This one, gentle readers, is worthy of this week’s Louis Renault award. I’m shocked, shocked that minority children may be achieving less at schools in DC’s shadow. The Washington Post whines:
School officials in suburban Maryland have long debated how to tackle achievement gaps between white students and their classmates of color. But the issue is drawing new attention as Montgomery County rolls out school-by-school accountability report cards.
The snapshots of student performance, posted online, key in on black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students at the county’s 206 schools, looking at each group, along with the intersection of race and poverty.
They show that in math, for example, many Latino children struggle at Greencastle Elementary School in Silver Spring, and that low-income students lag at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, and that disadvantaged African American students are behind at Northwest High School in Germantown.
School officials said they hope the new ‘equity accountability report card’ will shine a light on where schools need to improve and will spur change.
Oh yes, gentle readers. This kind of thing is mysterious indeed. How can this possibly be so?
We are simultaneously saddened and appalled by the gaps in achievement in many of the schools,” wrote Diego Uriburu, a longtime advocate for Latino youth, and Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, in a joint letter to school officials.
‘Our students and families have a crushing sense of urgency to have corrective actions given the highest priority, as each school year that goes by only increases the achievement gap and the lost potential for a thriving adulthood,’ they wrote.
They are asking to meet with administrators on plans and timelines to ‘radically and immediately work towards improved academic outcomes.
What these advocates will never admit is that culture matters. Some minorities, such as Asian cultures, routinely do very well indeed, because education, respect for elders, hard work and meeting the expectations of family and teachers are highly valued. When children are expected to meet high standards, beginning in the home, they tend to do just that.
The student body is 31 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 22 percent black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial. More than 50,000 of its students get free or reduced price meals at school, an indicator of being at or near poverty level.
There are some things all educators know. Kids living in poverty tend to do much worse in school than kids of well off parents. Poor children tend to be poor because of the very poor choices of their parents. Most live in single parent homes, move often, have poor nutrition, little stability, are often responsible for younger siblings, have no stable adult role models in the home, tend not to have extended families, and have few, if any books in the home, Many don’t have their own beds, to say nothing of their own rooms, and many have few, if any changes of clothing, and no convenient means to clean what they do have. The values of Asian families are essentially unknown to them. Add in families that speak no English, and have limited work skills and qualifications, and there is no mystery abut their lagging achievement. Even children of middle class families without those successful values tend to suffer the same difficulties in school.
School officials say it is important to drill deep into achievement data, to spot disparities that need to be addressed. Especially in large schools, broader positive trends can obscure difficulties faced by smaller student groups.
‘We absolutely have a social, an economic and — most importantly, I believe personally — a moral imperative to diminish and eliminate the disparities that exist for different student populations,’ Superintendent Jack Smith said this week. ‘That is the most critical work we are engaged in.’
This is indicative of another serious problem: the data culture. This is a fad that has gripped education by the throat in recent years, and is wringing the life out of it. It is the belief that data, primarily produced by mandatory testing, will allow teachers to know exactly what student’s don’t know, and immediately adjust instruction to remedy that supposed deficiency. For example, a test will be given, and data will be produced that suggests that 25 students missed question 12, which is supposed to be a reliable indicator of state standard for 3rd grade reading 18B. Since they missed that question, data believers will think there must be remedial teaching on standard 18B.
The problem with this line of thinking is things are not nearly that simple. If the question is clumsily worded—as a great many mandatory tests are—results are completely untrustworthy; they don’t accurately reflect mastery of anything, other than an ability of adult test writers to confuse children, and/or of children to anticipate what the people that wrote the test think is the correct answer rather than what the correct answer might actually be. Perhaps those kids didn’t get enough sleep the night before the test, or more likely, they just didn’t care about the damned test and didn’t try.
Data is not entirely useless, but who is more likely to know what a child needs? Educrats in a state capital reading a few data points from a test, or the teacher that spends nine months a year with that child? Educrats are in a constant battle to wrest power away from teachers. If any school official in your school district says “we’re a data-driven school district,” flee as from a plague.
‘Knowing what you need to fix is a first step,” said Lynne Harris, president of the countywide council of PTAs, who welcomed the data. “I hope it will lead to much more robust and courageous work by the school system.”
For many people, “courageous work” means adjusting policies to keep minority kids from being disciplined, and lowering academic standards so the data show dramatic improvement. As Mark Twain said:
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Perhaps the most important thing those schools can learn is the best any teacher—the best teacher in the world—can do is to provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources provide. They can come 50% of the way, if you will, toward any educational outcome. The rest is the responsibility, the sole responsibility, of students and parents. We are responsible for our educations, and to paraphrase Twain, we shouldn’t allow schooling to interfere with our educations.
Obviously, schools can do things like provide breakfast, remedial English instruction for non-English speaking students, provide backpacks, school supplies, and similar supports. But ultimately, schools cannot be surrogate parents in every way.
There is no doubt minority students can learn and excel. Many of my finest, most dedicated students are Hispanic. However, if schools do not establish and maintain a proper educational environment, there is little the greatest teacher in the world can do to provide that classroom opportunity. Schools, first and foremost, must be controlled entirely by adults. There must be no doubt who is in control every minute of the day, and misbehavior, and especially criminal behavior, must be immediately and finally suppressed. Students should never be allowed to backtalk to teachers, nor should they be allowed to swear at them, refuse their reasonable requests, and any student attacking a teacher, or threatening an attack, must be immediately expelled for at least a year. Yet this is not at all the reality in many, perhaps most, urban schools. In these schools, the inmates run the asylum.
Schools must hire highly competent teachers, give them the resources and support they need, and leave them alone to build the rapport, and inculcate the personal habits necessary for student success. Mandatory tests and data will not fire bad teachers. They will not discipline unruly, disruptive, even criminal kids. They cannot encourage kids to see the value of education, or hold them accountable, at home, for failing to do their homework, and they cannot know or love children, and understand their individual needs.
Unless and until each school establishes these minimums, no amount of data, no tests, no matter how brilliant and infallible their makers claim them to be, will do anything to improve educational outcomes for kids of any race.
That’s the bold educational initiative, the transformative wonder Montgomery County schools ought to be pursuing. Any bets, gentle readers, which path they’ll take?