Sunday, March 18, 2007

Conversation Recap for March 18, 2007

Thanks to Sid for taking notes!

We began, a little late, with introductions.

Marla shared her story. Applause all around at the end. The ensuing discussion turned brought up the ways we encounter unpleasantness, and several people shared that early events in life shape us—sometimes in ways that take decades to work with. Race intersects so many social categories, kids tap into them, and reproduce these patterns laid on them by the adults.

Eve began a discussion of the question, “If not the WASL, what?” The question came from an earlier discussion—not everyone was here during the education conversations of a month ago.

The WASL is the system of Washington State tests, or Assessment of Learning. It is an assessment tool that was geared to meeting the accountability demands of parents and business people, of an education system that is increasingly a concern (the word ‘mystery’ was used) to them. We have a dual system where public school students are subjected to WASL, but private schools are not subjected to it. Teachers tell us that the WASL drives teaching, since so much rides on the test scores of students. In a sense, the pressures are backwards.

Among the perceptions of what is at stake: The two tiers overlay a class system, where the people who are making the demands are largely sending their children to private schools who are not subject to WASL. One of the real difficulties is it sorts out marginalized youth, and further marginalizes them. There is a recurring dynamic of focusing on public education to prepare people for responsible social positions in the labor force. At times this runs into another dynamic, a democratic impulse.

The classroom pressures from WASL are strong. It is, post “No Child left Behind,” an annual event (not in all subjects) except for the 9th grade. Districts and individual schools need higher scores, and improving scores. For example, districts seem to engage in subtle methods of sorting kids for taking the test.

Before WASL there were national standardized tests, and part of the push toward the WASL was to get more performance-based indicators of student learning—such as the writing requirement. The cross pressures are very difficult. Without the tests it is difficult to know how students are doing, and perhaps one thing driving it was frustration among policy makers at the stark differences between scores of white and black students. The grade level expectations of the WASL drives classroom activities, and, if not a focus on the content of the test, but a focus on the list of grade level expectations. Laudable learning objectives were part of the development process. But so were other things.

Some group members questioned the discussion focus on the WASL. If teachers are increasingly focused on WASL the many other ways of students finding out about their performance and how to learn are emphasized less.

A first-year teacher shared how the official position (“don’t teach to the WASL”) and the school of education values run into conflict with budgetary realities. About March, the messages change—well, we had better not get low reading scores, we will lose Grant X funding….

If could do portfolios during the years that the WASL doesn’t count, it would help. Sad to see this emphasis on training students vs. educating students. Students in the public schools are also considered to be the potential soldiers, workers.

One artifact of a standardized test is the variety of teaching approaches that may be appropriate for the range of student needs. There is a mix of systematic pressures, and individual teacher pressures, working at the same time. Another layer of the issues raised is the presence of students with a wide range of learning disabilities.

More on teaching to the WASL—there are teachers that understand the grade level expectations, and structure curriculum appropriately. There might be teachers that, as the test looms, start to ‘cram’ for whatever reason. These are very different classroom dynamics. Perhaps what people should be more concerned with: there are curriculum materials being forced on teachers, decisions are made elsewhere about how to teach reading and writing. Very restrictive programs, and they are being forced upon, mostly, the high poverty schools.

A couple of people brought up an interesting idea: Many subjects might better be taught as foreign languages. Math, reading, writing, speaking skills, and so on—we have examples, in the room, of people who were not well-served by the school system. But, of course, that would call for a different approach to organizing classrooms.

Others emphasized how we know a lot about different learning and cognitive styles… but the collection of incentives appears to push this aside. Among the difficulties with this is that special needs students are too much on their own. Some in the room shared stories of how, in their time, there was room for the individual tailoring of some part of education that made the difference. They see little such flexibility in today’s system.

There are pressures for individual parents to take their kids out of schools.

