The New Age Educator: An Advocate for Equity

Introduction

One of the earliest acknowledgments of the achievement gap came from James

Coleman’s 1966 study, The Equality of Educational Opportunity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, section 402, required the commissioner of education to study and report to the President and Congress concerns regarding the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.” Coleman’s study followed the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that directed schools in the South to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” In the years following this monumental and philosophical shift in the education of America’s public school children, few school districts expedited desegregation efforts. Using “freedom of choice” plans as a method of superficial compliance, Southern school districts were especially able to remain as equally segregated as they were prior to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. By 1968, 77% of Black students attended majority Black schools nationwide (Orfield, 2001, as cited in Reardon and Owens, 2014). This resistance to follow the directive of the highest court in the land, accompanied by additional dissatisfaction regarding the lack of moral courage and political will to comply, resulted in hundreds of school districts being placed under court-order desegregation mandates by the mid 1970’s (Logan and Oakley, 2004, as cited in Reardon and Owens, 2014). In response to court-ordered desegregation, many Whites abandoned the public school system altogether, while others elected to enroll their children in districts that mirrored the demographics of the segregated schools they were more accustomed to having their children attend (Reardon & Owens, 2014), and when these court-ordered desegregations ended, a resurgence of segregation emerged. This response to the ending of mandated integration flies in the face of one of Coleman’s most notable conclusions from his 1966 report: “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor” (p.22).

Although Coleman found differences in school resources among Black and White students, those variations were not large enough to account for the difference in achievement (Alexander and Morgan, 2016).  However, James Coleman’s 1966 study concluded something very important, and that is that family background was more indicative of a child’s achievement than other factors such as class size, per-pupil expenditures, curricular resources, and even teacher qualifications. This finding led to a fundamental shift in measuring school quality. Instead of focusing on the factors and inputs that affect student achievement, a focus on outcomes, notably standardized test scores, would consume the nation’s attention and efforts. This long-held view, that outcomes matter more than inputs, has led to a variety of policy decisions, public opinions, and scholarly recommendations. Coleman et al. (1966) noted:

Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that inequalities imposed on children by their home neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. (p.325)

Several scholars have criticized Coleman’s research methods, yet further review confirms this particular finding regarding the impact of socioeconomic status on student achievement. According to Hanushek (2016), additional analyses have found aspects of family background to have a significant impact on achievement differences (p.23). Similarly, Khalenburg (2013) cites the 2012 study by Mantril, Perkins, & Aberger as confirmation of this finding as well:

In 2012, researchers found a strong statewide correlation between socioeconomic school segregation and the size of the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. Examining achievement gaps on NAEP for math and reading in 2007 and 2005, they found that Black and Latino students had smaller achievement gaps with Whites when they were less likely to be stuck in high-poverty school environments.  (p.4)

Citing the American Educational Research Association’s 2006 brief on the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1, Darling-Hammond (2018) highlights the overwhelming conclusion regarding the inequity of segregated schools: “More often than not, segregated minority schools offer profoundly unequal educational opportunities. This inequality is manifested in many ways, including fewer qualified, experienced teachers, greater instability caused by rapid turnover of faculty, fewer educational resources, and limited exposure to peers who can positively influence academic learning. No doubt as a result of these disparities, measures of educational outcomes, such as scores on standardized achievement tests and high school graduation rates, are lower in schools with high percentages of nonwhite students” (p.4).

The Problem

Segregated schools are not a thing of the past. Bartz (2016) notes that the percentage of segregated schools has risen from 5.7% to 18.6% across our nation. The United States Government Accountability Office affirms this notion in their 2016 report, Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination. They concluded that between 2001 and 2013 public schools with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students grew from 9% to 16%. The central problem of the achievement gap is clear: poverty and socioeconomics matter a great deal. Khalenburg (2013) agrees, stating, “the major problem with American schools is not teachers or their unions but poverty and economic segregation”(p.14). Yet educational leaders are reluctant to cite this overwhelming body of research and use their voices to activate a higher degree of moral courage and political will. Despite having substantial research and knowledge regarding the benefits of more integrated schools, school and district leaders look to politicians and government leaders to lead the way in making this a reality for America’s poorest children. Practitioners have an enormous opportunity to make the case that America’s schools can improve when America’s moral courage and political will to address its persistent opposition to equity improves as well.  Scholars such as Bartz (2016) rightly note that educators across the country have had minimal success in narrowing the achievement gap between Black and White students.  The response to this lack of success in closing the achievement gap can no longer result in “whatever it takes” and “no excuses” mantras, billions of dollars in test prep curriculum, and demoralized professional educators who treat their efforts as an isolated variable. We have already determined what it will take, just as Coleman’s 1966 report noted, a more balanced socially comprised student body. This is what educators across the country should be advocating for in addition to improved compensation, higher quality working conditions, and sharpened preparation programs. Internal conversations regarding the impact of concentrated poverty must extend themselves beyond the walls of the teacher’s lounge. Educational leaders must arm themselves with the research needed to redesign the notion of accountability that focuses solely on educational outputs while giving minimal credence to the critical inputs that substantially influence academic and life outcomes for children in our public schools.

