Stop Awfulizing Kids

Interesting post.  The one point that I take issue with: “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.” I agree; don’t pre-judge your children or limit their potential…but as a teacher, I obsessively thought about my kids and their backgrounds, because it deepened my knowledge of them and the strengths that they brought with them to school. Deeply knowing a child’s background does not equate to lowering expectations.

I have been asked about my proposed solutions.  Here they are:

1) leadership (school and district) that really believes that all kids can be successful

2) improved and intentional hiring practices that get the right people in front of kids (teachers and school leaders)

3) professional development and professional expectations that set a high bar but provide support for people to learn/get there

4) school boards that emphasize equity and don’t cave to political pressure of people who have no real vested interest in equity in public schooling, who send their own kids to private school ……………… I could literally speak on this for hours.

Notice, none of my solutions focus on “fixing” kids and/or families.


PARCC….My Thoughts

Jumbled post tonight…lots of thoughts on this topic.

So…I stopped by my son’s school today during lunch.  During my time talking with my little guy, I asked him how PARCC testing was going.  He said “fine”.  I asked him how he likes the test (fully expecting eye rolling, groaning, dramatics)… he said “it’s cool, I like it. It’s on the computer”.  I was surprised.  But I was also happy to hear that PARCC testing is not the demoralizing, horrible experience that I have read about in a variety of articles and blog posts.  Exhale.

I have to admit, given the many aspects of my own identity (racial minority, mother, former teacher, former administrator, etc.), standardized tests have a funny place in my own heart… On one hand, standardized tests give us important data about how children are doing, particularly when disaggregated by race/income.  They push us to see “ability” in kids who we never considered, beyond using our biased and privileged beliefs and mindsets (and subsequent perceptions).  They also push us to see trends among groups.  To see who is faring well and not, in our current way of operating.  On the other hand, they don’t and can never give us the full story about any child (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value), or even the full story about any school or district (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value).  They should direct our attention to more fully and deeply understand the story, which should inform our response (if the story should be challenged or affirmed).

When I was in 5th grade, I was given a standardized gifted test to see if I qualified for gifted services.  The results stated that I was not gifted.  As a result, I did not receive access to gifted enrichment services.  I also remember taking the Illinois Prairie State exam in elementary (I think that is what it was called) and testing off the charts in language/reading/vocabulary, but dismally under-performing in math.  Those test results made me feel really smart, albeit not in math…  Those test results spoke value to me, particularly when I saw my grade level equivalents (high school for some).  They also spoke of my value to my parents and teachers.  When I immigrated from Canada in 4th grade, I was placed in the lowest reading group; this was in spite of my native English language ability (English in an official language in Canada,  It was also in spite of my ability/strength as an avid/fluent reader.  I read voraciously at home; I literally kept a flashlight on the side of my bed, so that I could get lost in books at night after everyone had fallen asleep.  My teacher didn’t know any of this about me (“home life” can be conceptualized in one-dimensional ways).  She knew what I looked like, where I came from, and assigned me the lowest reading group.  It is 100% true that kids know who is in the “high” “middle” and “low” groups in any given classroom; I remember the shame and insecurity that came with being in the lowest group.  However, after my high language/reading/vocabulary scores, I was moved into the high reading group, and stayed there.  I was grateful for that.  Tests can never fully define anyone… that to me is obvious.  As I shared earlier in the post, I was not “gifted” but if you were to talk to my high school honors English teachers, they shared different and essential feedback with me. If you were to talk to some of my college professors, or the literary journal that published my work, or my mother :-), those standardized test results did not speak to my value or to a full definition of who I was.

I am acutely aware that much of my success (particularly as a female racial minority) has come from my ability to navigate systems that have been defined by white dominant culture.  One of those systems is standardized testing.  The opt-out movement will not help my children (who are racial minorities) gain access to social capital/power, which they will need to navigate society in a way that doesn’t leave them completely powerless.  I am not ascribing to assimilation here as I want them to be able to navigate society with their sense of self and community in tact.  Even if I fundamentally disagree with PARCC (design, process, purpose), my children need to know how to navigate that aspect of the system, as they need to know how to navigate many other things (as I have navigated) to have access to a fuller range of life choices/opportunities.  It is hard enough for racial minorities to gain access to college; there are so many hoops to jump through.  If I opt my children out of standardized testing, how am I really preparing them to effectively navigate these and other hoops?

