When 'Good Enough' Isn’t Good Enough at All for Our Students of Color

Sep 14, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Joshua Baker

But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost... —Luke 14:28
The first time I tried to buy an extra value meal at McDonald’s on my own, I placed exactly two dollars and 99 cents on the counter. I was a few days older than 13 at the time and could not wait to hand over part of my hard-earned allowance money for a Big Mac, fries and large Dr. Pepper. Only, I forgot the tax. Luckily, my dad was there to spare the extra 15 cents, but the lesson still remains—[pullquote position="left"]what I thought was good enough was only the minimum price[/pullquote]. You always have to add the tax. It is the tax that makes teaching complex. And difficult. And tiring. The tax of lesson-planning, attendance-taking, cafeteria duty, back to school nights and other duties as assigned can press teachers and administrators into a ‘good enough’ mindset. No, this article is not about how we are not doing enough as teachers or a backdoor appeal to educational perfectionism. What I think is important for all teacher leaders, instructional coaches, administrators and district leaders to consider is the cost of good enough. What does good enough look like in practice?

Listen Up, Everyone

When we commend Black and Brown students for being ‘in their seats,’ rather than engaging in rigorous instruction—that is choosing good enough. When we give students leveled reading materials instead of allowing them to level up to complex texts in the name of giving them what they need—that is a good enough practice. Good enough is accepting modest PARCC increases as evidence of progress. Good enough is hiring enough Black male educators to be better than other districts, while neglecting a formal mentoring process that supports their professional growth and advancement. [pullquote position="right"]Good enough is when you have covered a curriculum of facts but not awakened a curiosity of concepts.[/pullquote] A good enough mindset is thinking that courageous conversations around equity matter the most for teachers in minority-majority schools and districts. (Shout out to Chris Emdin.) A good enough practice is reducing student suspensions without connecting those same students to warm yet demanding adults and restorative practices. Good enough is when teacher leaders invest more time in delivering professional development than being professional development (through modeling, planning, grading and coming alongside teachers—I am guilty of this). Good enough is a mindset that prioritizes the appearance of effective instruction and school improvement over the real implementation of instructional transformation. It's seeing standards as suggestions and seeing challenges on the part of students as mental deficits. It starts with “At least the students are...” and ends with the lowest expectations anyone can have of a student. It is covering the soft bigotry of low expectations under a shield of good intentions. What are the good enough practices that are happening everyday in your classroom? In your school? In your district?

So What's at Stake?

So, those are the characteristics—now let us count up the costs. Minutes spent in meetings about meetings to better perfect the outcome of meetings. Hours spent aiming at the wrong instructional targets. Weeks spent covering curriculum without checking for understanding and correcting misconceptions. Months spent chasing data from low level assessments. Countless moments of frustration from students who graduate but cannot pass remedial courses, or as Jason Kamras puts it—live life on their own terms. And years of [pullquote]aimless wandering for boys and girls who will most likely drop out of high school if they can’t read well by third grade[/pullquote] (and for at least 10 percent of those boys and girls, years in prison cells). For profit jails, taxpayers, mothers, fathers and communities all paying the price of good enough. You have heard it said that it takes a whole village to raise one child. It also takes a village to miseducate one. When we consider all of the ways that good enough can become the standard when it comes to educating our most school dependent children, we have to consider which village we are really in. The average cost of a Big Mac extra value meal is much higher today than when I first placed my wrinkled dollars and warm quarters on the counter some 20-plus years ago. Taxes are higher, too. The same is true for what is at stake every day we clock in and look into the faces of our children. The costs have gone up. Way up. Entering into my 13th year of education, trying to escape the land of good enough in my mind is still my most pressing struggle. Teaching is hard. Teaching well is even harder. Leading and coaching is an exercise in hope and patience (with a few courageous conversations mixed in for good measure). But, as a English language arts instructional coach in the nation’s capital, I have to opt into this expensive work every day. And night. You do, too. The opportunity costs are just too damn high.

Joshua Baker

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