In the December 2017 article, “A New Path for School Integration”, McDaniels frames the problem quite well. Concentrated poverty combined with racially isolated student bodies present educators and students with numerous challenges: limited curricular access and opportunities, minimal enrichment experiences, and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers.  McDaniel (2017) highlights two startling statistics that seem to confirm Darling-Hammond’s (2018) contention that our schools are becoming more segregated. “More than a third of students attend schools in which 90% of their peers are of the same race. Furthermore, 40% of the natation’s more than 1, 700 school districts are hypersegregated, meaning that most low-income students attend schools where 75% of the student body is also low-income” (p. 2). While an analysis of 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results point to a continued gap in achievement between White and minority students (Bartz, 2016), the court-mandated desegregation era offers a counter-narrative. Efforts made to make the public education experience a more equitable one through the targeting of resources via the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act through programs like Title I and bilingual education, which supported school desegregation and in turn helped improve academic achievement for minority students. According to Darling-Hammond (2018), the achievement gap in reading decreased by over 50% for the nation’s 13-year-olds based on NAEP results between 1971 and 1988 and reduced by 20 points in math during the same period. The results of more socially and racially integrated schools ought to be enough to convince educational leaders to activate their voices and advocate for what we know works to improve academic outcomes for our most marginalized students.  Instead of asking what programs will help reduce today’s achievement gap or what cocktail of consequences might motivate educators to produce better results, we should be asking a different question: What is keeping us from doing what we know works for all students and does harm to none?

Conclusion

There is substantial evidence that socioeconomic integration disrupts a pattern of concentrated poverty and produces improved academic outcomes for those who are on the deficit end of the achievement gap and at a minimum, does no harm to those who are not (Khalenberg, 2013). Educators cannot afford to refrain from this conversation. School reform efforts must include the voices of practitioners who can speak to the impact of segregated schools with high concentrations of poverty firsthand. If educational leaders stand down instead of speaking up, the resistance to doing what we know works may continue and the gaps in achievement are likely to widen. The resistance to address school inequity through means of integration is strong. According to McDaniels (2017) “since 2000, 71 communities have tried to secede from their school districts. 47 of these efforts were successful” (p. 47). In June of 2018, the North Carolina House ratified HB514 that would make it possible for suburban municipalities to create, operate, and partially fund their own charter schools, giving enrollment priority to area children. This type of political maneuvering to resist integration has already proven itself disastrous via Coleman’s 1966 report, yet the idea is popular in Southern suburban communities. In Bauman’s June 2017 Chalkbeat article titled, “Memphis-Shelby County Spotlighted in National Report on School District Secession”, she cites research from EdBuild (2018), a nonprofit group that focuses on inequity and education funding. Additionally, Bauman notes two important factors: the timing of the Shelby County secession and the reasoning behind the desire to secede. Prior to this effort to separate, a merger of Memphis City Schools, a mostly black and lower-income district, with Legacy Shelby County Schools, a suburban, and mostly white and affluent district, had taken place. Shelby County wanted to establish a special school district that would significantly and negatively impact funding for the lower income Memphis district and had sought to do so since 2008. To avoid this reduction in funding on top of an already financially strained situation, members of the Memphis City Schools voted to dissolve its school system in 2010, which left its schools under the control of Shelby County Schools. Shelby County citizens, however, didn’t share the same sentiment. In essence, members of the Shelby County community did not agree with their suburban tax dollars being used to support Memphis City Schools. Additionally, the Shelby County School Board worked with their legislative delegation to reverse a ban on the creation of new school districts and a new law allowed for the suburban areas of Shelby County to “break away while opening the door for any municipality in the state with a population of 1, 500 to secede, as long as it had the support of a majority of municipal voters” (EdBuild, 2018). Due to the Shelby County Schools secession, six affluent communities in Tennessee followed their lead and by the start of the 2014-15 school year, each community had established separate school districts. While some say the motivation to separate centered around socioeconomics and local control rather than race, there is an important lesson to learn here: creating separate and smaller districts is fiscally irresponsible and inherently inefficient. Bauman cites EdBuild’s 2018 report affirming such in her July 2017 Chalkbeat article: “The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on larger districts  (of 25,000 to 49,999 students) according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more on per-pupil administrative costs.“ This growing trend of more affluent communities creating separate districts should be concerning to all educators. The implications are broad and go beyond the impact on student outcomes. There are other important factors that come in to play as a result of concentrated poverty such as frequent turnover at the teacher and leadership levels, greater limits in curricular and enrichment experiences (Bartz, 2016) and reduced quality in professional development opportunities for educators. Yet these types and degrees of resistance aren’t new. In an effort to put off integration, South Carolina enacted a school equalization program whereby legislators approved a multi-million dollar effort to keep schools segregated. In doing so, the state would build new schools for African-American children to prove its’ efforts toward providing equitable facilities and escape the potential desegregation ruling that was sure to come after the 1951 Briggs v. Elliot case in Clarendon County, South Carolina. The case resulted in a three-judge panel ordering the school board to make an effort to equalize school facilities (Dobrasko, 2018).

