Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wolfe Street Academy Student Radio

Wolfe Street Academy and the Baltimore Curriculum Project are partnering with WYPR 88.1 FM and Q1370 AM to offer an after-school radio broadcasting class for fifth graders.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Education of African-American Males

By Jon McGill, Director of Acaemic Affairs, Baltimore Curriculum Project

“Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.  The impact of material differences takes a while to show up but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become even more marked. The legacy bitter indeed.”

So says historian Tony Judt in his book Ill Fares The Land.  Judt focuses on inequality of incomes, wealth accumulation and related factors as he argues that, in the United States in particular, we are seeing in the current recession only a small part of what might well be our crisis-ridden future.  He notes, to cite one example, that the wealth of the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, is now at a level that equals the worth, in dollars, of 40% percent of the adult population of the United States: 120 million people!  Judt believes that the situation in America has changed for the worse in the last thirty years.

One aspect of this crisis, only hinted at by Judt, is in education and, in particular, the education of African-American males.  Their overall situation in the national educational picture has also deteriorated sharply in the last thirty years, and that decline is even more precipitous given that the educational provision and achievement statistics for black males were not very good in the 1970’s to begin with. The statistical overview is alarming, or should be:

   Of 32,000 African-American boys in Maryland schools, grades ten through twelve, only 1,229 sat for AP exams (Washington Post, 5.17.09)
   According to the Task Force on the Education of African-American Males, a 2007 state research project, six out of ten school suspensions were imposed on African-American male students in 2004-2005 (this statistic remains constant through most recent data).
   African-American males make up only 5% of college students but less than one-third graduate within six years (60+% for non-Hispanic whites) (reported in New York Times)
   The Schott Foundation for Public Education noted, in 2011, that twice as many non-Hispanic whites as African-Americans were nominated for “gifted and talented programs”, four times as many whites went to math AP programs and nine times as many white students sat for Science AP exams (reported in the Baltimore Sun, 7.25.08). The Schott Foundation reported “Alarming data on the devastating reality of education for Black males across all 50 states.” (Schott Report, 2011)
   The Maryland graduation rate for African-American males is 55% versus 78 percent for white students.
   The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that three times as many Black males as white non-Hispanics in Maryland were under grade level in basic reading, and four times as many were below basic levels in Mathematics. The national statistics were considerably worse.
   Add to this the research that looks more widely at the situation for Black males and we see that this group leads statistically, relative to its percentage in the population, in homicides (victims and perpetrators), in suicides, in HIV/AIDS rates and is number one in arrests, convictions and incarcerations.  Black males are the only group currently declining in life expectancy. Indeed, while all other sectors of the population get higher life expectancy from higher education attainment, Black males exhibit no discernible life-lengthening benefits.
   Unemployment affects African-American males more than any other group; college graduation and attendance rates have declined continuously since 1977 and even “middle-class” Black males lag in GPA and test scores. One of every three Black males is raised in poverty and that rate is growing
   On any given day, 23% of Black males are in the criminal justice system. Only 18% are enrolled in higher education.

Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted research around issues of African-American education and concluded that “schools are sites where African-American males are marginalized and stigmatized.” (See Noguera’s  The Trouble With Black Boys, Jossey Bass, 2008) He further notes that Black males are often colluding in their own victimization, a stance reinforced by research conducted by the late Stanford anthropologist John Ogbu and sociologist Claude Steele, both of whom suggest that stereotyped groups, such as African-American males, often internalize the stereotypes and then act them out.
One of many troubling aspects of Noguera’s research, conducted in California, found that only a tiny percentage of African-American male students agreed with the statement “my teachers support me and want me to do well.”  Other groups were much more likely to believe this statement. Noguera also categorized those aspects of effective schools that were repeatedly found across racial, ethnic and regional boundaries.  These were:

·         clear sense of purpose/mission
·         core standards and rigorous curriculum
·         high expectations
·         commitment to all students
·         safe and orderly environments
·         strong parent partnerships
·         a problem-solving attitude
·         caring relationships between teachers and students
·         adult collegiality
·         clear accountability guidelines

 “To be effective, such initiatives must involve efforts to counter and transform cultural patterns and what some have called ‘oppositional identities ‘adopted by black males”  (Noguera, 2002)

