Voices of Concerned Educators: The Twilight Zone and How Affluence Perpetuates the Achievement Gap [C. Marquez]

C. Marquez Education, Jose, Race

You Are Now Entering the Twilight Zone ...

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the sign post up ahead, your next stop…The Twilight Zone!” ~Rod Serling

As an elementary school administrator, I currently work in the Twilight Zone. This environment is completely foreign to me. Before my recent promotion, I couldn’t imagine any public school in my district (urban district in Southeastern, U.S.), operating this way.

This public school is nestled in an affluent section of town. Parents in this community typically send their children to private schools. If they chose to send them here, it’s only because this school has the feel of a private school. This school, along with a few others hidden in the same community, are anomalies. Over 90% of the student population is Caucasian. District-wide, only 9% of our students are Caucasian. Only 5% of our students are eligible for discounted/free lunch (district 80%) and we receive no Title 1 funds (88% of the schools in the district are Title 1). The PTA manages a six figure annual budget to compensate for the federal funds we are unable to receive. Our PTA funds projects and programs at the level of a national non-profit organization. The school is not suffering financially. In fact, we have far more resources than fully-funded, and often low performing, Title 1 schools in the same district.

In the Twilight Zone, all students entering kindergarten are already readers. This is in stark contrast to students the district’s other schools (parents lack time/resources to provide early learning opportunities). Many students, in fact, enter school reading a grade-level or two above kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers focus on building vocabulary and comprehension. Over 50% of the student body is “gifted.” In the Twilight Zone, not passing the “gifted” placement exam is the equivalent of failure, regardless of how well one is performing in the classroom. Parents have the financial resources to pay for private tutors, speech/reading specialists, and educational psychologists whenever they feel their children are deficient in any learning area. This is a highly competitive environment and students feel pressure from parents to be “perfect” students. Parents of first graders are already thinking about private schools (for middle and high school) and preparing for the SSAT.

So why am I writing this post?

In one of my many roles, I meet with parents and teachers to discuss student progress. The following is a typical conversation between a parent and I:

Parent: “My child needs extra time on standardized tests.”
Me: “Ok. Why do you think so?”
Parent: “She might have ADHD.”
Me: “Might?”
Parent: “My neighbor’s son has it. My daughter is hyper.”
Me: “Neither you or I are qualified to make such a diagnosis.”
Parent: “She can’t keep still.”
Me: “Okay, how is the student performing in class?”
Parent: “She’s in the gifted program. She earns all A’s, but she did get a ‘C’ on her last math test.”
Me: “How does the teacher feel?”
Parent: “She feels my child is doing fine, but she’s wrong.”
Me: “But based on your child’s grades and teachers input, your child is performing above grade level. There is no reason why she needs any accommodations.”
Parent: “Well, that’s your opinion.”
Me: “No. Not opinion. Fact. It would be illegal for me to sign off on accommodations in this case.”
Parent: “I am not happy with this at all.”

I assume the matter is settled. A month passes. Same parent.

Parent: “We now have a psychological report that states that our child has ADHD. The report also indicates that she’ll need extra time on standardized tests. She’ll also need to be in a small group setting and can have the directions paraphrased or repeated when necessary.”
Me (begrudgingly): “OK. After we verify the psychologist’s license, we’ll set up a meeting to discuss/enact the accommodations under Section 504.”

This is not an exaggeration. This is typical. In the Twilight Zone, parents use Section 504 to give their children an unfair advantage over other students (within the same school and district) during state/national standardized testing (including gifted, norm-referenced, and SSAT testing).

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a civil rights act that protects the rights of people with disabilities. If it is determined that a student has a disability under Section 504, the school MUST develop and implement the delivery of all needed services and/or accommodations. Grades and student performance are non issues when it comes to determining eligibility for accommodations.

Again, parents, in the Twilight Zone, have the resources to pay for psychological evaluations. The thousands of dollars they shell out are considered an investment. They know which brokers (psychologists) to see in order to ensure this investment yields positive returns (diagnoses). They understand the law and use it to benefit children that are already excelling in the classroom.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are a few students who actually need/benefit from accommodations/services (medical condition/disability affects them academically), but here, they represent a small minority of the cases I deal with.

After conveying this story to a fellow colleague, the colleague recently asked, “Hypothetically, ”

Let’s play this out again, shall we?

***Twilight Zone music here ***

Parent: “We now have a psychological report that states that our child has ADHD. The report also indicates that she’ll need extra time on standardized tests. She’ll also need to be in a small group setting and can have the directions paraphrased or repeated when necessary.”
Me: “You just paid the psychologist two grand. Of course your child has ADHD now. I would have ADHD if I was evaluated by your doctor.”
Parent: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Did you really think he was going to write a report saying your daughter is fine? No issues? Really?”
Parent: “How dare you?! Do you know who my husband is?”
Me: “No, but I do know that you need to calm down.”
Parent: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Look. Your child is performing beautifully. She’s in the gifted program. She’s getting straight A’s. What more do you want?! Perfection? So she’s a little hyper. So what?! It’s obviously not affecting her academically. With all due respect, relax.”
Parent: “Well, I never.”
Me: “Never what?! Told your daughter how proud you were of her?”
Parent: blank stare
Me: “And do you realize what you’re doing? You’re attempting to give your child an unfair advantage over other students. There are some students here, and in other schools, that actually need the accommodations you’re requesting for your child. You’re wasting my time and the schools’ resources.”
Parent: “You can’t talk to me this way.”
Me: “Too late. I already did.”

That would definitely be a POW! moment, yes?

“Why am I here? What am I doing? Am I contributing to the perpetuation of the Achievement Gap?” These questions haunted me during my first few months in this position. As an African American/Latino male, I was conflicted because I became an unwilling participant in this system. Although I disagree with what happens here, it is legal. Yes. Legal (at least my part is). If I wasn’t here, any person in my position would be obligated to comply with the law in the same manner.

If this was my sole job responsibility, I would have completely lost my mind by Thanksgiving. Assisting teachers and interacting with students, especially the minority student population, keeps me grounded. This isn’t the final stop on my career path. Not the last stop on my journey. This experience is absolutely necessary. This is a learning opportunity. When I escape the alternate reality of this Twilight Zone to become a principal, I will return to my roots (Title 1 school with high percentages of African American and/or Latino students), I will bring this knowledge of this place with me.

We can’t work to close the achievement gap if we are not completely aware of all of its causes. I already have my Joe Clark speech ready:

Do you know what they are doing up there?! We have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results, but we will! We have no choice! Our students are not lacking in intelligence. Up there, students have a head start. In addition to that head start, many of parents twist the law to give their children a leg up on our students. These things are beyond our control, but we can control how we chose to teach our students here. All students have genius. Find it, tap into it, and nurture it! No excuses. No excuses.

This has been an eye-opening experience for me. Not many have the opportunity to see what I’ve seen. This post is my attempt to open your eyes.

C. Marquez (pen name)