Educational leaders must not underestimate their role in advocating for a balanced and more integrated school experience for our students. If we cannot appeal to people’s hearts, perhaps an appeal to their mind or their pocketbooks might work. We know the financial waste that comes from the creation of small school districts (EdBuild, 2018). We are aware of the impact on achievement in schools with high concentrations of poverty (Bartz, 2016). Despite this knowledge, we’ve been reactive in dealing with the effects of these factors, trying to work within the limitations and constraints placed upon us, rather than putting forth efforts to address the causes of this challenge and change those policies and decisions that we know create gaps in achievement for students. As we move forward, educators have a new role to play and must be willing to speak out if we are serious about dismantling the achievement gap and the institutionalized and systemic structures of racism that accompany it. According to Khalenberg (2013), some school districts have successfully encouraged socioeconomic integration. Some of the most notable recommendations to support solving this challenge include the following:

  1. State and local leaders should consider consolidating school systems to advance the potential of integrating schools at scale (McDaniels, 2017).
  2. Policymakers should look beyond attendance zones and boundary maps to consider the consolidation of schools or school districts as a mechanism of breaking up large concentrations of poverty or racially isolated student populations (McDaniels, 2017).
  3. States and local communities should invest in high-quality preschool for children from low-income households (Darling-Hammond, 2018).
  4. Local communities and large metropolitan cities should consider expanding and/or preserving affordable housing in high performing school zones (Darling-Hammond, 2018).

If educational leaders intend to play a role in dismantling the inequity in public education, it will mean raising awareness through the sharing of scholarly literature, engaging in political discourse and policy creation, and using our democratic power to demand that America addresses its persistent approval of policies and accountability requirements that perpetuate the very gap it seeks to close. Failure to do so will result in a continuation of the popular, yet faulty widespread negative narrative that our public schools are failing our children, especially those in our most vulnerable communities. We know better and therefore, we must do a better job of being informed thought leaders and advocates for equity. We can start by asking parents, community members, policy makers, legislators, and other stakeholders a new question to answer: What are we willing to do to close the achievement gap?

References

Alexander, K., & Morgan, S. L. (2016). The Coleman report at fifty: Its legacy and implications for future research on equality of opportunity. The Ru¡ssell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(5), 1–16. Retrieved from http://www.rsfjournal.org/doi/full/10.7758/RSF.2016.2.5.01

Bartz, D. E. (2016). Revisiting James Coleman’s epic study entitled equality of educational opportunity. National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, 34(4), 1-10.

Bauman, C. (2017, June 21). Memphis-Shelby county spotlighted in national report on school district secession. Chalkbeat. Retrieved from https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2017/06/21/memphis-shelby-county-spotlighted-in-national-report-on-school-district-secession/

Coleman, J. S. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED012275.pdf

Darling-Hammond, L. (2018). Education and the path to one nation, indivisible. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Education_Path_To_One_Nation_BRIEF.pdf

Dobrsako, R. (2018). South Carolina Equalization Schools 1951-1960 [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.scequalizationschools.org/equalization-schools.html

EdBuild. (2018). Fractured: the breakdown of America’s school districts [Report]. Retrieved from https://edbuild.org/content/fractured#shelby

Hanushek, E.A. (2016). What matters for student achievement. Education Next, 16 (2), 18-26.

