For a number of years now, I have worked in the area of education with focus on curriculum and instructional development. Within this long period, I have learned interesting things about education and the never ending debates it generates. Furthermore, educators who are trained in curriculum and instruction should be aware of the crucial need to align the scope and sequence of content and instruction to the needs of students; it is essential if we truly want to eradicate the achievement gap. It’s so ridiculous that sometimes I wonder why the issues that matter are often times not even included in the debate or discussions amongst the talking heads. It’s not that we do not know the real issues but, choose to dance around them. Numerous research has been done about inequity in our system and the impact to the poor, especially minorities and African America children in particular.
James Coleman, an American sociologist, theorist, and empirical researcher, and former president of the American Sociological Association, provided abundant information as to what is ailing our educational system, especially for the children of the poor and minorities. He provided us with the window through which we can understand sociology of education and public policy. Coleman was one of the first to use the term “social capital." His work in Social Theory influenced sociological theory and his life work was epitomized in the "Coleman Report." This report reflects what we are experiencing today as to the inequity of educational opportunity. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s department of education, led by Terrel Bell, published a report on the state of education. In that report, he reminded us that if a foreign power does to us what we do to ourselves, it would be considered as an act of war; and that is serious. Fast forward, between 1981 to date, and in-betweens, there has been numerous research done including those done by presidents and others, including Jonathan Kozol, stressing the impact of inequality in terms of opportunity and access, especially when it comes to the educational preparation of the poor and minorities.
In-spite of the obvious reasons why some students don’t perform as their counterparts based on the issues associated with what former University of California Professor, John Ogbu characterized as “cultural capital,” (privileges in educational funding, child’s Zip Code, parental educational and socioeconomics) among others. Instead of focusing on those critical issues of equity, opportunity and access, instead we focus on irrelevant and ridiculous ones that end up negating research and what we know about teaching and learning. Research by American scholars provided and are still providing us a lot of information that if implemented will completely eradicate educational gap as we know it. We know a lot about teaching and learning, theories of teaching and learning, especially with modern research in cognitive psychology. According to cognitive science, meeting learners in their locations in the learning continuum is critical to fostering meaningful learning; and yet, what do we do? We lump students who are proficient in the subject matter with those who perhaps are three grade levels below and at the same level. It’s like putting a student in an advanced calculus with someone who has not done his or her elementary function, of course there will be gap. In such situation, you see, the instructor negates the theory of cognition that stresses the importance of meeting a learner in his or her location in the learning continuum. It’s no brainer that there is a gap from beginning, a gap that will inevitably increase unless we adhere to cognitive theory’s position, meeting the learner in his or her location, figure out what the existing gaps are and helping to bridge those gap. Unfortunately, that is not what some do in practice. Instead, we engage in discussions framed in terms of “Academic gap between white and black,” rather than asking the right question, such what factors contribute and drive these persistent gaps? How do we eliminate them and subsequently eradicate academic gap.
In fact, our research professionals labor and provide us with state of the arts guide to help schools eradicate academic gaps, unfortunately, we employ all kinds of phrases such as “No Child Left Behind” among others. If teachers are encouraged to spend some time meeting your learners at their varied locations in the learning continuum, and helping them engage in meaningful rather than meaningless and fragmented information based exams, the academic gap will be eliminated. If you are asking what is the proof? Here is your answer. Take a look at the countries that are outperforming us, such as Finland, Japan, Korea, etc., and ask why are they outperforming us? You will consistently find that they address the issues that has been and continue to impede our nation’s ability to prepare all her children, they include, poverty, lack of opportunity and access among others. For instance, our researchers have done and continue to do phenomenal jobs, they have consistently pointed at some of the basic drivers for meaningful learning and yet, as a society, we negate those, especially when it comes to preparing the children of the poor or minorities. A situation that is often further complicated by unconscious bias of some professionals that are so ubiquitous in our society.
