Contributed by Kendra Johnson and Lisa Williams
In public education the achievement gap lives with us. Whether or not individuals within the enterprise accept the challenge of eliminating achievement gaps as a personal imperative, its presence remains a haunting mirror systemically. Seemingly, our concern with its stain accompanies students until graduation. However, we believe the question we are challenged to consider is how the achievement gap lives with the students once they are no longer under our collective labor?
As educators working in an urban/suburban environment, we often contend with unchallenged, unexamined, and uninterrogated beliefs that literally form impenetrable barriers that contribute to our inability to once and for all deal with our present and future in public education—our changed student demographic. In our experience, one of the most striking areas of the collective challenged consciousness is related to our understanding of what continuing gaps in achievement really represent.
Why is this challenged consciousness so present? First, for all intents and purposes in public education, when students graduate, they take their achievement gaps with them. Our knowledge of student achievement data that shows historical trends of underperformance, disparate participation in rigorous course offerings, lack of access to opportunities to accelerate achievement, and on, does not shift our decision-making in any epistemological way. Now, to be sure, we may try a new math program or curriculum but if we critically analyze the theory behind the intervention, rest assured you will not find a substantively different implied hypothesis for student underperformance. Further, the implied hypotheses that undergird our interventions can too often be described as “broken child/broken family” syndrome (sometimes it’s one or the other as any combination will do).
The question we want to pose is: When will we have the courage to ask questions about us, how we function, how we operate, what we prioritize or fail to? When will we cease to be so fragile that we can’t stand some self- interrogation?
And to be clear, we are arguing for self-interrogation, not self-annihilation, in public education. The unfortunate truth revealed through our most recent set of education reforms demonstrates that self-annihilation seems to be our preferred mode of operations. This principal isn’t effective, remove/ demote him/her. This teacher isn’t good, zero base the staff. Let’s close this school and re-open it with a new name and new charge. These solutions, despite how intuitively right they seem, don’t scratch the surface of the deep soul searching necessary to really understanding the implications of the under-preparation the continuing gaps in achievement represent.
When we examine disparities in college graduation rate, youth and adult employment, income, access to healthcare, children living in poverty, community decay, and on, the same patterns that can be discerned about the “who” is at the short end of our organized schooling process predict the “who” of all of the larger societal disparities with which we collectively contend. This larger ecosystem of disparity must be understood and connected so that we might responsively engage in the type of transformation that will allow us to create learning conditions that meet the needs of every child.
The reality is that the work that we need to do to transform our public school system into one that serves every student is work that, as trained educators, we are best prepared to do. But we have to start with the recognition that collectively, we are only half equipped with the information we need to serve all students. We did not receive training that helped us to know our poor students, our second language learners, our students of color… Not in any way that showed us the possibility of their brilliance. And when they show up, in the school and the classroom, we spend 12 years or longer, showing the degree to which we are unprepared to meet their needs. That is the gap that is begging for our examination. Treating our changing student population as if it is without implications is our real problem.
This blog may sound angry to some, the truth is frustrated is more honest. Frustrated because we know we can do better but we have to choose it. We have to choose to heavily invest in every child according to his or her need, choose use of our voice over silence, choose discomfort over comfort, and choose transformation. In the end, it is our prevailing hope that we choose every child.
Drs. Lisa Williams and Kendra Johnson are practitioners in Maryland and New Jersey public school districts. Dr. Williams directly leads equity and cultural proficiency efforts in her respective school district, while Dr. Johnson oversees curriculum and instruction in another school district. Together, they endeavor to better prepare all leaders for the challenge and opportunity to pursue equity and access for all through their PACE framework. Currently, Drs. Williams and Johnson are slated to release their book, When Treating Kids all the SAME is the REAL Problem: Educational Leadership and 21st Century Dilemma of Difference, in October 2014.