Kahlenberg, R. D. (2013). From All Walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration. American Educator, 36 (4), 2.

Logan, J.R. and Oakley, D. (2004). The continuing legacy of the Brown decision: court action and school segregation, 1960-2000. Retrieved from http://mumford.cas.albany.edu/schoolsegregation/reports/Brown_report_1_28.pdf

Mantil, A., Perkins, A. G., & Aberger, S. (2012). The challenge of high-poverty schools: How feasible is socioeconomic school integration?. The Future of School Integration, 155-222.

McDaniels, A. (2017, December 19). A New Path for School Integration. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2017/12/19/444212/new-path-school-integration/

Orfield, G. (2001). Schools more separate: Consequences of a decade of resegregation. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED459217.pdf

Reardon, S. F., & Owens, A. (2014). 60 years after Brown: Trends and consequences of school segregation. Annual Review of Sociology, 40.

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2016). Better use of information could help agencies identify disparities and address racial discrimination (GAO 16-345). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-345

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Reflections on 2018 #OneWord: FORWARD

My #oneword for 2018 was FORWARD. I wanted to concentrate on moving forward in every aspect of my life and work diligently to improve my resilience. In 2017, I had a breakthrough moment in my personal life. I realized that I had likely spent half of my life (if I am blessed to live an equal amount beyond the present) worrying. I worried about everything, no matter how big or how small. I took myself too seriously. I spent a great deal of time trying not to make any mistakes and then digging myself out from beating myself up for having made an error of some kind. It dawned on me that for all the worrying I had done, none of the things I often feared as my mind went to worst case scenario had actually come to fruition. I resented all the nights I could not sleep, all the time I spent worrying instead of having fun, and I promised myself in 2018 that I was done worrying. No more sleepless nights, no more stressing out over things I could not control, and no more trying not to make any mistakes…a nice way of saying I was releasing myself from my perfectionistic tendencies.

Some people who know me are likely to say they don’t see this or didn’t know this, but ask any of my closest friends, any of my former supervisors, or my family and they will tell you it is true. I need no external pressure to do a good job. I do an outstanding inside job of that on my own. I have always struggled with anxiety. From the time I was a small child, I was described as conscientious. At school I was usually able to hold it together, but at home I battled with worry and anxiety often. Whether it was math homework frustration or worrying because my mom was later than usual getting home, my worry wire was active at an early age. Being conscientious is a part of who I am, but it no longer holds me hostage or sends me into a spiraling series of self-doubt. After nearly 20 years as an educator and a work record that I am proud of, I recognize that this life is short and I’ve given it my best and plan to continue doing so. That is enough and it always will be.

I chose the word FORWARD for 2018 because I wanted to focus on moving on, not getting bogged down in what went wrong or what might go wrong, but having a really balanced perspective that didn’t require an unrealistic pressure to get everything right the first time. I still focused on doing my best but I accepted that mistakes would be inevitable. I would make them, but the important thing was to focus on how to move forward, on my ability to bounce back and move on, on my resilience. I am so glad I did because 2018 was a great year.

In 2018 I found myself focused on being happy, having fun, and working hard. For me, the word FORWARD, didn’t mean to keep going in a careless manner. Instead it meant to move forward with courage, and to not allow fear to hold me hostage. This prevailing thought gave me freedom in ways I never imagined. I didn’t overthink wearing my favorite sneakers, Air Jordan’s, on the weekend, releasing my self published book, making rap music for fun, or writing more scholarly articles and submitting them for publication even if rejection would be the result. I trusted myself and my abilities. I finally realized that no matter what happens I would be alright and it, whatever it was, would also be alright. Experience said so. In 2018, I gave myself the freedom to be me and I have never felt more free and happy. There’s still room for growth, but I am off to a good start and I feel amazing. I hope this continues in 2019 because it’s amazing what the word FORWARD did for me in one year and I can only imagine what might be if I can keep this trend going for years to come. That’s why my #oneword for 2019 is FORWARD. It’s my eternal resolution.

Until next t time-Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Competition Myth: Confronting the Consequences​ of Making Public School a Competitive Experience

Many economists assert that competition is a driving force that catalyzes improvement in businesses. BusinessDictonary.com defines it this way:

Competition:
Rivalry in which every seller tries to get what other sellers are seeking at the same time: sales, profit, and market share by offering the best practicable combination of price, quality, and service. Where the market information flows freely, competition plays a regulatory function in balancing demand and supply.