We know the bleak statistical picture; we know what works in our schools and we also know that African-American males, and their families, want the same kind of educational success that their counterparts desire.  We know, too, that there are schools where success for all students, including African-American males, has been frequent and consistent, just as we know that single sex schools for both genders can have dramatic effects on the learning and achievement of students.
Much has been made in the last decade of a “crisis” in the education of boys.  In fact, that crisis is located in the education of boys of color much more than any other category.  Not much has changed in fifty years of educational statistics for white boys: much has changed for the worse for their Black counterparts and so what we need are new strategies that address, specifically, the education of African-American students.  We can improve the education of boys with a focus, first of all, on what boys need and, secondly, what African-American boys need.

trained teachers who understand the needs of boys and are willing to be continually  
trained to recognize how best to serve them;
a rigorous curriculum that challenges stereotypes and insists on high expectations and standards;
an insistence upon partnership with parents that have genuine meaning and consistent impact upon the school culture;
teaching methods that draw upon recent research about the learning styles of boys and of African-American boys in particular (although we should be wary of stereotyping any boys in terms of defining rigid learning styles: no research has been conducted that would allow us to maintain that any ethnic or gender grouping has any one specific learning style.  Learning is a complex activity informed only partly by cultural norms, traditions and habits.  It remains that the two greatest factors in effective learning are economic context of the student and the effectiveness of the teacher);
an intentional climate and culture that promotes the view of education as the most important element in the growth of boys and their future success;
a college preparatory culture that expects boys to move seamlessly into higher education;
a co-curricular program in the visual and performing arts as well as athletics;
a mandatory core curriculum that emphasizes skill-building, problem solving   and critical thinking.
a clear mission that all students will perform at or above state and national basic levels prior to graduation.

Two recent reports give us further reasons to refer to Black students and Black males in general as in “crisis”. The Schott Foundation For Public Education, in its annual report on public education and Black males, entitled “The Urgency of Now”, says that “it would take nearly fifty years {at current rates of progress} for Black males to secure the same high school graduation rates as their White male peers.” It is long past time says the report, for a support based “reform agenda” on this issue. There are few signs that public initiatives, whether state, federal or local, are paying the kind of attention that this issue needs. 

The second report comes from the Congressional Black Caucus and its title, “Challenge the Status Quo” suggests the contents.  Where we are now, says the report, is numbingly familiar territory.  “Many public school students are systematically disqualified access to their states’ most selective public institutions of higher education because of their addresses.”  Their address, too often, also identifies their race and their economic status, two major determinants of educational chances and success rates. As the recession begins to ease, for some, there are clear signs and persuasive data to suggest that the crisis in education, in general and for Black students in particular, is deepening.  The current “reform agenda”, soaked as it is in a “more of the same” formula: more tests, more standards, more expectations, but fewer resources, fewer trained teachers, fewer urban institutions to support inner city populations,

The crisis in education that afflicts African-American youngsters can only be resolved through a genuine belief that such students not only want to achieve but, given support, will achieve.  What they currently suffer is a preparation gap, one that almost certainly ensures an achievement gap later on. Our vision is for a school and an adult learning community that takes seriously the current deficits in education and, through intentional policies and practices, is determined to be one part of the national solution to what is, at present, a national embarrassment.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Common Core Now

By Jon McGill, Director of Academic Affairs, Baltimore Curriculum Project

The motivation behind the national Common Core State Standards, now adopted by forty six states and the District of Columbia, is straightforward and clear: such standards would provide an immediate improvement for most of the states who signed up, improvement in curriculum, in assessments and in results.  According to the newest report from The Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, “proponents point to the intuitive appeal of a common curriculum……”, although, of course, the CCSS are not a common curriculum, just common standards to be assessed.  The content of the curriculum is still as fragmented across the states as ever. The Brown Center report goes on to say that the CCSS are based on three “theorized effects”.  First, that the standards are superior to those now in play in most states; two, that setting higher expectations will push states to do the same and, three, that “standardization yields its own efficiencies.”

The introduction to the standards first published in June 2010 pointed out that the rationale for them was that they would be “research and evidence based, aligned with college and work expectations, rigorous and internationally benchmarked.” Further, the standards were designed to “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century.”  This attempt to set a path and promote higher expectations is a worthy endeavor.  It has also, nearly three years later, still not provided the tests that will replace many state standardized tests, and the assessments are not due to begin officially until 2014, so many teachers live in a state of nervous frenzy as they try to grapple with what the standards will make explicit for their classroom practices. As teacher evaluation becomes increasingly linked to test outcomes, this nervousness will grow.