The critical role of teachers to meet learners in their different locations in the learning continuum must be encouraged. Equity and social justice or lack thereof for all have differential impact on people depending on the side one finds him or herself. Often times, I hear or read discussions on issues associated with academic gap. Each time such discussion goes on, I cringe and feel as though they are re-victimizing the victims of our system. I consistently remind people that research on why we have this academic gap is clear, and perhaps we will continue have it, unless we confront the root cause of the gap. We can pretty much predict with almost certainty what will happen to a child who does not get what he or she needs to learn, and the implications as to whether or not the person will lives a successful life. Research is clear on academic gap, the problem is the fact that the issues are often swept under the carpet while people, especially those uninformed about the issues continue to engage in talking heads that lead to predictable result-dead end solutions that are driven by images to show off rather than tacking the true cause of academic gap; and some assume it’s white or black issue. I am not here to completely dismiss the proposition that it black or white issue, I am sure that it contributes in some situations, but the focus here is on the real issue that foster existing academic gaps in our society.
For starters, there are certainly obvious reasons for anything that happens in life and there are specialists who can pinpoint the reasons and even when it started and forces that nurtured the situation. Well, academic gap is no different, we could pinpoint the root cause of academic gap and why it continues and perhaps will never go away unless the real issues are confronted. We constantly point to the obvious reasons for academic gaps, it include, poverty, school funding and more importantly, teachers’ attitudes (some teachers are formally or informally trained during their formative years to perceive certain students as “at risk.” These are students who fall into the category of less likely to succeed. With this kind of mindset, such teachers treat children different, and these children never gained what they need, such as reading competency or solving problems that are foundational for their feature academic success. These are issues that contribute in the creation the academic gap, they stem from whether one’s location in the academic continuum promotes or inhibits progress.
Clearly, the children of the poor and minorities are more often victims of our systemic inequality that begins so early in their lives. For instances, the children of the poor, especially minorities, particularly African Americans are disproportionately disciplined and suspended in elementary school as have been ubiquitously documented in research. For instance, Claudia Rowe, Seattle Times among others. In her piece titled, Race dramatically skews discipline, even in elementary school: The racial gap starts as young as age 5, and it’s persistent. When you suspend a child, it’s no brainer that the child will be missing classes and opportunities to learn. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that those who are often suspended have significant gap to start with, so, when you suspend them you dramatically accelerate the gap, and it continues until the child either frustrated and quits or stay frustrated with little or no desire whatsoever to be succeed what the victim would undoubtable consider to a hostile environment. In-spite of these experiences the victim may go through, all hopes may not be lost if we concentrate on issues that could lead to a shift; the kind that produces positive result.
As I indicated above and elsewhere, the most important determinant of a child academic success is the teachers’ attitude toward the students. The former Chairman of Microsoft, Bill Gates reminds us in his Blog (http://tinyurl.com/zfhjnuh), titled, Out of My Shell: A Teacher Who Changed My Life. In that piece, Bill Gates gave credit when he wrote passionately about the people that made a difference in his life this way, “Three very strong women—my mother, my maternal grandmother, and Melinda—deserve big credit (or blame, I suppose) for helping me become the man I am today. But Blanche Caffiere, a very kindly librarian and teacher I’ve never written about publicly before, also had a huge influence on me.” Bill Gate reminds the world how he feels about the woman who helped him this way, “Before she passed, I had an opportunity to thank her for the important role she played in my life, stoking my passion for learning at a time when I easily could have gotten turned off by school.”
Well, when we speak about achievement gap, rather than talking heads, why don’t we focus on the root cause of it? If we as a society is serious about tackling this issue, why can’t we begin by asking critical and right questions, and using stories like Bill Gate to contrast those on the other side of our systemic inequity and prejudice? A lot of people love to talk about achievement gap, but not fully prepared to do what is necessary to eradicate it. I’m talking about training or retraining teachers, especially those who by no fault of theirs were provided with biased mindset about the children of the poor and minority, a mindset that they could not divorce from their actual practice.
