By Victoria Simon
Imagine lining up to run a 5-K race then realizing some runners get to start a half a kilometer in front of the starting line but you are two kilometers behind the starting line.
That’s not fair, is it?
Yet this occurs in the classrooms of our public schools every day in the United States. We place our students and their teachers in an unfair race. When teachers object they are told not to make excuses but instead to coach better so runners who are starting one or two kilometers behind the rest will work harder and run faster, so they can finish at the same point and time as the other runners.
I am not defending Florida’s and Virginia’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB ) goals approved by the federal government, which I find incredibly racist. It is appalling and embarrassing to most educators that these were ever proposed — let alone accepted — by the U.S. Department of Education in the NCLB waiver applications. For example, in Virginia in math the state board set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for hispanics and 45 percent for blacks. Student learning is not based on skin color or ethnicity and I do not need my education degrees or years of teaching experience to make that statement.
I believe the revised goals were well intentioned. Educators and lawmakers in those states want a student’s end result to be based on the student’s starting point. I agree. Until recently, “growth measures” would’ve been nearly impossible to use but with the improvements in testing data, now is the time to move from a single static achievement expectation for all students to a growth model which is more equitable and beneficial to all. Standardized tests should provide information so teachers can help students learn. Achievement tests should not be used to rank teachers or schools.
Isn’t every student at-risk of school failure? It is true any student could fail but there are documented “risk factors” that make school success especially challenging. Risk factors for students are equivalent to moving the starting line back two kilometers for one runner, adding hurdles for another and having another run over hills and rocks while most students start where they are supposed to and run on a smooth track — yet using the same stopwatch to time the race. Risk factors creating hurdles for student learning in the elementary school I lead include students having parents who were high school dropouts, a history of abuse, incarcerated parents, a lack of stimulating experiences from ages 0-4 years, learning disabilities and being homeless, in foster care or impoverished. The 5- to 11-year-olds in my school did not choose to be at-risk students. Some of my students’ apartments and trailers are overcrowded and chaotic, making it difficult for the student to go to bed on time and in a safe, quiet environment. If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I find it hard to learn and behave and I certainly cannot expect a 6-year-old to cope better than I do. Head Start, Title I and numerous other programs were created to help students overcome challenges.
Many students, no matter their skin color, face learning challenges but all students can learn. It is the demanding role of the teacher to take a classroom full of students with individual talents, interests and abilities and teach what all are supposed to know and be able to do at that grade level. Most of the students will learn successfully based on this frugal model our nation has utilized for years. However the gifted learner is like a runner routinely running 4.5-K in a 5-K race — easily finishing the race swiftly yet never personally improving. The challenged learner is like a runner routinely expected to run 7-K in a 5-K race and becoming so frustrated the learner may drop out — and sees himself as a lower achiever even if he runs at a faster pace than his peers because he still finishes behind them.
Starting point, not race, is the factor Virginia and Florida should use to adjust their NCLB waivers. All students can and should learn in our public schools. One year’s growth for one year of education is a more reasonable expectation we should use as a guide for all of our students. Teachers are called to help all students learn and should be commended for growth based on a starting point. Runners can stumble and lose but winning a race doesn’t happen accidentally — it comes through hard work, rest, preparation, proper nutrition, practice and excellent coaching. School success is the same and should be based on measure of growth.
Victoria Simon is the principal of Threshold Academy, a small charter school created to serve at-risk students in rural mid-Michigan. The school is operated by EightCAP Inc., a community action agency whose mission includes addressing the causes of poverty.
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