* No Excuses

No Excuses

In this well-regarded volume entitled “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” the authors begin with “The Problem” in our public schools. Despite the authors’ contention that their goal encompasses more than painting a bleak picture, their descriptions of black and Hispanic student performance are heartbreaking.  On every measure of academic success, black and Hispanic kids fall far behind their white and Asian peers.  The problem, a four-year gap between white and black achievement in American schools, means that black students are functioning at an eighth grade level when (if) they complete high school.  Even among middle class black families, kids are lagging far behind their white peers.  The book explores the cultural heritage of black, Hispanic, and Asian families.  When describing the cultural heritage of black students, for instance, the authors state that it is “the product of a very long history of racial oppression-centuries of slavery, followed by disfranchisement, legally mandated segregation, and subordination in the Jim Crow South and intense prejudice in the North.” (page 121)  Despite “Americanization,” Asian students equal or outperform whites.  The authors quote a researcher who surveyed 20,000 Asian kids, finding that “They are much more engaged in school than their peers.” (page 91)

The authors turn their attention to the commonly suggested panacea for all these problems: spend more money.  They examine Title 1 and Head Start programs, which have failed to deliver despite pouring billions of dollars into the public schools. Hiring more teachers to reduce class size has had no effect on the racial achievement gap. The authors suggest that money is best spent to attract and keep exceptional teachers and administrators.

Is there any hope for public schools?  Yes!  But the authors only found successful schools and classes among charter schools which were not bound by a pervasive system which tolerates mediocre teachers and administrators, bureaucratic inertia, and negative cultural influences.  These highly successful schools communicated a powerful message to their students and families: No Excuses.

My next post will examine the characteristics of these excellent schools in greater detail.

* Teaching While Black

black teacherI assume you’ve heard of DWB (Driving While Black), so here’s my take on Teaching While Black (TWB).  I have worked with a number of black teachers, some very closely, and have these observations:

1.  TWB can create a heavy and unnatural burden.  Black teachers are often viewed as THE representative of their race in a way that whites are not.   I have never been considered representative of special education teachers at any age or in any position; there has never been a single “representative” special education teacher.  But I have heard about many “representative” black teachers.  They are emotionally demonstrative, talented singers and dancers, fashionistas, poorly organized, weak writers, and strong disciplinarians.  “All” black teachers is no more a legitimate characterization than “all” white teachers.  There is substantial variation between teachers, regardless of race.

2.  TWB can be hazardous to your health.  One commonality I have noted is the unique stress of being a black teacher.  I’ve seen black teachers criticized for using music and the arts in their classrooms (both of which are highly brain-friendly techniques), with unfounded complaints that these teachers were too loud.  I’ve witnessed harassment of black teachers through frequent and unprofessional observations, parent emails to administrators, and especially, social isolation by that teacher’s grade level colleagues.  For example, in order to serve a student, I was in a black teacher’s class for considerable portions of the day, announced and unannounced.  During that time, I had a good sense of her relationships with kids and her teaching techniques.  My student with high functioning autism had not been better educated in his previous three years at the school.  That teacher left after one year, when a parent started complaining that the teacher was yelling at the kids.  The criticism was completely unfounded, but that teacher was already feeling isolated and stressed, so it wasn’t worth fighting another battle.

3.  TWB can be a demeaning and humiliating experience.  A black teacher arrived early for a workshop being held in a neighboring classroom.  The presenter instantly assumed this teacher was a custodian and expected her help with setting up chairs, along with a directive that the snacks were for participants only.  A newly hired black teacher walked into her classroom and her white assistant addressed her as a custodian, indicating that she was waiting for the “real” teacher to arrive.  As one black teacher has observed, “where you see trash and poop being handled, there you will see a black face.”  Based on a single remark to an administrator, I know of numerous black teachers who were subjected to intense, undeserved scrutiny and accusation.  That would be highly atypical in my experience as a white teacher.

4. TWB can create a uniquely cruel isolation.  I referred above to this social segregation of black teachers.  I have seen black teachers shunned because they were successful.  I have seen black teachers shunned because they were “different.”  I have seen black teachers shunned because they voiced their opinion.  I have seen black teachers shunned for talking about race.  I have seen black teachers criticized for talking to other black teachers.  I have seen black teachers criticized because they have chosen black assistants.  Oh, no!  Two black women in one room!

So if we treat black professionals this way, how do we treat black kids?  Your thoughts?