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A constructive critique

Posted By: Barbara Acosta on October 8, 2004
This is an intriguing article that provides hope and a bit of a paradigm shift from previous thinking. I always enjoy seeing assumptions challenged. The results you cite are truly impressive and important for teachers and policy makers to be made aware of.

Now I have an assumption of my own to challenge. First, I'd like us to think a little deeper about why the HOTS program might be working, and second, I'd like to challenge the initial proposition in the article that these students are "disadvantaged."

Previous work by Heath, Anyon, and others suggests that students who are not from the dominant social class have a fully developed culture, including a repertoire of discourse styles that allow individuals to function well within their community. Every culture develops ways for its members to survive and navigate the complexities of life. I would not hesitate to suggest that these kids have developed the cognitive skills for getting through life on the streets – skills that most of us have never had a chance to develop.

The problem of the achievement gap arises when the child’s culture differs from that of the school and classroom. Although these kids are bright and capable in their own milieu, they were never prepared for succeeding in school. In other words, the locus of the problem is not in the child. Rather, the problem lies in an educational system that fails to provide them the means to access the knowledge of the dominant group. Within this conceptual framework, the "blank stare" happens when you are violating the child's cultural expectations. S/he does not know how to respond because she has a different repertoire of skills appropriate for survival in the realities of life outside the school.

Lisa Delpit, among others, has argued strongly that educators need to explicitly teach children from non-dominant groups how to access the culture of school. But you cannot do this if you believe something is wrong with those children. You must start by valuing who they are, affirming their identity. You also open the conversation to talk about the ways they are oppressed (c.f., for example, Bill Bigelow's work). Once kids realize that this oppression is acknowledged, they become empowered to find ways to address it. And then you provide them with the means to access power.

HOTS very likely is working because you are basically doing the explicit teaching of strategies to access the culture of school. I wonder what would happen if you also reframed the approach to value the children's own cultural identity and to constructively criticize the oppressive system that has traditionally excluded them?
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 A constructive critique by Barbara Acosta on October 8, 2004
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