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Notes From The Road

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Thursday, March 20,2008

What Will It Take to Close the Achievement Gap?

How Can the Achievement Gap Be Closed?

Yesterday Jon sent me the above article from the New York Times by Stephen J. Dubner. You may remember that Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt wrote Freakonomics. Dubner’s article in the NY Times asked Caroline Hoxby, Daniel Hurley, Richard J. Murnane, and Andrew Rotherham:

Can the black- white achievement gap be closed? And if so, how?

My entire professional career has been spent working to close the achievement gap . I should point out that Teach For America defines the achievement gap as the gap between student achievement in affluent areas and less affluent areas, not a black-white issue. This gap undeniably affects a disproportionately large number of African-American and Latino-Hispanic students because they are three times more likely to grow up in poverty (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2006). But, yes – I believe that the achievement gap can be closed and doing so is integral to ensuring basic civil rights for everyone in our country.

What was really exciting to me about this article is that the solutions the panelists named were, in most cases (not all), much closer to what I’ve seen in my own work than I usually see and hear when people are discussing the achievement gap. If this article had been written in 1990, I think we would’ve heard these folks blame parents above all else (although there is a bit of that in the Times article). People have spent so much time blaming parents (and any other cause out of their control) that they often throw up their hands and ask “what do you want the schools to do? It’s too much!” The majority of the solutions presented in this article are linked to school and teacher quality, accountability and focus on things that are in our control. While it doesn’t make those solutions any easier …. I think we’re at least starting to name the right things. To me this is proof that the second part of Teach For America’s mission is in play. We are indeed changing the educational discourse in our country by showing people what our students are capable of, forcing people to think outside of the box when it comes to what makes a great teacher (it isn’t necessarily a fancy degree!), and we’re starting to see more people in positions of power and leadership who have a deep understanding of the challenges faced by students growing up in low income communities. All of these are hopeful signs that yes, we can (and must!) close the achievement gap.

Then you should read the comments posted on the Times website about the article to see how far we still have to go in changing mindsets. I found the comments about IQ particulary inflammatory.

However, those comments bring me back to a section of the good bye e-mail I sent to my recruitment colleagues on my last day as an RD. I believe these words now more than ever having watched my 26 corps members in action this year. Their hard work and belief in their students is a testament to the power of a single person to enact change. When I wrote these words they brought tears to my eyes and even now, after having read them dozens of times, they are powerful to me:

the work we do is so, so very important. It is not glamorous, it is hard and grueling and sometimes thankless, but it is so, so very important. I am often shocked by the incredible number of people who still believe our children can’t achieve and I am deeply inspired by the smaller number of truly committed people who know they can. I believe in my heart of hearts that one day the rest of the country will come to know what we already do – that when given great teachers and schools our students can and will soar- and when that day comes and everyone realizes what we’ve known all along we can take pride in knowing that we were among the pioneering souls who changed the opinions of an entire nation. We were the strong few who believed when the rest of the country said it was impossible and it will make that moment that much sweeter. In the meantime – thank you- on behalf of my students, your students, and the millions of kids who we’ve never met whose lives will be better because of how we’ve chosen to spend our days.”


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

True Analysis in Math

I was observing one of my corps members today and saw an intro to new material that made me want to jump out of my chair and run a victory lap around the classroom! The objective on the board was to analyze logarithmic functions and students were really being asked to analyze! Woo hoo!

So, why is this so different from what we usually see in math classes? Well, when I took calculus it went something like this- here is a problem, let me, the teacher, show you how to solve it. Here is another problem, let me show you how to solve it. Now, take the steps you just memorized and solve this third problem that is just like the one we did together. What students are being asked to do falls under the application level of Bloom’s – taking steps you know and applying it to a new situation. Being able to see the patterns in math (the conceptual reasons why those steps give you the correct answer) was implicit in the instruction. What I saw today was a teacher very explicitly making students pull those patterns out for themselves.

He showed them a logarithm and then asked them the value associated with that logarithm based on their prior knowledge of logs (for example: log a(base) 1 (argument) = 0). He then explicitly asked them to compare the relationship between the base and the argument and create a rule about how that relationship affects the value of the logarithm. He could have just said, “all logs with an argument of 1 will have a value of 0 regardless of the base,” but by asking his students to create the rule for themselves he forced them to think more deeply about the concept.

This teacher teaches calculus and pre-cal to students who don’t necessarily have the strong foundation to be ready for a math class of that caliber and yet, his students are achieving at high levels. I’m convinced that his approach to INM and the way he asks his students to uncover the patters in calculus are key pieces of that success.

I’ve seen a similar approach in an Algebra II class where the teacher asked students to graph different functions and then create the rules that describe those functions based on what they saw in the graphs. Brilliant!

I think one major reason we don’t see this in more math classrooms is that you have to have a deep understanding of the content yourself to be able to identify the patterns and relationships in the content. So, one question I’m asking myself as a PD is – what would need to happen for a teacher who doesn’t have that deep understanding of the content to develop it efficiently enough to do this?

In the meantime, there are some great kids in ENC learning to see the beauty and elegance of calculus.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

One hot summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes ripening high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again he jumped, until at last he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.” It is easy to despise what you can’t get.

I am currently obsessed with a book called Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Some Die which is where I was reminded of the Aesop’s fable above. While this fable speaks to how easy it is to despise what you can’t have (that explains why it is so easy to hate Paris Hilton- who spends more on shoes in a month then I make in a year, but doesn’t have any kind of job that benefits anyone but herself) I think it also says a little about human nature in the face of failure. How people view failure – both as teachers and in other professions- seems to seperate the okay from the really great.

I think we’ve all been guilty of being jealous of an award or recognition bestowed on a friend or colleague. Afterall, who doesn’t want to be recognized for their hard work? Who wouldn’t want to be the best at what they do? But sometimes a truly defeatist attitude can creep in that, coupled with jealousy, can lead to stunted professional growth. If we deny our true desire – to earn such an award ourselves- and instead claim “sour grapes” we are missing the root of our emotions. I think we’d all be better off if we stopped to recognize our true feelings as jealousy the next time we get ready to point the finger and yell favoritism, unfair recognition or sour grapes at someone else’s accomplishment. Then we could determine the key steps we would need to take to improve and earn that kind of praise for ourselves. I think it is one of the reasons my best teachers are inspired, not threatened by the accomplishments of others. They just quietly make a plan for themselves to get there, too.


Written by theonlinepd

March 10, 2008 at 2:32 am

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