What does it mean when a teacher says, “They don’t know ..?”

That’s often my quandary when I listen to the conversations about our students in classrooms all across the city (and in some cases, the nation). Topics like fractions, percentages, decimal places, and other seemingly rudimentary topics evade many of our students, and many teachers prefer to concentrate on these deficiencies with a flippant “They don’t know.” At some point, after the teacher carefully reflects upon their practices, looks at their data, and fully understands their students’ capabilities, they can reasonably say “They don’t know.”

And that’s where the real work begins.

In a national survey conducted by MetLife (“*Survey of the American **Teacher“*), close to 90% of all teachers and supervisors believe that high expectations has a huge impact on student achievement (around 1500 teachers and supervisors were surveyed). Yet, only 36% of teachers and 51% of principals believe that all of their students have the ability to succeed academically. Naturally, this results in many students thinking their teachers don’t care much about them. Just over half of students agree that all of the teachers in their school want them to succeed. And frankly, this is unacceptable.

While the survey doesn’t have much qualitative data regarding this dynamic, I’d venture to guess that their years of experience and expertise via education are as disparate as the hopes and expectations of the students for themselves. To wit, I believe most teachers are actually qualified to teach the students they do, pedagogically and content-wise. I also believe that the definition of “bad teacher” varies from person to person, and still proves invalid since, as recently as November, districts rated only 1% of teachers unsatisfactory.

It also forces me to deduce that we have a long way to go before we see students as people who can achieve and achieve well. Let’s start out with something simple: flipping the question.

“Fair, so they don’t know fractions, and they don’t know decimals, and they don’t know everything else you’re saying they don’t know, even if that’s a huge generalization. Then what *do* they know?”

When asked, it’s usually followed by an awkward silence. Where once people were so opinionated about what their students might not know, they have an awkward time praising them and taking a real inventory. Abundance vs. deficit model. Then, the next question I’d ask is:

“Alright, so if they don’t know these things, how will we integrate them into what we have to teach them based on the standards?”

There’s the conversation starter. You know?

**Mr. Vilson, whose getting better at having the gritty conversations …**

### About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book *This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education*, on sale now.

## Comments 9

Thank you, Jose, because I am sooooooo tired of my colleagues griping about what the students don’t know, what the last teacher didn’t do (or didn’t do as well as they would have done it….), and nobody really teaches around here except me….blah, blah, blah. Ditto for the administrators, policymakers, and other clueless ones who want every child in each grade to know exactly the same things on exactly the same day. Learn our students, know our subjects, and starting wherever they are, work together to help them learn as much more as they can.

Extraordinary post Jose. Your point about how policymakers focusing solely on what students don’t know is well made. I wonder if Newsweek would do a cover on the nation’s large numbers of excellent teachers who help students learn and spread their expertise like you.

I tell my students at least once during the year that if they only believed in themselves half as much as I do, they’d all be A students. Some don’t get it, some look away, and then there are those that just look at me as if I’ve been the only one to ever say that to them before…

Thanks, as always, for your insight.

Of course high expectations brings out the best in students. Sometimes teachers give up too easily when they can’t get through a student.

““Alright, so if they don’t know these things, how will we integrate them into what we have to teach them based on the standards?””

I wish someone would ask me!

I want to know how these “standards” documents were written, if they didn’t take into account what students are likely to know.

I want to know what “standards” means, because I am quite sure that it doesn’t mean the same thing I was taught it meant.

I want to know how these things are not just another way to punish kids for being poor, or teachers for teaching poor kids.

And I want to know who wants to actually have a conversation about how to teach and what to teach kids who are multiple grade levels behind where they need to be to have success with the curriculum they are being taught.

Had I written the preceding after greater reflection, I would have noted instead:

The question: “Alright, so if they don’t know these things, how will we integrate them into what we have to teach them based on the standards?” presumes both that the standards are good and that there are kids who fall behind.

The teacher who says “These kids don’t know…” is noting that the kids are far behind where the standards say they should be. (and throwing up his hands)

But there is a huge difference between “how can we help these kids?” and “how can we help these kids reach the standards?” and I submit that one of these questions is noble and the other is monstrous.

Author

Jonathan, I agree with you: there’s no conversation between teachers, pedagogical leaders, and those who make the criteria about standards, not as far as I know. Sometimes, they feel like they come out of nowhere (now, part of it is because we probably don’t even see who they are when in fact they could be other educators with different opinions.)

Having said that, it’s also important to think about the context of what’s being said. I do think about my kids and their deficiencies, but I don’t think in a deficit model. In a deficit model, it’s always about what they don’t know or what they’ll never learn, hence assuming that they probably won’t ever learn it. If we work from the other “half full” mentality, we’re saying, “Alright, so what are we going to do now that we know kids don’t know these things?” Often, teachers get stuck in the idea of what they don’t have and don’t know versus proactively speaking on what they do know and what they do have.

Your submissions are accurate enough, but maybe I should have focused less on saying “standard” and more on “knowledge.” Fair.

Thanks, Jose.

Once we’re talking about what benefits the kids and no longer stuck on these diabolical standards, we have a far more important, far more interesting discussion.

Look, for some kids, meeting the (arbitrary) standard is going to be very important. The State sets up carrots and sticks and has all sort of power to enforce them…

But for the kid far from the mean (at either end), the discussion of kid and discussion of standard diverge, and we know which matters more.

Jose,

I came to this post a bit late, after seeing the link in the CTQ newsletter. That’s a deceptively simple formula for a powerful change. I’m still working on myself there, and will have to work a little harder now that you’ve called my attention to it again.