Chris Stewart

The Belief Gap: Stop Blaming The “P’s”

The news is stunning and has me reeling. Not a single 7th grader at Lucy Laney Community School in Minneapolis was proficient in math last year. Newly released state test results in Minnesota feels a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. Year after year we are reliving the same poor results, the same lackluster responses from leaders, and little acknowledgement that things can be different. Sure, this is one story in one city, but it isn’t exactly an outlier. New analysis by a community organizing group in New York found 90 schools where no black or Latino students passed state tests. There are entire states where no black or Latino students take the Advanced Placement computer science exam. So what gives? If you read the comment sections of online stories about these terrible inequities you’ll see what I call blaming the “P’s.” Bad parents. Unchecked poverty. Underfunded programs. Meddling politicians pushing too many reform policies. It’s true that we can’t have a full education discussion without addressing those issues. However, obsessing over the P’s stops us from seeing one neglected truth: our children can pass these tests. To think that they are not making it to the entirely-too-low bar of “proficiency” is unimaginable for people who want them to thrive in their adult years. Proficiency. Not even mastery. Observers on all sides of the education debate need to see what many parents already know: our kids are capable of more than society expects of them. If anything, we need to close the belief gap before anything else. We are not without examples. There are thousands of schools across the country that are beating expectations with students many believe to be unteachable. The Union City public schools in New Jersey have transformed over two decades from nearly facing state takeover to outscoring the state average test scores. That district’s attention to their own P’s — pedagogy, preschool and professionals — created the conditions for students to beat the odds. Some school reformers won’t love that story because it happened without any of the favorite changes to schools they propose (e.g. charter schools, tighter teacher evaluation, turnarounds). Likewise, in New Orleans, more students qualify for free and reduced price lunch today than pre-Katrina, yet the percentage of failing schools has declined, and still the number of students scoring “basic” or above on state exams has skyrocketed. Teacher unionists and their sympathizers will dislike that story because it proves success can happen outside of traditional, unionized systems. Yet it all comes together to prove systems can be developed to accelerate student achievement. I’m convinced parents care less about school models than thriving children. We can learn from high-flying traditional district schools and non-traditional charter schools alike. It isn’t magic or miracles pushing them above other schools. It’s more boring than that. In these schools, “reforms” focus intently on instructional leadership, relationships with students and their families, using data to improve instruction, and fostering a culture of achievement. It doesn’t sound like the proverbial rocket science, right? Make no mistake about it — America needs a better safety net, with social supports for children lacking economic security. Still, all too often the talk concludes that students’ race and their family poverty are fatal blows against all possibilities of achievement. With so many examples to the contrary, with so much money changing hands, with so many people earning a living from working with students facing high stakes in their lives, and with so many people of all stripes waiving the social justice flag, it’s unforgivable to contribute to education’s disastrous belief gap. Our kids are amazing. Many schools are proving it every day with the best possible “P” —  progress.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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