I teach English Language Arts to high school students in Washington, D.C. All of my students are students of color. While bright and talented, many struggle with academics and school in general. These struggles lead to what is often perceived as a gap in achievement. But I sense that focusing on the achievement gap often ignores the natural intelligence and ability of my students. A new perspective is needed to refocus our debate away from achievement (the end result of a system that is not working for all) and toward opportunity (the process that enables and encourages our students to learn and achieve).
A recent report by The Kellogg Foundation and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) entitled “Rebuilding the Ladder of Educational Opportunity” defines this opportunity gap and makes recommendations for teachers to re-engage all students, especially students of color.
“…the term opportunity gap refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students.”
That there is an opportunity gap is indisputable. What to do about it is the stuff of what makes teachers dream and plan and lose sleep and take radical risks of love and hope with our students.
As I read the report, I couldn’t help but think of those in education who think if we just do more of whatever we are doing, we will start to get better results. But the answer to students who don't read with enthusiasm isn't to give more reading. The answer to students who don't write with confidence isn't to keep assigning essays. These students have already signaled that the traditional approach is not working for them. A new approach is needed.
[pullquote position="right"]Nothing short of a radical reintroduction of the way students and teachers relate to school will change student achievement.[/pullquote] The burden of addressing the opportunity gap is not just on students or their families, we, as educators, must change our approach as well. This will not be easy, but, thanks in part to this new report, there is a plan for moving forward.
Here are some of the commonsense recommendations from the report that can be used when the realization comes that morale (or student achievement) may not improve merely by continuing old approaches:
Every educator I know identifies relationships as the primary path forward in the classroom. It is a prerequisite for addressing the opportunity gap as well. After 11 years at the same school where I enjoyed many strong, authentic relationships with many students, I switched to a new school this year.
The first lesson I learned from my students was how important building relationships is to success in the classroom. I was reminded, time and again in no uncertain terms, that there are no shortcuts to authentic relationships. And time together is a vital component that cannot be shortchanged. I am just finding my footing with the new young people in my classroom. Together we are now prepared to approach the rest of the recommendations in this report.
It is great to provide experiences and exposure for students, but this cannot be done merely for the sake of exposure. It must be done meaningfully and purposefully. Students will not, for instance, magically love reading Shakespeare merely because they have attended a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." Exposure can not be properly realized without strong relationships between student and teacher already in place.
It is hard to bring a group of young people to a performance, or to meet an author, or to conduct research in your community, unless there is already a baseline of respect for each other. Students must know that they are prepared for the experience and are trusted. And we educators must know that we can trust our students to meet the expectations we have set. When all this works well, the dynamics of experience and exposure jumpstart a new perception of self for the student. Students start thinking of themselves as the ones responsible for making change in their community.
In my experience, this often translates to better success in class as well. Students will bring a sense of their own success outside the classroom back inside the classroom walls. Even more important is blurring the lines between work in and out of the classroom. When students are not clear what is class and what is experience, I think we are starting to do our job.
It may seem odd that stepping back from authority in the classroom will address the opportunity gap. It can be messy when we cede authority in the classroom. Students as often as not, try to hand the power right back to us. But, when students are given the opportunity to learn how to take control of their own education, real transformation happens.
It is tempting to keep teaching Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird in our American literature courses they way we always have. It is definitely easier to trot out our old PowerPoints and lessons that have gone well. But what if we reimagine our curriculum with feedback from students? What if we give our students the opportunity to help us construct what is important in the texts we read? What if we dismantle the canon together and reassemble it to increase engagement with our students who have been left out of it for so long? (Shoutout to the #disrupttexts educators who are already doing this!)
I have tried this in my classroom and am amazed by the results. When students are given these opportunities, students become confident and in control of their education. These students, then, are poised to close the achievement gap. They are ready for success in whatever they do...in or out of the classroom.
We know our students are intelligent and capable. Our primary job as educators is to help our young people realize this themselves. We can help them build their academic identity by building relationships and by introducing them to situations in and out of the classroom where they have the opportunity (there’s that word again) to make a difference, and to see themselves as architects of their own future.
Keeping our student’s academic identity on the top of mind—both ours and theirs—will help them with the metacognitive learning that is fundamental to their new self. In my experience, this is the end-goal of addressing the opportunity gap. All this is a reconstruction of the educational experience, for students and for educators. It is, however, a necessary step in the re-imagination of school.
Too often we fail as educators because we are trying to replicate what got us into the business or what we think we should be doing in the classroom. [pullquote]Too often, we stop short of trying new things because we are afraid of the outcomes. When we do this, we sell ourselves short. We sell our students short.[/pullquote] It is a failure of our own imagination. And it propagates the gap in achievement for our students.
Yes, we need to close the achievement gap, but let’s imagine a new way of doing so. Let’s imagine a pedagogy where students are empowered through opportunity in and out of the classroom to envision themselves as leaders, disruptors and changemakers. Let’s not settle for the same old system of beatings until the morale improves.
Topher Kandik is the 2016 District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches high school English and creative writing at the SEED School of Washington, D.C., the nation's first public, charter, college-preparatory boarding school.
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