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The Achievement Gap: A Perspective from Teacher Research


by Cynthia Ballenger - July 12, 2019

This commentary is an attempt to ground a better discussion of the achievement gap. It is from the perspective of a classroom teacher who explores discussion and interactions as a part of her practice.

The discussion on standardized test scores and the gap between the scores of white students and Asians on the one hand and African-American and Hispanic students on the other has been going on for years. Despite decades of programs, concerns, and various attempts at explanation and improvement, not much progress has been made.

Some deny that standardized testing has any relevance at all to genuine teaching and learning and should be abandoned; others deride the schools, the families, and/or the culture of students who score poorly; and many others are not sure what to think. Like so many controversies these days, there is little meeting of the minds. And yet most teachers and schools, whatever they may think of the cause, try valiantly to decrease this gap. What is missing from this unproductive disagreement?

I have been a teacher for 30 years in diverse, urban public schools. As an intervention specialist, I have been in and out of many classrooms. In my position, I work with children from kindergarten through eighth grade who are regarded as “struggling” with the demands of school generally, and particularly in reading. I do not generally work with children designated as having special needs. With exceptions, I do not think that the teachers with whom I teach are racist, less than competent, or have low expectations for students of color, and yet the children I am asked to work with, those who seem to need extra help, are disproportionately black and brown children. These referrals are made almost entirely by teachers, sometimes using the input from the standardized test scores, but often largely using the perspective of the classroom teacher.

What is going wrong that teachers so disproportionately designate these children as needing extra help? I believe the problem has to do with the lack of time and lack of structure for reflection that teachers have as part of their practice.

Let me tell a story about Daniel. This story is about a mistake I made in my own teaching, a misunderstanding of a student’s question. I take this example from my own teaching in order to not criticize anyone, but I see this sort of thing all the time in many different classrooms. We all do it. The question I want to address with this example is, what does Daniel deserve and what support do we need to give him what he deserves?

FALL 2000

In my third grade class, we have placed cups of water all over the room: over the heat, in cold corners near the windows, in the refrigerator, and so on. The children have suggested that the water will evaporate, and we are exploring where it will evaporate the fastest. As we begin to compare the cups of water to see how much is gone, the children are coming to the conclusion that heat makes it disappear the fastest, something many of them had more or less expected. Daniel, in the midst of this growing consensus, asks hesitantly, "But [he picks up a cup and looks at the bottom] it can't go out the bottom." Where has it gone? I ask the children to answer him, and they quickly tell him that the water goes up when it evaporates, not out the bottom. The discussion continues.

Daniel has asked a serious question. Yet, had I not written this conversation down and reread it later, I would have felt I had responded adequately by allowing the children to answer Daniel. Clearly, in retrospect, I can recognize that he has been thinking, and his question causes me to realize that I don't know how molecules of water can rise either. As he says later, everything goes down. And in fact, the children who answer him, like me, have accepted something as true that they don't fully understand either.

WHO BENEFITED FROM THIS INTERACTION AND WHO DID NOT?

The children who instructed Daniel had the opportunity to feel smart and competent. From this they benefitted. However, they were not aware, and were not made aware, that they did not really know the answer. They had accepted an explanation without seriously thinking it through. We don’t see them exercising genuine curiosity or critical thinking. Daniel, on the other hand, asked a good question; he knew he did not understand, and that something did not make sense to him. But the response he got did not validate him and his engaged thinking. In this interaction, as in many others, he was the child in need of instruction.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Of course, teachers are all fallible. We all miss the point or the thought in what children say at times. And, more importantly, as in this case, we are also often blinded by what we think we know, and thus we fail to question some of our own understanding.

It is tragic, however, that this kind of misunderstanding seems to happen disproportionately to children like Daniel, a child whose family was poor, whose parents had not had a great deal of education, whose skin was brown. Daniel tended to do badly on state tests. His vocabulary was not right for some of the texts he was reading. Given these difficulties, was it somehow easier for me to believe that Daniel was asking a simple and naïve question, one that I could allow the other children to answer, than it would have been had he been another student in that class, for example, one whose parent was a physicist? Probably.

Daniel was at risk for being devalued. And yet, in fact, he deserved to shine. Daniel had recognized that saying that “hot air rises” was not really enough to say. He was the only one of all of us who recognized that we did not really understand this explanation for evaporation. In fact, I realize from many experiences like this one, that it is often children like Daniel, children less likely to have received explanations early on from their parents that they accepted and did not question, who seem to have a better sense of what it feels like when they really understand and when they do not.