I am no business expert, but I think I have a basic understanding of this concept. Let’s use an analogy to help make this clear. Apple’s iPhone has driven the market in cellular phones. Samsung, LG, Tracfone, and others have had to improve their combination of price, quality, and service when it comes to the smartphone movement. As Apple has linked several of its’ other devices to the smart phone-think Apple Watch, Ipad/Ipad Pro, MacBook, it has created a community of consumers who more often than not own multiple products. By making sure the smartphone they design changes the way we work, live, socialize, and entertain ourselves, they force companies like Samsung and LG to create products like the Galaxy that can perform similar functions for a more reasonable price. This theory works well for products, for actual things because it diversifies the market, ensures that company innovations match consumer needs, and creates an opportunity for everyone to have a smartphone, even if they can’t afford iPhone X.

Some believe this same concept can help create better schools, and force educators to improve their practices to remain relevant in the market. They argue that adopting this philosophy to teaching and learning can help create better-prepared teachers, more motivated students, and force school districts to improve the quality of learning they offer when parents have other choices for their child’s educational experiences. A fundamental reason for competition is its effects in creating a diversified marketplace for better schools. After many years of a great deal of advocacy for a competitive mindset to be applied to American schooling, one has to ask, have all of our schools improved and gotten better as a result of this competition mindset we’ve adopted?

Hart and Figlo answered that question this way in their 2011 Education Next article, Does Competition Improve Public Schools

It is notoriously difficult to gauge the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance. Private schools may be disproportionately located in communities with low-quality public schools, causing the relationship between private school competition and public school performance to appear weaker than it actually is. If, however, private schools are located in areas where citizens care a lot about educational quality, the relationship will appear stronger than it truly is.

Other scholars now say that competition improves not only the quality of public schools but can also improve outcomes for students. In Bozzo’s 2016 article, School Vouchers: A Vehicle to Induce Greater Competition In Public Schools, she concludes:

“Many previous voucher studies have found that programs are successful at increasing competition and student academic outcomes but only on the lowest and highest performing public school students and in the most competitive school districts. Therefore, voucher programs are not an education reform that will work for all student groups and for all states, and vouchers will not be the panacea that will help all low-performing students to catch up. Moreover, precautions must be taken to ensure that heightened scrutiny and competition do not lead to negative unintended consequences, such as cheating and increased stress for students. Despite these limitations, greater competition has led to increases in student achievement in public schools in Ohio and Florida, particularly among the lowest performing students. Future studies and efforts should continue to identify the distinctive populations and contexts that can successfully use vouchers to foster greater competition and promote improvements in educational performance, particularly for vulnerable populations.”

The question I am left with is who are the children that end up on the downside of this competition? Unlike second place smartphones like the Galaxy when compared to the Iphone X, I believe none of our children deserve a second place education. When competition comes into play, it means there are winners and losers. It means someone has to be the best and someone has to be the worst. It means some schools have to be exceptionally better than others and some have to be exceptionally worse. That troubles me greatly because I believe all children deserve a high-quality education and none deserve to be on the lower end of the competition chain in their educational experience. What happens to those children whose parents don’t have the means or capacity to choose? What happens to the children whose mothers and fathers happen to not be engaged at all in their education? Who deserves the Iphone X education versus the Tracfone education?

The competition concept is a myth because I am uncertain as to whether it makes us ALL better. Instead, I believe it creates exceptionally great access and educational opportunity for some while others are left behind. I worry often that choice, which sounds good in theory, leaves some students with no choice at all. I think the education of students is far too complex to apply a broadly based business theory to an exercise in human interaction. I may be too utopian and idealistic in my beliefs, but I can’t help but think about the children on the bottom of the competition and what it means for them.

I think we’d be wise to look at this concept as something to be applied based on context, if and when it can be helpful, instead of broadly across public education. I remain uncertain as to how this impacts teacher and leadership retention, and how it impacts the rhetoric that some public schools are failures when in reality the idea of competition means someone has to fail in order for someone else to succeed. I have no answers for this myth, except to say it is something that stays heavily on my mind. What I know for sure, is that I believe all means all and that all students deserve the absolute best education we can offer them and I am not sure that is something we should make competitive.

Until next time- Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Zip Code Myth: Dismantling Predictive Geography

We’ve all heard it before. A child’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive. We’ve sat through or read numerous pieces on why we cannot continue to allow zip codes to determine the success of our children. I agree. I believe with my whole heart that every child deserves a quality educational experience that allows him or her to reach their highest potential. However, it almost seems silly for us to reduce the well known inequity students experience to geography and zip codes. We need to go beyond the idea that location of where you receive your education matters and dig deep into the mindsets that hold some communities hostage in the fight for equity.