WASL is here to stay for the near future, it is clear to everyone in the room. We need to be informed about it, and the more parents who know about it, the better. It is possible to look at parts of it at the website of the WA Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The notion that our school system was once a clearly structured thing, geared at teaching us basic skills for living and working, is a myth. That’s not why or how it was built. The expectations are evolving. One important contribution to this was the collection of material at the Race & Pedagogy conference. Link this up with data about the preparation of African American students for dealing with the high school experience. The discussion noted above, about different cognitive needs and styles, fed into this as well. There is a real, crying need to deal with the way WASL affects African American kids right here in Tacoma. One example—some Asian American kids in town go to schools at night to prepare them to do well in the school system.

One idea is to focus on the way schools of education in the area teach subjects like reading. One reason to do this: The future teachers need to be aware of what is going on.

It is a gift to have a parent who drums into a child, it is your responsibility to do well, to take notes, to prepare yourself for particular lessons, and so on. That is a piece of the puzzle.

How many of us have a personal story about this: We remember a special teacher who made the decisive difference. We were lost, and they turned things for us. Several people shared such stories.

And it is a responsibility of teachers to construct lessons that draw out students. It is hard to understand what is in the heads of school kids. One teacher told the story of, at the end of a lesson, a student had fixed on something said about something that happened in college. The student asked, “You went to college?” The kid did not know all of his teachers went to college, and assumed no African Americans went to college.

Another idea is to spread the word that we are not succeeding in serving significant groups of students, in particular young African American males.

We discussed ideas at a lot of levels of analysis—addressing the issues will call for multi-layered approaches. The group is heading toward the idea of getting something done.

Check out the Mimms Academy; it is a place that needs help right now. They need a building, for example. A couple of people shared interesting stories about it—finding ways to connect with students who were completely lost by the school system. For example, a budgetary issue connected to this is that public money is contingent on the students being counted as enrolled, and FTE lines assigned, with the attendant issues of accountability. The point is: There are models like this out there, and they need public and political support.

Remember that small groups of dedicated citizens can make a difference.

A summary of some practical suggestions:
· Living with the WASL requires discussions of it. Parents and other citizens need to understand what is going on.
· People involved in this conversation about WASL (and other things) can enlarge it. For example, the failure to serve young male African Americans is a subject the people here can keep alive—writing letters to editors, op-ed pieces for the newspaper, going to principals offices, going to school board meetings, bringing it up when the people in some other room are talking about education, etc. One addition to the list: Beware of the conversations that imply that some people, you know who they’re talking about, just don’t have it to succeed in math or other tough subjects. Speak up, there is no math gene, there is no genetically linked math inability.
· Teachers have special knowledge about the situation. They can cross over the line to give better information to school boards—a safer way to do this, perhaps, is to attend school board meetings of other districts. They probably do not get very much in the way of experienced, critical voices.
· Teachers and community members can keep asking what the people collecting the data are doing with it.
· One idea: It would be good to have a set of supplementary classes for African American kids, staffed by teachers that can connect with the students, to deal with the specific ways these students can be encouraged to do well. Another example mentioned for such a resource—the Seattle Young People’s Project. It sounded like a very promising model. Some of these places of learning can be created. Look up the Mimms Academy. Find out about and spread word about summer academies. Evergreen/Tacoma does things. Check out Safe Streets Community Schools. We need to assemble a list of such volunteer & organizing opportunities.
· We also need to assemble such a list for the students.
· If this group can encourage people to pay attention to the performance of the Tacoma Schools superintendent, and put some pressure on school board members—and perhaps attempt to influence who has the job, and what policies are enacted. Discussions of particular policies—such as a proposed test to gauge readiness for algebra—can bring in a voice that question them.
· Maybe we can all put a little pressure on Dexter to publish the proceedings of the Race & Pedagogy conference.
· We will discuss the possibility of a conference on the subject. Among the questions to consider is, which students would we want to focus on? Let us not let this deter from the currently available opportunities for volunteering.

Courge and Renewal, which started out as Courage to Teach, is having a retreat on racism—March 31, 9-1, at the Central District Senior Center. Call 206-633-2888 to register. Click HERE for details.

Sid Olufs