When I stepped into the principal position at Garden Hills, one of the many labels that was ascribed to the school was the honor of having some of the lowest test scores in the district at the elementary level.  We also served the highest percentage of children living in poverty, the highest number of children identified as homeless, and one of the largest populations of children living in the foster system.  I was excited by this context.  To me, if you couldn’t be successful in this context, then  you could never claim to be a master teacher or an effective leader in the public school system.  I didn’t care about the stigma or professional risk involved in taking over a building that many were afraid to attach themselves to professionally.  Once starting, I quickly surrounded myself with a powerful administrative and instructional leadership team, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.  My first year at Garden Hills was one of my most challenging yet triumphant professional experiences (in so many ways).  I could literally see the school begin to transform.  I could see the adults transforming, in such beautiful, courageous, and powerful ways.  No standardized test score could capture the courage, resilience, and growth that was developing in my building.  Knowing this, I tried my best to educate perspective parents and community members about standardized tests and the dangers in choosing a school for their child/creating a story for the school solely based off of test scores.

I see a movement towards anti-testing on a national, state, and local level, which concerns me, because I believe that it is a movement steeped in privilege.  I see a lot of privileged blind spots in that movement.  For one, it is difficult to identify achievement gaps (opportunity and access gaps) without this kind of testing accountability in place.  Continuing to disaggregate the data by race and income-level is absolutely needed.  I am 100% confident in saying that, given my experiences in education (now for over a decade), that I generally don’t trust the people who are leading schools, systems, and classrooms to acknowledge these gaps and to do something about them without this accountability measure, no matter how poorly designed the measure may be.  We need an accountability measure.  I also want to share that when groups of children do poorly, that if we interpret that as innate inferiority (biological or cultural), that this interpretation is a lazy and convenient one.  Gaps should inform where we focus energy to develop true understanding of root cause before designing strategy for improvement.  The ways that we respond actually skirt root causes and contribute to the continued widening of the achievement gap.  A close examination of the most recent data for all Champaign Unit 4 schools (I’ll focus on elementary) along racial lines points to a persistent and dramatic achievement gap with black children (45 percentage points in reading/ 47 percentage points in math), English language learners (41 percentage points in reading/20 percentage points in math), and low-income children (45 percentage points in reading/ 41 percentage points in math) solidly at the bottom.  The data has shown perpetual, continued increases/widening since the 2008-2009 school year.  The conclusion that some have come to (whether they’ve voiced it or not) is that these children and their families are inferior (biologically, socially, culturally, etc.) and that the results are simply evidence of that.  The conclusion that I’ve come to given my own experience working in high-poverty schools across state lines is that schools and districts haven’t really made the commitment to adjust the way they serve children to meet their needs.  An inconvenient truth is that schools and districts operate in this way directly because of the operating principles, values, and norms of larger mainstream society.  The truth is that surface level-interventions (my God there are so many in this community, state, and nation) and status-quo policies and practices (ie. self-contained gifted programming/suspension/expulsion) produce no results (or limited results) along equity lines.  Yet we continue to pursue them for fear of disrupting the status quo that keeps inequities solidly in place.  We have been doing this for so long that we now have generations who have come to expect that schooling be perpetuated in this way, because it is what we have known.  We have leadership (classroom, school, district, society in general) that is not courageous/empowered enough to challenge those norms in the best interest of the groups that need it most.

My hope for my son who is taking the PARCC test this week…. I hope that he understands that he can do it.  That he must do his best.  That even if he does his best, that the test won’t being to speak to his value.  It won’t begin to speak to his potential.  It won’t begin to speak to his dreams.  It will speak to a snapshot of his knowledge and his ability to navigate this hurdle (one of many hurdles that he will face as a man of color), at this moment in time.  I want him to know that I expect him to do it. That he must. That he represents himself, our family, and our community in what he demonstrates (whether that is fair or not, which is another life lesson that I want him to internalize…life isn’t fair…you must pursue life in the best way you can in spite of the cards that you’ve been dealt, and the things that suck about it).  I want him to know that he has ancestors who triumphed in much greater ways.  Who persevered in the face of more explicit struggles.  That he is not alone in our experience, and that he must continue to pursue life, with a passion and purpose that he has defined for himself (ideally in collaboration with God).   I want him to know that I love him and that I will be in his corner.  Always.   ‪#‎ungiftedbutsuccessfulmom‬ ‪#‎mykidwilltakethetests‬‪ #‎mykidwillalsoknowthetestsplaceinhislife‬ ‪#‎notopposedtoPARCC‬

