Young, Gifted and Black, by Perry, Steele and Hilliard is a little gem of a book. (Hereafter, YGB). The subtitle is “Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students”. Though specifically addressing African-American kids, the descriptions and proscriptions proposed can be applied to all – important, given the continual poor showing of U.S. students generally on international tests (OECD PISA, TIMSS).
It is the section written by Asa Hilliard, Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University, that addresses the real “gap” and real “reform”. The following attempts to summarize his positions and arguments:
The real gap for all students, not just Black, is the gap between student performance and excellence. Where does one start to close the gap? – by relying on the experiences of teachers who do not fail to achieve excellence in all their students, regardless of background – these experiences have always been around, but few educators want to acknowledge. It is in this protected environment of excellence in education that the theories of curriculum, and excuses of deprivation, of language, of failure can be unmasked.
Absolute, instead of relative, standards of excellence can start with the 1983 College Board “Green Book”, detailing what students should know and be able to do upon high school graduation. Though there can always be improvements in standards, and differences about standards may exist around the edges, there is often little debate as to real accomplishments at some schools.
In mathematics, Project SEED and the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles represent such excellence. At Marcus Garvey, teachers are able to teach higher level of mathematics to traditionally low-performing student groups, and at ages earlier than more privileged groups. At Marcus Garvey, students are prepared in earlier grades and then are taught calculus during 5th grade. It can be done anywhere. As we will see, there is no magic, just good teaching.
That these excellent teachers succeed is to fundamentally challenge the conventional wisdom in teacher education, and educational research, theory and practice. These teachers worked, applying old methods, in old school facilities, without Ritalin, without vouchers, using rudimentary theoretical notions, with low technologies, and with no standarized cookie-cutter “research-based” programs or centralized micromanagement of the instructional process. For them, IQ scores did not predict achievement, cultural deprivation theory did not explain achievement, sociological theories about the correlation of socioeconomic status with achievement were irrelevant.
Current educational research has been, and continues to be rife with cultural deficit theories, demographic explanations of failure — reflecting a terrible pessimism about the power of teachers, parents, and students. Educational researchers prefer controlled, large-scale experiments, comparing one cookie-cutter approach to others, and ignoring the many, single instances of atypical high performances with typically underachieving children – treating them as statistical outliers – errors outside the clean Bell curve of their expectations.
The education professions popular opinions for low performance of students, poor and/or black help and encourage the approaches to educational service that ultimately succeed in limiting the achievement of students. Each of these popular opinions needs to be submitted to those teachers and schools who have achieved excellence – the “gap closers” – for validation.
One such popular explanation is “acting white” – an explanation that even Black researchers have become enamored with – a simple explanation that fits the preferred paradigm of many educational consumers. Another popular explanation is internalization of teachers’ expectations of inferiority – again this fits the preferred paradigm of some. A third popular explanation is socioeconomic status and crime. And finally, the “critical periods” explanation – a generalization of ideas of imprinting of birds and rodents to human beings – that says if certain achievements do not occur at a certain age, then failure to close the gap is virtually certain.
In each of these cases, the experience of the “gap closers” is significantly different. Their experience, to the person, is that the above explanations and hypotheses are false. The acceptance of these false hypotheses exists only because there is a desire to have it persist. There is no excuse for the failure to accept, failure to understand, failure to study and emulate the “gap closers”.
There is now sufficient published evidence in the literature to demonstrate just how easy it is to produce high achievement in typically low-performing schools: Schmoker, 1999; Haycock, 1999; Sizemore, 1988; Sizemore, Brosard, Harrigan, 1994; Saunders, Rivers, 1996; Comer, 1980; Hughes, 1995; Jones, 1981; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Levine, Lezotte, 1990; Watson, Smiterman, 1996.
What makes gap-closing success possible? What features do such programs and teaching share? What do they look and feel like?
Project SEED at Berkley High School in California, is taught by Bill Johntz. Unlike most commercial educational programs that claim high achievement with low-income, cultural minority students, many of which actually produce less achievement, Project SEED works. Project SEED teaches children algebra, trigonometry, and recently calculus. Evaluation studies of the program show that the children gain two (2) years in arithmetic scores on standardized tests for each year of instruction. This translates not only into high mathematics scores, but significant increases of self-concept and self-esteem, and improvements in communication and social skills.
Bill Johntz teaches using the Socratic method. The class is alive with questions, probing, explanations, reasoning, excitement, high level content and thinking by children – results which confound those whose paradigms reject the notion of such children, or any children, displaying such skills.
However, it was quite clear from the outset, watching this class in action, that the teacher would have to possess a deep knowledge of mathematics, something that is very rare among public school teachers.
There is no way that the line of questions in response to students’ responses could be framed in an instant if the teacher did not know his or her subject in depth; many teachers teach outside their fields or receive most of their preparation in methodology rather than in content, and would be unprepared to engage students at the level necessary to achieve such excellence.
It is a wonderful sight to see – to take students who perform typically two or three years below grade level in arithmetic and engage them in high-level conceptually oriented mathematics within a few days. It challenges a whole host of common assumptions among educators about teaching and learning – assumptions about methodology, student mental capacity, student mental health and behavioral characteristics, and so on.
Though Project SEED and other successful gap-closing examples, and even whole successful schools have demonstrated excellence, they are frequent targets of school leaders. They are often seen as “not team players”. They do not fit the programs that are “research-based”. They are almost always ignored in typical research studies. The feeling seems to be that these teachers and these schools are unique or charimatic, and that what they do is beyond other teachers and schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. These examples lead where we should go.
What do we do? The public policy paradigm is fatally flawed and misguided. The common misguided policies and reforms include manipulating test scores in high-stake testing, using school vouchers, using school charters, purchasing commercial programs, bureaucratizing the educational processes, especially remedial and special education, such as Individual Education Plan team assessment and micromanagement of the educational process.
In general, educators have pursued “decoy issues”, such as testing, the preoccupation with “child capacity”, and school “reform”. However, as illustrated above, the essence should be approaches that encourage high-quality teaching. We, now, focus most of our attention on the children and little on the quality of the services and equity in its distribution.
Schools of Education, instead, must begin turning out gap-closing teachers and principals. But this is unlikely unless the Schools of Education contain gap-closing faculty, especially those in charge of clinical experience for teachers and school leaders.