I guess my frustration with the zip code argument is that there is nothing one can do, no action a student can take, to change where he or she lives. Additionally, seeking teachers or educational leaders who are “beating the odds” signifies that we’ve given up on changing mindsets, on creating more equitable communities, on calling out White flight and segregation academies meant to keep children separated during the time they spend in school. All the zip code rhetoric in the world doesn’t answer these questions:

1. Why can’t all of our students attend a quality school together?

2. Why can’t we pool our resources and provide a great education for every child instead of spreading resources and opportunities thin because there are separate systems of schooling (both formally and informally)?

In Mark Elgart’s 2016 Huffington Post article, Student Success Comes Down To Zip Code, he shares:

A study recently released by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California showed that access to good schools in the nation’s 100 largest cities continues to exacerbate income inequality between neighborhoods. Income disparities in communities increased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, largely because of the desire people have to live within the boundaries of top-performing schools. The study also indicates that income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without.

Instead of talking about the impact of zip codes and residential location on school quality, why isn’t there more conversation around who is drawing attendance lines that exacerbate inequity? Why aren’t we discussing how we can create more mixed income neighborhoods? What’s keeping us from talking about the root causes of the income disparities this researcher speaks of and how we begin changing that?

Zip codes aren’t the problem. It’s the mindsets of those who have forgotten or either don’t believe that the public education of all children is for the public good of all of us. As long as we champion a “beat the odds” mentality instead of a “level the playing field one” the zip code narrative will hold true. While I applaud every student who overcomes the obstacles of poverty and trauma, and every educator who is able to help students be successful in spite of the obstacles they face, wouldn’t it prove helpful to work on reducing the disparities and obstacles instead of giving all of our energy and attention to how we overcome them? If we were to spend more time addressing the causes instead of the effects, perhaps we might be able to shift this conversation to one that boldly and courageously addresses what we’ve known to be a key issue in our work since James Coleman’s 1966 report: We are better together. Coleman notes,

The research results indicate that a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to school with children who come from different backgrounds,” Coleman said. “If you integrate children of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, kids perform better.”

We have an opportunity before us as educators to call on policy makers and others who make decisions about economic development, jobs, quality housing, and more to help reduce the inequities that plague these areas where zip codes are credited for the lack of success children experience. If we know we are better together, that all of our children are better when we educate them together, let’s stop talking about zip codes and start talking about how we can live, work, and learn together for the benefit of all involved.

Until next time- Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Expectations Myth: A Stubborn Refusal to Address Bigotry and Bias In The Classroom

High expectations matter. There’s no doubt about that. There’s plenty of research to support the claim that teacher expectation matters a great deal when it comes to student outcomes. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson published Pygmalion in the Classroom. This study provided evidence that teacher expectations can significantly impact student achievement. You can read more about the historical overview of scholarly research on the impact of teacher expectation here. Today, as I read multiple perspectives on the achievement gap and listen to practitioners it seems the solution is often boiled down to this: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” These words came from then Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in 1999 in a speech he gave on how he planned to improve education. It’s not that I disagree with the significant impact expectations has on our students, but here’s the myth: Expectations alone won’t fix the achievement gap because these low expectations are rooted in something far more detrimental: bigotry.

For years I’ve listened to speaker after speaker share insight on how low expectations are the cause of the gap in performance between minority children and their White counterparts. While that may be partly true, the root cause of this is due to bigotry, prejudice, and systemic oppression sometimes inherent in our policies and practices in public education. Let’s get real honest here. Giving high expectations lip service doesn’t mean one truly believes that all students deserve a high quality education.

It is important and essential for us to acknowledge that being educators doesn’t mean we are universally agnostic to bias or prejudice of any kind. It means recognizing we all bring our biases to the table and it is our professional and moral responsibility to check ourselves and others when we see these skewed perceptions or biased beliefs and attitudes manifesting themselves in our classrooms and our school buildings.

If we were to really tackle the achievement gap, there are lots of things we would do, but one of them is that we would move the conversation beyond low expectations and really get at the heart of bias and bigotry. We’d talk through how we end up with skewed perspectives when we limit our personal experiences to being around other humans who live, work, worship, love, and believe like us. We’d end up digging deep into people’s hearts before we tried changing their minds. Even then it may not change anything, but the perpetual conversation around low expectations for Black and Brown children hasn’t either. I’m convinced it is because most are afraid to call it what it is: bigotry and bias. I don’t see it as soft either, but that’s a post for another day.