In this case, because I had taken notes during the conversation, and because I had had the good fortune to participate in a teachers’ group that encouraged me to look closely at classroom interactions of this kind, my class returned to Daniel and as a group decided to address the question of what can go up. We wondered why if we go high on top of a mountain, it’s not warmer, but colder. We thought about the temperature upstairs in our houses. We watched steam rise, and smoke rise, and condensation form. We acted like molecules. We took up Daniel’s question in a variety of ways and it became the basis for what was probably the most widely engaging science unit I taught, challenging for all students and often for me as well.

WHAT ARE THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF DANIEL’S STORY?

Daniel’s is only one of many stories I could tell about cases, in all subject areas, where the unquestioned expectations in our minds blind us to the thinking and engagement around us. We suffer, and our children suffer, from what Megan Bang, an educator interested in these issues particularly from the perspective of indigenous students, calls our “settled expectations.”1 These are the results of our own experience, our own educations, and the assumptions of the world we inhabit. The power of these settled expectations is awesome and can derail instruction for many children.

A number of educational thinkers, including myself, have used the evocative story of the canary in the coalmine to insist on a different way of seeing some of our struggling students. The atmosphere in coalmines can become toxic quickly in hard to predict ways. Canaries are extremely sensitive to the quality of the atmosphere, more sensitive to it than the average person. Miners carried canaries in cages into the coalmines; when the canaries began to suffer, it was a sign to the coalminers that there was a problem that would have an effect, although not yet visible, on everyone. The canaries were taken very seriously.

In this metaphor, the canary in the classroom is the child who misbehaves, shouts out, and struggles to produce appropriate work. The atmosphere is our sense of what counts as good thinking and good behavior, our sense of what we regard as appropriate or useful connections for children to make as they try to engage with new knowledge. It is the intellectual and pedagogical assumptions we use to construct the classroom that constitute the atmosphere. And when this atmosphere becomes too thin, these children know it first. They recognize it as unhealthy just as the canary in the coal mine does.

To return to less metaphorical language, the problem that I am describing, that is, the unfairness of much classroom experience, really lies in how “settled” our sense of the content we teach is and the kinds of responses it should evoke. I missed the power of Daniel’s question because I thought I knew where we needed to go next and what was relevant to get there.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS?

Does curriculum need to change? Become more culturally sensitive? Or more based on inquiry approaches? Are there alternative structures for classroom work, such as cooperative learning, that would help? Maybe, but there is no curriculum that is perfect, and no perfect way to organize learning.

What we need is time—the time to think that professionals in all fields demand. And this time crucially needs to be grounded in observations of children and with respect for their minds, in addition to teaching strategies and techniques. The evaluations and continuing professional development of teachers, as well as teacher preparation programs, must contain as a foundational practice the development of this sort of observational practice: a way of looking at students that includes the idea that they may have noticed something we haven’t. We need to do this in order to be fair to Daniel so that he and others recognize themselves as thinkers and learners, and also to strengthen the thinking of all children. It is a difficult task, both challenging to ourselves and at times counter-intuitive.

I am hardly the first educator to recognize this problem in this way. Such a perspective has come and gone multiple times over the history of American education. It may sound romantic or impractical, but making this sort of study part of the practice of teaching is the only way that teachers who make decisions in the midst of the busy life of a classroom can get beyond their immediate reactions and make visible to themselves their students’ thinking and the many varied questions and approaches that constitute their learning. This work will not take time away from other children; rather, it will make sure all children engage genuinely with the experiences in front of them—and it will return teachers to our own love of teaching. Many of us entered teaching because we got joy out of watching students engage and think. We have sacrificed this joy to convention, evaluation, and “settled expectations.” Leaving our curiosity behind is hurting our humanity as teachers, and, most importantly, the chances of many hard-thinking young people.

Teaching and learning take place in such a way that those who teach learn, on the one hand, because they recognize previously learned knowledge and, on the other, because by observing how the novice student’s curiosity works to apprehend what is taught (without which one cannot learn), they help themselves to uncover uncertainties, rights, and wrongs.

Paulo Freire2

Notes

1. Bang, M. (2012). Expectations in science education. Human Development, 55(1), 302–318.

2. Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.



 





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22970, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 1:27:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Cynthia Ballenger
    Cambridge Public Schools and Tufts University
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