The Personal Challenge of Pushing for Equity

I’m an official blogger!!!  Full disclosure…I have been thinking about starting this blog for several months.  Many national and local events have transpired that have made me really acknowledge and name the need for more awareness in our community around why educational equity needs to be moved to the forefront of our discussions/priorities.  As someone with a variety of vantage points (teacher, administrator, parent, person of color), I think that my perspective is valuable and naming this for myself has enabled me to find the courage to use my voice instead of allowing it to remain silent.

Before I begin, let me share my credentials with you.  I am a national board certified master teacher with a track record of successful outcomes and 7 years of experience teaching in high-poverty/majority-minority schools.  I have walked the walk; not just talked the talk.  I was honored in October 2014 as a recipient of the “Those Who Excel” Award of Excellence (the highest level awarded for administrators) for my work as principal of Garden Hills elementary in Champaign Unit 4, where, contrary to a newspaper article, I was a champion for and led for equity.  I was a finalist for the national ASCD Emerging Leaders award for my work as principal of Garden Hills.  I led the Champaign Unit 4 district magnet team to successful outcomes; moving through a federal grant audit with flying colors, and resulting in our team being awarded with the Award of Merit from the Illinois State Board of Education.  You may be wondering why I am sharing all of this pomp and circumstance.  I am sharing it because, as a woman of color, I have found that my credentials must often precede my message.  It allows some to find me credible; to find my experiences and beliefs valid and worthy.  I find that if I don’t share my credentials and stand bare in my status as a black woman from a working-class background, that my message is more easily dismissed or diminished.

My experience has been that progressive people of color in leadership positions, who are courageous are particularly vulnerable to personal and professional attacks when they work and lead in a system that perpetuates racist policies and practices (many do).  As I look back over my personal journal and emails from my time serving as a principal in this community who was 100% committed to leading for equity, the sense of fear and worry that I lived with daily is actually palpable.  I share an excerpt from an email that I sent to a trusted colleague at the time:

“….When I presented on CRE (Culturally Responsive Education) to the elementary principals on actively challenging deficit/status quo beliefs/mindset, I shared that I am still doing a lot of internal work to navigate this culture that questions my own worth, ability, status, and rightful “place”, on the basis of my color.  I think I’ve adapted, learned and developed in the area of restraint and pacification.  However, this conversation today with *******  set me back quite a bit and really triggered me to my core.  I am angry.  As one of few black administrators (though there are some amazing white allies and conversely some educators of color who engage in destructive instructional practices), I really am struggling to stay in a place where I want to engage with people (no matter what color) who look at beautiful children of color, or who are living in poverty, in a way that defines them as less than, inferior, of lower status, whose “place” is to be taking orders- not leading, whose place is to receive whatever scraps come our way- not advocate for what is equitable.  I couldn’t help but continue to reflect on the practices that I’ve observed in this teacher’s classroom this year, turning a bright black boy’s (who has too many questions and too much confidence) desk to face the wall while she teaches the rest of her class….allowing black children to roam the hallways unaccounted for without remorse while laying blame on everyone else but herself….attempting to retain a ****** boy whose mother is an addict, who refuses to learn from her (I’m sure because he feels her clear disdain for him and what he comes from)…  There is no place to really capture that evidence in Form A <part of the teacher evaluation instrument adopted by Unit 4> .  I am frustrated.  A question keeps nagging in the back of my head:  at what point do we take a stand against staff who are harming children?  Whose low expectations have been cosigned for too long?  Whose deficit views of children chip away at their spirit and emotional core?  What tools am I being given as an administrator to lead a staff through this authentically in a way that results in lasting/adaptive change without committing career suicide here in Champaign?  To actively challenge these beliefs/mindsets/actions without fear or trepidation of ****** attacks and backlash among other political groups.  Today, I met many of our incoming kindergarteners.  As I greeted their parents and grabbed their tiny hands to lead them to screen them, and as they gave me tentative smiles and shy looks, I felt hope and demoralized at the same time.  This year has been full of many ups and downs for me professionally.”