Those individuals who desire to lead with equity at the center must understand that this work goes far beyond having high expectations for all. It means recognizing when there are policies or practices that create inequity (intentionally or not) and making changes to those to create a more equitable experience for all students. Every educator has a set of core values that impacts their perspective and behavior. It can be difficult to see the inequity in practices and policies depending on your experiences, and especially if you’ve not been on the end of a practice or policy negatively impacting your access and opportunity. If leaders are interested in leading with equity in mind,they evaluate every decision with reflection questions like these:

1. Who are we leaving out?

2. Who is being excluded?

3. What barriers are impeding their access and/or opportunity?

Then, they work tirelessly to remove the barriers so that when they use the phrase “all students” it truly means all students. They call out practices that exclude and offer solutions to make them more inclusive and equitable. They build in deliberate ways to ensure that low expectations are checked along with bias. They create policies and practices that create a more equitable experience, equitable access, and equitable opportunities for all students. They are courageous enough to do this even when they are alone in their advocacy.

If we truly are interested in closing the achievement gap, we’re going to have to talk about the root causes: hearts and minds that believe some students are less capable and deserve different opportunities than others. The conversation will be difficult, but it has the potential to lead us to a place we’ve needed to address from the very beginning: the hearts of those who serve.

Until next time! Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Turn Around Myth

In the Spring of 2014, I graduated with my Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of South Carolina. After five long years of a rigorous and intense dual Education Specialist and Doctorate of Philosophy program, I was looking forward to nights and weekends again. Additionally, I was seeking a new professional challenge. I had served as principal in the same school for 6 and a half years and our school was able to make dramatic improvements in student achievement. For five consecutive years, our standardized test scores improved. We were proud of our hard work and the success of our students, yet I knew it was time for a new professional challenge. In a discussion with a colleague and fellow administrator, I expressed my desire to embark on a new journey. My colleague agreed that it was indeed an appropriate professional next step for me. She said, “Latoya, face it. You are a turnaround principal.” I accepted what she said at that moment. I had heard the term before. It was a term for principals who had gone into underperforming schools and helped improve their test scores or who were leaders who were able to help their school be removed from the state’s low performing list and those people were considered a rarity in the profession. My next professional move had to be just that if I was going to be able to be seen as a turnaround leader.

I spent the next few years at a low-performing middle school in North Carolina. Using a co-principal model and with the opportunity to work daily with my dearest friend and colleague, Michael Waiksnis. We wanted to improve our school. We implemented professional learning communities, improved the climate and culture as evidenced by the teacher working conditions survey, and after two years of diligence, hard work, sweat, and many tears and frustrations, the school was no longer on North Carolina’s low performing list. We celebrated. We were thrilled that our efforts had manifested in the way in which we needed them to in order to be removed from the low performing list. I went on to undertake a new professional challenge, working with low performing schools at the state level just across the border in my home state, South Carolina.

After nearly 20 years in public education, I must confess something here in this blog: I am not a turnaround leader because turnaround leadership is a myth. That’s right. I said it. I see myself as a transformational leader now, and it’s far more accurate than the trendy word, turnaround, that is used in education far too often. I am sure some are wondering where my ultimate aim might land with this post. If you’re brave enough to consider something different than what others generally believe, keep reading.

When public educators and others use the word turnaround leader or school turn around, what exactly are they referencing? What has to change for a school leader to be considered or categorized as a turnaround leader?  In my experience, it seems that the turnaround is only about raising student achievement on a standardized test. What’s often left out of the concept of turnaround are all the other things that also need to be turned around: inequity, teacher and principal retention and recruitment, community and/or district mindset, culture, climate, equitable access and opportunity for students, and more. While we may, in fact, be able to improve test scores in spite of serving high concentrations of low-income students, our ability to raise the test scores of students doesn’t turnaround the other equally and sometimes significantly more important elements that impact students in ways far beyond their K-12 experience.

We have yet to implement a solution or deliberate strategy to close the achievement gap. Instead, we seek leaders who can help students improve their performance on standardized tests in spite of all the barriers and obstacles they face. We accept the barriers and laud those who can improve test scores in spite of at all as turnaround leaders. I find this extremely problematic because this is, in essence, an acceptance of the inequity our students of poverty and often, of color face. Our youngsters in high poverty schools across our country are often taught in educational settings that are highly segregated by socioeconomics and sometimes race. They are often also subjected to less experienced and effective teachers, to a constant turn over of school and district leaders, and to fewer opportunities and access to more rigorous and advanced coursework, extracurricular activities, and the like. While test scores may take a different direction, these things that also gravely impact the success of students well beyond their K-12 years, don’t turn around at all.