Perhaps, we could change this situation by confronting the reality of our biased system. We can begin by accepting the fact that poor and minority students are intentionally or inadvertently treated unfairly when compared with their white or privileged counterparts. We often don’t give these victims appropriate credit for being aware of what is happening around them. They see prejudice and know how it feels and yet they go through the system that often times act as if the victim is unaware of what the system does to them. The children of the poor and minorities are overtly or covertly marginalized in some aspects of our society, including in their schools when they are young, in their job through employment discriminatory practices they endure, in their search for mortgage loans when they start look for lenders and of course, how they are mistreated in our criminal justice system as evidenced in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” etc. They plaid no role in the creation poverty in their environment and schools that are ill-equipped to care adequately for their needs based in their location in the learning continuum. They often don’t have the privileges the children of rich and famous automatically have and take for granted in our society. Then, often times, these children of the poor and minority come to school with burning desire to learn, some get what they need and thus do fairly well. However, some are exposed to teachers whose belief system is biased, such teachers believe that certain people can’t do well regardless of what they do to help, and that for the most part, put the last nail in the coffin of the victim’s ability and opportunity to succeed. This kind of treatment creates self-doubt in the victims’ mind and ultimately limits the extent to which most victimized could go in pursuit of their academic and life’s goals. I cringe because certain segments of our population are consistently sabotaged and for the most part overtly or covertly limited from achieving their God’s given potentials.
Imaging these children of the poor and minority, especially African Americans children having a teacher like Bill Gates had. A teacher who creates the kind of image imbued in Bill Gates in his 4th grade, especially those that came from the librarian, Mr. Gates described as his “maternal grandmother.”
As I stated from the beginning, we can eradicate academic gap if we commit to doing what would be need to do so. It’s not just one single thing that we can do, but we could do a number of things, including training on conscious or unconscious bias mindset that was developed as result of lack of mixing and understanding one another. Such trainings would foster equity and above all demonstrate the role teachers’ attitude play in shaping the academic trajectory of those they touch as exemplified by the teacher and librarian Gates described as his “maternal grandmother.” Bill gate captures his relationship with his “maternal grandmother” well when he stated as follows:
“When I first met Mrs. Caffiere, she was the elegant and engaging school librarian at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary, and I was a timid fourth grader. I was desperately trying to go unnoticed, because I had some big deficits, like atrocious handwriting (experts now call it dysgraphia) and a comically messy desk. And I was trying to hide the fact that I liked to read—something that was cool for girls but not for boys.
Mrs. Caffiere took me under her wing and helped make it okay for me to be a messy, nerdy boy who was reading lots of books.She pulled me out of my shell by sharing her love of books. She started by asking questions like, “What do you like to read?” and “What are you interested in?” Then she found me a lot of books—ones that were more complex and challenging than the Tom Swift Jr. science fiction books I was reading at the time. For example, she gave me great biographies she had read. Once I’d read them, she would make the time to discuss them with me. “Did you like it?” she would ask. “Why? What did you learn?” She genuinely listened to what I had to say. Through those book conversations in the library and in the classroom we became good friends.
I believe that anyone who gets the kind caring teacher as Bill Gates had in his or her formative years, whether the person is black or white will be guaranteed academic success and would certainly make the debate on academic gap unnecessary. I do believe that there should be no more debate when it comes to issues associated with achievement gaps. We know that achievement gap exists, and that it does not exist in vacuum. Rather, it’s the experience we put children in their formative years that propelled them to strive for the best or create self-doubt that ultimately lead them to poor academic performance. I would even argue that it’s not about white or black, it’s about the differential quality of education and resources we provide, and above all, it’s the teachers’ attitude that prominently factor into the creation of academic achievement gaps. If we want to eradicate these gaps, we must change teachers’ attitude, and shift it to mirror Bill Gate’s teacher and Librarian attitude towards him. If we take that playbook, I am confident that we will eradicate the term “academic gap” in all its forms. To that end, I would urge anyone who wants to eradicate achievement gap to first call it what it is, it’s about the quality of education we provide to children and above all, it is about teachers’ attitude. It can be achieved when we are able to confront the misconceptions some teachers may have developed in their formative years and rather resort to treating their learners as Bill Gates Teacher, Mrs. Caffeine did for him.