By Glenda Cohen
Just this week, I sat through yet another staff meeting with an administrator who said that my goal as a teacher was to get my immigrant students to “meet their targets” on a standardized test. While I shook my head in agreement (because, of course I have to be seen as a “team player”), the image going through my mind was of Sysyphus, the character from Greek mythology whose punishment is to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it tumble back down over and over again.
I’ve been a part of similar meetings more times than I can remember, and the message is always the same: teachers are accountable for increasing test scores and closing the achievement gap between students of color, English Language Learners and white students. And, as predictably as Sysyphus’ rolling rock, every year educators are told that our students have missed the mark.
According to the New York Times, one of the top education “takeaways” of 2019 was that the disparity in the achievement gap between these groups hasn’t closed – and it has actually increased – despite spending billions and instituting new programs and policy reforms.
But, let’s be honest: most teachers aren’t surprised. It’s not because we don’t believe students aren’t capable (because they are) or that they don’t want learn (because they do). It’s because unless we face the truth about why there’s a gap in the first place, we will continue to waste time and money trying to repair something that just can’t be fixed.
Truth #1: Low-income students need to work
Recently, I asked a student why he had been absent so many times in the past few weeks. He said, “Because I just got a new job. My father and mother both just lost theirs.” Although this student lives with his family, others live by themselves and are self-supporting. The need to work in order to pay bills is a reality for many low-income teenagers, leaving them exhausted, with little time to devote to their school work. I cannot tell you how many times a day I find myself admonishing students to “Wake up!” as they lay collapsed on their desks after working late into the night at restaurants, supermarkets, or cleaning houses. These kids are simply unable to stay awake and engaged in their school work. The incentive that drives them is their financial survival, and doing well in school, unfortunately, is just not something that is their priority.
Truth #2: There’s a lack of counseling support
I’ve helped my three children apply to college and know first-hand that it can be a confusing, time-intensive exercise, especially for students who are the first in their family to attend. If they don’t have assistance from parents in completing applications, writing college essays and filling out financial aid forms, then students need to rely on their school counselors. Regrettably, college counseling support is lacking in the schools where students need it the most. According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling, the average school counselor has such a large caseload that she is able to spend an average of only one hour a year with a student to discuss their college plans. At my high school of nearly 2,400 kids, our college admission counselor is funded to work only part-time. If students can’t get the help they need to map out a college plan, then they have little incentive to reach high when it comes to their academics.
Truth #3: Paying for college is out of reach for just about everyone
Very few students are able to pay for college without some form of financial aid. Increasingly, “aid” has actually become a synonym for loans, with the lowest-income students taking on the heaviest debt. Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of those who enroll at a four-year college will drop out before they graduate. The motivation of even the brightest students fades when they realize that they can’t afford to begin college, and even if they do, they’ll likely run out of money before they get a degree.
Truth #4: No documents means no college for immigrant students
Most immigrant teens arrive in the U.S. excited to be in a new country and learn English. They want to take advantage of all the educational system offers them. Soon, however, they start to give up on school after realizing that going to college is nearly impossible if they are undocumented. States such as mine (Massachusetts) set lofty goals using words like “rigorous,” “meaningful curriculum,” and,”high standards” when describing their vision for English Language Learners. But the reality is that our government is forcing them to live life in the shadows. These days, the legal status that would allow them to attend college is nearly impossible to attain. So why should they care about coming to school regularly and doing well on standardized tests?
Closing the achievement gap has become an industry unto itself, with consultants and policy makers descending on school systems to share their “expertise.” But until we face the truth about why there is a disparity to begin with, the achievement gap will never close. If we don’t give all kids – not just well-off white ones – reasons to do well in school, why should they even try?