When we subscribe to language and usage of terms like school turn around, we inadvertently agree that subjecting students to a less equitable learning environment and still being able to educate them enough to pass the standardized test as acceptable. While I am very proud of the work we did in both schools where I served as a principal, I remain concerned about the struggle to find and retain effective teachers and school leaders, the lack of access and opportunities for students of poverty, the impact of schooling in environments where there is a lack of resources and a high concentration and homogeneous grouping of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the turnover in teacher and school leaders for these students, which I too, contributed to as a leader who left after just a few years.

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Read my book Burned Out, Beaten Up, Fighting Back: A Call To Action For America’s Public Educators to learn more about that.

If turn around leadership were a real concept, our country would not have an achievement gap among students of various backgrounds and races in reading and math that persists across the country,  in spite of all the turn around leaders. You can read more about the persisting gap here.

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From: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017051.pdf
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From: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017051.pdf caption

Perhaps what we need  are not turn around leaders, but courageous and brave leaders who are willing to work to turn around the mindsets about the impact of creating schools of high concentrations of poverty, the idea that excelling in spite of having less access and opportunity to rigorous courses is something to applaud but also something to change, who are willing to admit that our issues of inequity and the achievement gap will not be solved and cannot be changed by simply hiring strong instructional leaders who can move test scores in a positive direction. While test scores may turn around, to improve the quality of schooling and ultimately of life that our students of poverty experience, we must also turn around the mindsets of those who create the policies that impact these students. We must turn around the lack of access and opportunity that these students experience. We must turn around the revolving door of less experienced and ineffective teachers these students are subjected to having as instructors. We must turn around the 30% turnover rate among principals in high-poverty schools. 

Only then can we truly begin to talk about the concept of turning around low-performing schools. Let’s have a conversation that matters and turn around our persistent and stubborn avoidance of the root issue: inequity.

Until next time-Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Leaders Must Be Readers!

So yesterday I fell suddenly ill in the midst of a presentation I had the opportunity to view. I was in a meeting of a steering committee I am a member of when I heard a principal say these awful words:

“I’m a principal who doesn’t read much.”

I gasped for air, clutched my chest, and tried to gather myself. I immediately took to Twitter to release the whirlwind of emotions that overcame me. You can check out my Twitter feed from Friday 10/26/18 and see the thread for yourself. In the end, I gathered myself and approached the educator privately at the next break. We locked eyes and I introduced myself. We shook hands and I took a deep breath and said:

“I must tell you how mortified I was by your admission in a room full of critical stakeholders that you don’t read much. This is what perpetuates the negative narrative, “those who can, do and those who can’t, teach”. You have a responsibility and professional obligation to be scholarly and academic in your leadership for your staff and your students. How can you serve as instructional leader or model for your staff the critical importance of reading if you don’t read? I challenge you to do better. I’m going to mail you some books.”

The young man nodded and nervously said “thank you”. He went on to let me know his staff had in fact done some book studies and so I reiterated the point that he must inform his practice as a leader by being a reader and a learner.

Newsflash folks: INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP IS NOT INSTINCTUAL. What you put in your toolbox or fail to put in your toolbox is directly correlated to the quality of the feedback you are able to provide to teachers in an effort to help them improve their practice. The mandatory annual district professional development days with a conference sprinkled in here or there is not enough. It is, in my opinion, very difficult to lead what you haven’t learned.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that one must demonstrate expertise in every single organizational strategy. That is impossible and likely would be very overwhelming. However, without context, just like students without prior knowledge, one creates a situation in which he or she leads blindly. Our words and efforts become our best guesses instead of healthy observations informed by knowledge and research and practice.

As educators we love children and adore the opportunity to work with them and that is why we must view ourselves as academic scientist. Our love alone will not give our students what they need. They need both: love and scholarship. It is out professional and moral obligations to extend ourselves as studies of the art of teaching and learning, as scholarly academics who work to improve our practice, and take personal responsibility for our professional development. Our cognitive commitment to the work is as important as our heart connection to the children. It is our hearts and our minds that will help our children reach their maximum potential.

Reading is more than fundamental. It is necessary and essential to leadership.

Now-go grab a book!

Until next time-Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!