out we were on the boundary between two very different elementary schools.  I do not want to diminish my children’s feelings of school pride, but I really do wish we had looked for a home just a few blocks to the south so that my kids had attended a much more racially and economically diverse school.  I couldn’t see that then, for lots of complicated reasons.  But race has mattered a lot in my kids’ school experience.  Just because we were in a predominantly racially homogeneous school, doesn’t mean my kids are exempt from race.  Quite the opposite!  But it is far too easy for us to reflect on our experiences and to forget that being white is to live a racialized existence in the United States today.  Thankfully, my kids can reflect openly on their own race and the way race is a factor in our school and our neighborhood.  We just too often miss the opportunities to recognize what we are learning and how we are benefiting unfairly by our race.

I hope that by being reflective about my own anecdotal experiences and the experiences my children share with me, I can be somewhat conscious about the perspectives I bring to my work.  I hope to constantly work to recognize our perspectives, uncover our blind spots, and acknowledge our biases.  Not to deny them, but to better understand them and to build education policies that honor and acknowledge the realities of student and parent experiences and choices.

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