Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In which we don't actually believe all students can learn.

Educators love to talk about reducing the achievement gap and about how all students can learn – in other words, about not giving up on students at or near the bottom of the spectrum. And it’s admirable that we say these things, and I think we really believe them, in the sense that, all other things being equal, we think it’s worthwhile to spend time on low-achieving students. Some of us would even go so far as to say that – again, all other things being equal – we’d spend more time with students who are doing poorly than with students who are doing well.

But all other things aren’t equal. Most educators believe that different students respond differently to instruction, and that spending the same amount of time with some students will produce more improvement than with other students. Usually this is blamed more on behavioral factors which lead to less time being spent actually teaching, but the fact is that almost always, the students we believe will respond best to instruction are exactly the ones who are doing well.

It’s not that we don’t think the other kids can learn. We do believe they can learn. But we believe that we’ll have to spend so much time on eliciting the sort of behaviors necessary for learning that it just won’t be worth the effort. So we end up prioritizing the students who are doing pretty well anyway, because we know then we can spend our time teaching.

Some people argue that this is missing a key piece of the equation: although it’s true that you’ll have a stronger direct effect if you focus on the “good kids,” there are strong enough indirect effects of prioritizing the “bad kids” to make it worthwhile. In particular, the bad kids spend all their time fucking up your class for other kids. If you spend the resources to enlist them, even though this probably won’t end up turning them into lawyers, they’ll probably stop fucking everything up. So even though it takes a lot of extra work, the payoff is huge not only in terms of the effect on their learning, but the effect on other people’s learning.

But I’ve recently started hearing about a third approach, which tends to be used especially at really shitty schools. At a school like the one where I just got hired, it’s really difficult to target the bad kids – they’re usually not in school, and there are enough of them that you just can’t do the kind of interventions that you’d need to get them back on track. You need really intensive work with a lot of these kids – probably the equivalent of a full-time worker each, between counselors, social workers, and teachers.

So instead, you target the kids who are pretty bad, but not terrible. Here, the priority goes to students who are failing one or two classes – roughly between the fifth and the twentieth percentile. These are kids who still have some hope for academic success, and who might get there with a little extra help at lunch or after school. By doing this, too, you can isolate the kids you can’t help – you ideally go from having four failing students in a 20-person class to having one, who probably will just stop showing up when ze doesn’t have accomplices anymore.

Beyond that, if you successfully target all the borderline cases, incoming frosh classes will start to see their options differently – and so you’ll get fewer students who fall to the level where you give up on them.

I can’t say I’m really comfortable with this. We really shouldn’t see our choice as being between teaching most of the kids and teaching none of them – especially since a lot of times what we’re doing is ignoring the most vulnerable students (even at a school that’s entirely made up of poor students of color, my impression is that the students we expel or allow to fail are more likely to be homeless, abused, or neglected). But at many schools those really are the only two choices.

Our two favorite phrases, as a profession, are currently “closing the achievement gap” and “all students can learn.” And the thing is, I think we really do believe in these principles. But we believe in them in an abstract sense – where, all other things being equal, we don’t think it’s a waste of time to work with vulnerable, low-achieving students.

But all other things aren’t equal. Targeting those kids is a lot more work. And we need to start asking, “Do you believe you should target low-achieving students from disadvantaged populations even if that means less total learning will take place? Does your belief that all students can learn come with a commitment to make sure all students do learn, even if that means other students don’t learn as much?”

I think most teachers would answer no to both of these questions, and they do, through their actions, all the time.

1 comment:

  1. Every quarter I've TA'd, I've had the same problem. The ones I want to come to office hours, ask questions, and basically act as if they're not docile bodies attending class and not turning in assignments or participating, never do, and the ones who don't need my help, do.
    At this point, this problem is virtually indissociable for me from another one: that the gap between my students who are, typically, white, middle class, and went to private schools and those who are, typically, Latino/a or black and went to public high schools, is so wide that I don't even consider it fair to hold them to the same standards.
    My guess is that a lot of my lowest achieving students are similar to higher achieving students in the kind of high schools you've been at-Robeson, Senn, Amundsen, et. all. Which, rather disconcertingly, means that the upper echelons of your average shitty American public high school end up being the lower echelons of your average mediocre American public university.
    Essentially, most of the kids at the kind of schools I construe you as referring to are more or less fucked, barring exceptional effort or natural talent on their part and the will to defy institutional conditions stacked against them.
    Any discussion of educational reform, in my opinion, must ultimately become a discussion of reforming or abolishing whatever socio-economic system education exists in.
    Which nicely elides our responsibility as educators to do something about these problems.



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