The test development agency PARCC (Partnership for Achievement and Readiness for College and Career) is a 22-member consortium charged with developing assessment tools that will link directly to the common core. There are a number of pilot projects across the country but, to date, no final versions of any tests that will accompany common core state standards. On March 5, 2013, PARCC announced a pilot testing program, following an August 2012, press release in which PARCC presented a small sample of some of their test questions. In addition, there is the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium”, a lesser-known group of 19 “governing” states and three “advisory” states which is also funded federally to produce assessments based on the CCSS.

Both consortiums will provide tests that run on computer platforms and both claim that the tests will go “much deeper” and be much more analytical that those created as “bubble tests” for most state standardized tests.  Almost all signatories to the CCSS report that they believe, in the words of ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter, that “Creating such high standards is the first step in transforming our education system.”  (ASCD InfoBrief, December, 2010). However, the existence of two potentially competing consortiums, and the oft-ignored fact that some states have not signed on to CCSS mean that the jury is still out, and will be for some time, on whether a significant improvement is embedded in the mere existence of CCSS. Minnesota, for example, opted out of CCSS because of what they felt were inadequate mathematics standards.  Virginia opted out , preferring their own “already very high” standards to those of CCSS. Alaska and Texas have also opted out, for various reasons.

A recent article by Robert Rothman (July/August, 2012) in the Harvard Graduate School Of Education journal outlines nine areas of classroom practice that will change as a result of common core adaptation. For example, in mathematics, Rothmans argues, as have many others, that fewer means better: fewer topics will allow for more analysis and better definition of what really matters. “Teachers might allow students more time to work on problems rather than expect them to come up with solutions instantaneously” is how Rothmans sees it. For Language Arts, there will be more non-fiction, greater focus on evidence, and “staircasing”, (no doubt soon to be a buzzword!), which means moving from simple to complex texts.  Speaking and listening skills will be assessed: Rothmans points out these are rarely included in current state standards. Clearly, the advocates of Common Core are in unison when it comes to extolling the potential gains for the assessment standards.

The heart of the matter, however, rests in two connected locations: first, the issue of classroom practice and, second, the deeply entwined issue of teacher preparedness.  The assumption that higher expectations produces better results is attractive but the evidence that there is a causal relationship rather than merely a correlation is currently thin. The Brown Center report (cited above) is clear is its determination that assessments and raised expectations, on their own, have historically done little to increase academic achievements. While many educators extol the myriad virtues of the CCSS, there may be less enthusiasm if other things are not put in place to support the assessments.

Another report of some interest, though less current, is the ACT publication “A First Look At The Common Core and College and Career Readiness”. This report, published in 2010, provides some daunting evidence about the lack of preparedness, at that time, of students for the high expectations of CCSS. For example, only 31% of students were ready to deal with complex texts at the level the CCSS expects.  In mathematics, only 34% performed a level, on number and quantity, asked by the CCSS.  The ACT report follows those statistics by making “Recommendations to Polcymakers”.  These recommendations focus on preparing teachers and districts for the implementation in the classroom of the CCSS:ACT is fully endorsing the CCSS but clearly believes that without major shifts not only in the professional development of teachers but also in local, state and federal resources made available to schools, the arrival of CCSS will not make much difference in the low statistical performance cited. In other words, ACT agrees with the Brown Center analysis that suggests new standards, on their won, will do little to raise achievement.  New practices might do that, new training, new ways of training and evaluating teachers might do that, and new revenue streams for education might do that.  However, without those three, the CCSS efforts might end up with so many other “initiatives”, on the sidelines. It is also true that assessments, from whatever source, are not substitutes for curriculum and while there are still those who philosophically want to fight the battle for a national curriculum (Bill Gates, for example), the Common Core is not likely to stimulate a move in that direction. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, as the tests are rolled out and the stakes get higher, some of the enrolled states choose the path of Minnesota and Virginia and opt, after all, for their existing standards.

What we look for, now, as the pilot testing is rolled out and the deadlines for implementation draw ever nearer, are more signs that classroom practice and teacher skill development are the focal points of professional development and preparation for CCSS.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the landscape of education has been so recently fraught with issues such as teacher evaluation and threats to job security that our attention to the details of what Common Core means for daily practice has been compromised.  Therefore, the gap between what districts think they have provided, in terms of training and guidance for administrators and teachers, and what teachers believe they need to improve their practice has grown.  This leaves teachers in that familiar position they know so well, trapped between meta-policy on one hand and the burdens of daily requirements on the other. There will be less and less time to make sense of all this.