More reform, less rhetoric is needed to fix education

Having taught high school math for almost twenty-five years, it pains me to see how easily fellow educators, administrators and school board members around the country get distracted by the latest fads and theories pushed by academics and consultants. If you have close connections to education, you will recognize terms like “professional learning teams,” “alternative assessment,” “critical learning standards,” “growth mindset,” “depth of knowledge,” etc. These ideas have merit, but their implementation has seen microscopic gains in the quest for equity compared to what could be achieved by addressing real avenues of change.

What are these avenues?

Arguably, the three main controllable factors that affect student learning outcomes are time on taskquality of teacher in the classroom and quality of students in the classroom.

These constraints on learning apply to all arenas of skill building, not just school: Athletes need to practice, flourish with good coaches and get pushed to improve by talented teammates; the same can be said about the workplace. Other structural components to the environment could see improvement but you will get the most bang for your buck, as they say, with the main three.

I will say here that I will completely leave out raw ability and home life, even though they are commonly brought up as excuses for why things can’t change in education. Teachers can’t change which students are eligible to come to the building. They come from varying backgrounds, and we can’t control that as educators. In the meantime, we need to acknowledge certain aspects of school culture and systemic practices that create massive unintentional disparities that only a solidarity approach to reaching a common good could solve.

[RELATED: Common Core is a failed experiment in centralized education]

The trend of “equity in education” discussions which, fueled by a grossly divided political binary, do not come within miles of addressing the real reasons achievement gaps continue to exist between multiple demographics of students. Hundreds of school administrators around the country are spending millions of dollars to hire equity consultants to show that the district cares about the injustice present in their schools. To be sure, there will be dialogue, focus groups, slick marketing materials and the usual painful and useless staff development that always accompanies the newest fad that administrators can use to check some boxes for their evaluations, but nothing of substance will improve.

Why am I so cynical? Because, for all of the ridiculous conversations surrounding the bogeyman of “critical race theory” and alleged “whiteness shaming,” we are missing the very real systemic racism that exists in our schools. I’ll give you a spoiler alert: Ignoring works by black authors in English class, leaving out the contributions of Hispanic mathematicians or ignoring the cultural backgrounds of our students are not existential threats to equity. Systemic racism hurts our minority and poor children unintentionally, in ways that deprive them of time on task, good teachers and good peers in the classroom.

First things first: The systemic racism of staff assignments.

Around the country, older and more experienced teachers teach the most advanced classes and students. Remedial classes are given to the younger teachers. Not all districts follow this hierarchy but, in general, you need to work your way up to the better courses. “Of course, that’s only fair,” many readers are saying right now. “That’s not racist,” others might contend.

Here lies the whole problem of understanding equity and systemic racism: Equity is providing what is needed, and systemic racism isn’t necessarily meant to be racist. It just ends up being that way. From the moment there are any meaningful divisions in classes, staffing is likely directed in this manner. There are some extraordinarily talented new teachers, of course, but with experience comes wisdom – especially in the critical areas of discipline, building working relationships, and the natural authority of someone closer in age to parents than students. There is no amount of staff development that can be given to our novice teachers that can give them the life lessons of fifteen or twenty years in the trenches.

Teachers will push back against a change in this structure. I, for one, love my advanced classes. Who would gladly give up fewer discipline issues, highly engaged students and more interesting curriculum for the challenges of lower achieving students? Administrators would not appreciate the hassle of getting staff on board with this sort of change. It is much easier to hire a consultant to talk about abstract ideas on brain development or deep culture than to change staff attitudes towards their schedules. Finally, imagine the response from highly involved parents to the first superintendent who announces that some of the honors and AP classes would not be staffed by the best teachers in the building. The common good and educational empowerment of all students is all fine and good when your own child is not deprived in any way.

Second things second: The systemic racism of academic tracking.

In many school districts there is an obscene and misguided attempt to accelerate students through the curriculum in order to get them into Advanced Placement and other college credit courses. What could be wrong with letting students into higher, more challenging classes? Both of the answers I offer here aid and abet systemic racism in different ways.

First, teachers rarely go out of their way to move students up to more challenging levels. Unless a student is breezing through homework and acing tests, we are too occupied with daily tasks to investigate if a few of our students could benefit from the difficult process of moving up a level of academic rigor. We understand that the average level will prepare students for college work.

