Posted on 10/18 to the East High Community list serv, in response to a description of the MMSD high school reform proposal. Posted here with the author’s permission.
Dear East Community:
I contribute to this discussion group only once in a blue moon, but this issue is near and dear to my heart and I am compelled to comment. I cannot think of a more important issue than that of race and racism in our educational institutions.
I speak as a lifelong political progressive who has been active in community issues relating to racism and economic and social disparities for thirty years, from Cleveland to Chicago’s south side to Madison. More important, I speak as an adult basic instructor in mathematics at MATC who teaches many of the students that have been failed by their experience in the Madison schools, most of them students of color or students mired in the low margins of the socioeconomic system.
With that said, it frustrates and saddens me see how many well-meaning people have this issue exactly backward. It is not racist school policy to offer multiple tracks, specifically honors or AP TAG classes. Rather, racist school policy – of the most insidious nature imaginable – is failing to offer those classes because students of color aren’t in them. That argument implicitly says that students of color cannot achieve, and that message speaks volumes about the difference between looking fair in some lowest-common-denominator way versus fighting for the hard and true and noble path in student achievement.
Simply put, we should have TAG classes and they should be filled with students of every class, race and color. That they have historically not been filled with students of every class, race and color is the real issue. It tells us that our methods for evaluating students are abysmal, even abusive (how many of you have enjoyed watching your 4th grader take class time to learn to use a squeeze ball to reduce stress on standardized tests?). It tells us that we are not successfully seeking out students of tremendous potential because we don’t understand them or don’t know how to relate to them or reach them. It also says that we fail to properly appreciate what a culture of demanding expectations of achievement can do for every student in a classroom, especially when we demand of ourselves to understand and embrace each of our students as strikingly unique individuals and not achievers based upon highly overrated and dubious “educational standards,” standardized test scores or other unhelpful common denominators.
The progress of my classes at MATC this semester is typical and no surprise to me. I have two algebra classes. One, downtown, is mostly white and/or middle class. The other, in South Madison, is almost entirely students of color, most with difficult personal circumstances, most of whom have always failed at math. One class is achieving well enough. The other class is over-achieving, pushed hard, pushing me back, engaged, holding an average grade of AB. Any guesses which is which?
As educators and supporters of our schools we can do so much better than we do. But we cannot do better by pretending that differentiation in a classroom can accomplish the same thing as a motivated rainbow of a class with a class-wide ethic to achieve deep understanding and a drive to overcome commonplace expectations.
I say that we need both TAG classes and the recruiting methods and policies to make sure that they reflect every kind of brilliance in our community.
As they say, “Friend speaks my mind.”