Finding A Needle in A Stack of Needles: A Solution to the Racial Achievement Gap

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose7 Comments

In the category of “Yes, That Makes Complete Sense,” David Kirp of The LA Times reported that scientists have figured out a 1-hour “fix” for our most disadvantaged students: encourage them while they do it. Combined with the latest article from The New York Times regarding Jump Math, this piece almost made me smack the screen. These articles are fortunate I’m typing on my Mac. Anyone who’s had any exposure to students without a fundamental appreciation for the merits of education should know that they’re going to have to do a little encouragement.

And by little, I mean every single class period.

The one piece of advice floating around from various programs is that we shouldn’t give any praise to a student’s work, instead focusing on what the student hypothetically did or didn’t do. I hate this. People who speak in these hypotheticals seem really out of touch with kids like the ones I teach. While they may “get used to it,” they also leave the class with the same frame of mind that they may or may not be able to do the work, instead of the certainty that we as a school community can provide. Getting little to no praise for a child who never hears it outside of school is akin to emotional neglect.

Kids need confidence builders. In an age where our increasingly corporate system has asked teachers to become more professional (and subsequently append jargon to any credible statement they make), we’ve lost the discussions on the fundamentals for why we do what we do. Trust, community, respect, and care form the base for any classroom, but particularly those for students who lack that self-confidence to start. We can talk about the factors that assessment, lesson planning, and inquiry (however we define that) play in student achievement, but there are all these other unqualifiables that really make the experience of learning really rich and deep-rooted for every student we teach.

Even in the midst of our protest dialogue against this privatization, I fear that our counter-narrative misses this because we’re so concentrated in arguing down the points of those who couldn’t care less about our students that we lose the opportunity to create a new narrative. It’s hard for me to say it, but one of those is mastering the obvious. Yet, some of us still prick ourselves trying to find needles in a needle stack.

Jose, who’s featured in El Diario NY today, and will link it once I find the piece …

Comments 7

  1. I remember when I was student teaching I had a student who really struggled in math, but came to class every day. I took a look at what the students were expected to be able to know, and what they actually KNEW and saw a huge gap. Their teacher had apparently never made any effort to differentiate either their learning, or their assessment.

    So I gave them a quiz on stuff I was absolutely sure they knew, and they aced it. The look on Daniel’s face was awesome when he got back his quiz. He focused a lot more, he participated a lot more, and very quickly his understanding of the material we were covering improved a lot. He had a new belief, “I can do this,” rather than “I can’t.”

    It’s important to note that I didn’t tell Daniel he could do this, I found a way for him to demonstrate it for himself.

  2. I once had a boy thank me for “never giving up on him” and it still makes me sad for all the times I know that he’d never been told that. We need to shout and sing about the communities we try to build within our classroom walls, and hope that someone listens. But as we do that, we still should be anchored to why we are in these rooms- to support our kids.

  3. I will readily confess both to working in a pretty privileged situation where most (conceivably, at least some years, all) of my students do get plenty of affirmation outside of school, and to being one of those teachers who focuses pretty relentlessly on developing internal motivation and keeping external motivation to an absolute minimum. So, theoretically I am part of the problem here – but at least listening and hoping to learn.

    I work at an all-girls school, and while I’m acutely aware that some of the kids probably have so-called “blue brains” rather than “pink,” that fact does colour (haha, unintentional pun) what I do. I know self-esteem, for most if not all of them, comes from a combination of connectedness, competence, and confidence, and I know that feeling the first two leads to developing the third. I also know most if not all of them live in a society where they feel relentless pressure to please others, effectively shifting the source of their self-esteem from internal (where it belongs) to external (which is dangerous). I also know that all-girls schools, research shows, are effective at helping girls develop that internal source of self-esteem. This informs all I do, and seems in general to be successful. I will add, along that connectedness line, that I will frequently tell my classes that I love them and that they stand out for (this year, for example, it would be having an exceptionally strong and supportive writing community). You mention trust, community, respect and care, and I certainly value and try to develop all that. I will also talk individually with kids about their skill levels, what is solid, what are their needs. But I really focus hard on what they can do and how they can get better and try to avoid giving praise per se.

    So as I type on, I find myself increasingly confused. I am also wondering how, with a kid who deeply needs that external affirmation before anything else can happen, you eventually get them from an external to internal focus. Or am I really really really missing the point and I’m on pretty much the same page as you and just don’t know it? I really want to understand this because I can be a better advocate for public education if I do.

  4. Post

    David, that’s a good way to approach things. Let me just say that, whether implicit or otherwise, it’s important for kids to be commended and feel good. However, too many people think implicit praise means no praise of any nature. if you even so much as give a nod of acknowledgment when no one’s looking, that does tons.

    deb, because they don’t want to.

    mrswp93, yes! The kid’s gonna remember you for that. Hope he carries that with him through life. Otherwise, it’s hard to capture that elsewhere.

    Bill, I think Dave hinted at it. Implicit praise or quiet acknowledgment keeps kids wanting to do more. I notice that your kids seem self-motivated, and often, just the inquiry process and discovery is good enough for them. The classic eurekas seem to be enough. I think teachers become less gatekeepers and more like guides. I’ll get back to you when I get a more definitive answer.

  5. Thanks, José. Lots of possibilities. One is that my kids may not need tons of encouragement. Another is that I may encourage in ways I may not even be aware of or admitting to myself. A third is that I am just plain wrong-headed in my thinking. I know this. If I’m really not on the same page as you, that gives me pause.
    At any rate, I hope my struggles are giving Deb some insight into why it is difficult for some people to get it.

  6. Buenas!
    Debo admitir que hasta hoy no mee interesaba demasiado esteblog, ssin
    embargo ultimamente estoy visitandolo frecuentemente y me esta interesando bastante.


Leave a Reply