“Until we reframe the conversation towards shared sacrifice, the common good, and solidarity, school reforms may be heavy on dialogue, focus groups, slick marketing materials, but nothing of substance will improve.”

Parents, on the other hand, hold the keys to the process. Herein lies a systemic issue that most people do not appreciate. From experience, I can tell you Asian parents will often advocate for their child to move into a more rigorous environment (where the better teachers are, remember?). Having your child take gifted or honors courses and/or skip grade levels is a hallmark of good parenting in many Asian communities. There are few sources of pride as powerful as the acceleration of one’s child.

In a different way, white families often have generational knowledge of how the educational system works, from primary school to college admission and professional degree attainment. They are more likely to have first-hand knowledge of taking honors or Advanced Placement courses in high school. They can leverage that knowledge to get their children into the same course paths.

Due to historic inequities, though, black and hispanic families often don’t know that they even can advocate for their high achieving or high interest children to move up in academic rigor. The system does not necessarily seek racially disparate outcomes, but it results in them nonetheless.

Compounding this issue is the fact that, as I mentioned before, schools tend to over-separate students at a very early age. Certainly, in any population, some students have academic aptitudes and maturity far above their peers and cannot be challenged by age-appropriate classwork, but poor conclusions drawn from data analysis has led us to shuffle more students into courses above their skill sets. Often, good behavior and determined work ethic can be the lone cause for acceleration. The net effect of this reward system is what could be called a “brain drain,” which depletes a level of students of their hardest working peers, the ones who set the bar for how the learning process could and should be approached.

From an equity standpoint, black and hispanic students who do not benefit from early acceleration with better teachers will also be compounded with consistently weaker learning cultures amongst their classmates. Again, this is not designed with racial animus, but ends up with racial and socioeconomic disparities nonetheless. 

Third things third: The systemic racism of time on task.

By far, the amount of time spent practicing a skill or learning a fact is the most critical component to learning. Until you can have a link connected directly to your brain to learn kung fu (like Keanu in The Matrix), it will hold true that the more time you spend on mastery of a skill, the more mastery you will obtain with all other factors held constant. In my discussions on education, no one has denied me this postulate. If they did, I would have nothing else to talk to them about. That is how strongly I believe this is true.

The first two issues, better teachers and better classrooms, both feed directly into this latter issue of time on task. Over time, and with experience, teachers learn classroom management and better lesson planning, which translates into more time on task for students. Similarly, having more classmates who are studious and able to learn at the pace of the class aids in the learning process, with less time lost to distraction and more support during group activity.

Now we get to the greatest affront to equity that we have faced in a generation, whose aftereffects we will face for many years. No one has apologized for it or even openly recognized it. I am referring to school closures and partial reopenings due to COVID.

I knew the moment my school district announced that we would start school in a remote setting in the fall of 2020 that our poorest and disenfranchised minority students were going to be robbed of a school year. It was not intentional. It probably never even came up in a meeting amongst administrators. Although the district and local business did a good job to make sure students had data access to allow them to attend school remotely, the attendance and grade metrics nevertheless showed a vast disparity in student achievement.

The reasons why are not complex: All students needed the structure of a school day, with quality staff teaching them and high expectations helping them make good decisions. Without an adult present, children go off task. Parents from the “laptop class” were working from home and could – more often – keep their students attending remote classes and turning in electronic assignments, but poorer students did not have that luxury. They often had to go to work during school hours or take care of their siblings, in addition to resisting the temptation of being off task with no supervision.

No one in the political space wants to address this issue, and it has already been swept under the rug. Instead of discussing the elephant in the room, political activists on both sides are hijacking the conversation to talk about whatever they think “critical race theory” in education means. We have two sides talking past each other about ideas that might change student learning a tiny fraction compared to the real issues I have addressed. To accomplish anything within hailing distance of “equity,” though, we will have to reframe the conversation towards shared sacrifice, the common good, and solidarity.

Amar Patel is a Catholic husband, father, lector, cantor, teacher at Chicago Urban High School and published author. He ran for Vice-President with the American Solidarity Party in 2020 as Brian Carroll’s running mate, and served as Vice-Chair and then Chair of the American Solidarity Party from 2018 to June of 2020. This post was originally published in The American Commons.

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