Equity means giving resources and focus to groups based on need.  Equality is giving equal resources and focus to all; in spite of what the current outcomes are, which perpetuates inequality and inequity.  I share the backstory to say:  pushing for equity can be extremely personally challenging.  When you push for equity, particularly for equity along racial lines, you surface some challenging questions around people’s belief systems and the resulting tangible actions…

So, given all of this, why must we all push for equity?  Because it’s the right thing to do.  In Champaign, African-American children are disproportionately represented as academically underperforming, as over-disciplined/suspended/expelled, and as under-represented in gifted programming (more on that in a subsequent post).  This is not a new story and these outcomes are inextricably connected to the criminal justice and economic outcomes in our community, particularly as it relates to black people; but also for other historically disenfranchised communities.

It can be convenient to lay blame solely at the feet of parents and students; I’ve heard many educators and community members do that very thing (it always really perplexes me when I hear people of color who share these sentiments- certainly a product of deep internalized racism).  But the reality is that there is a historical context that cannot be ignored.  Discrimination in housing practices, employment, and especially education all have contributed to the current reality here in Champaign.  I remember attending a local NAACP banquet a few years back.  The keynote speaker shared correspondence that had taken place between the NAACP director at the time for the Champaign branch and the national branch during the era of recent de-segregation of Champaign schools.  The director wrote of the newly integrated schools in Champaign and how parents were complaining that some teachers were abusing African-American children to the point where they were drawing blood.  Let’s just sit in that for a moment….  And before deflections begin about how I am teacher-bashing, please remember that I lovingly taught 1st and 2nd grade babies for 7 years and put in a lot of my own love, sweat, and tears into my work…  Let me be clear:  I absolutely love and admire good teachers.  Good teachers do work that most are unable to do, and they do it while sustaining attacks from people who have no idea what it is to teach.  I am not one of those people- I know what it is to teach.  But the hard truth is, just as in the era before and shortly after school desegregation some teachers were not good for black children, today there are some teachers who are not good for black children.  The same goes for administrators.  You can’t look at the group data/outcomes for black children and come to any other conclusion, unless the conclusion that you come to consciously or subconsciously, is that black children and families are inferior.

I will end my first blog post (!) with a challenge to all of you.  How are you pushing for racial equity in your corner of the community?  When you hear deficit talk about minority children do you smile and nod, or do you actively challenge it?  When you see inequitable treatment towards children of color and their parents, do you speak up, or do you stick your head in the sand?  Now I want to speak to my fellow people of color (yes, there are more words here):   You may be making a decent wage, have a position of status and power, own a home, or be considered safe enough; but I encourage you to reflect on how you are truly contributing to the community?   You may think that your money/status/power (and silence) protects you and your children, but I can assure you that it does not.  How are you ensuring that your children and children who look like them can move freely through the world, speak their unedited thoughts and truths, and be deeply connected to their community?  If you can’t answer these questions with a clear conscious, I invite you to begin the journey.  In this community, I have been particularly struck by the way that we continuously allow ourselves to be divided and conquered by the political agendas of those in power and privilege.  I certainly can understand how seductive this can be… I challenge you think think of this scenario:  If you were to pass away or be incapacitated and could not actively advocate for your children or take care of them, and no one in your family could do those things…how well off would your children be in our current educational system?  Criminal justice system?  Foster care system?  Employment system?

I anticipate that my choice to launch this blog may result in personal attacks, and possibly some professional ones.  I have prayed about it, and chosen to launch it anyway.  Anyone who is offended or would want me to silence my truths and the truths of many in our community is not someone who cares about the outcomes for my children (those who I’ve birthed and those who I have loved/taught).  I will continue to speak out for educational equity on this blog in spite of what comes because I know that I have a moral and spiritual responsibility to do just that.  I leave you all with the powerful words of Ella Baker: “strong people don’t need strong leaders”.  We are the leaders of the work.  We must stop waiting for others to do what needs to be done (who haven’t done what needs to be done), and we must start pushing for equity.  Today.