Welcoming the Newcomer

My longtime friend and colleague Lourdes Santos recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and wrote “I saw these amazing paintings by Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist. He appropriated European and American works and reversed history’s European gaze to explore themes of colonization and indigenous resilience.” While I want the focus of this post to be on Monkman’s stunning work, I will be exploring the topic of appropriation in an upcoming post.

The Truth Is That We Won’t Ever Close the Achievement Gap

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?

New Year, New Resolve

By Glenda Cohen

In an effort to ward off burn-out, boredom and frustration after nearly 20 years as a public high school teacher, I’ve resolved to kick-off 2020 by launching my new blog: “Teaching is a Political Act.” My focus will be on examining political, policy and social justice issues that affect the lives of teachers, students and their families. 

As each year passes, I’ve seen first-hand the mandates on the federal, state and local levels that have impacted my students and my profession. Regrettably, few of these actions have resulted in positive student outcomes, whether they be academic or social-emotional. Rather than place sole blame on policy makers, I accept that educators have been far too passive in inserting themselves in the political process. For too long, we have been satisfied with having our unions speak for us. This past year, unions in places like Los Angeles, West Virginia, Chicago  have had major success in spotlighting issues such as building conditions, class size and support staff wages. But these successes have not been uniform throughout the country and vary according to the strength and leadership of each local union. 

My own personal experience with my district’s teachers union has been frustrating. For example, when a group of us urged our leadership to be more transparent on its expenditures and accounting practices, we were rebuffed.  When we urged the union to be more vocal on school safety and more active in endorsing local candidates running for office, union leadership refused, preferring instead to continue its politically safer focus on battling funding for charter schools. Though I believe in the concept of unions and their important role in protecting working conditions, we kid ourselves if we believe that all locals are well-managed and assertive in defending the rights of educators. Rather than relying solely on our unions to make political change, educators must become more engaged in the process themselves. 

Some educators are reluctant to wade into the minefield of politics for fear of being accused of partisanship by parents or administrators. A recent article in the Washington Post framed it this way: “The big open question, of course, is where does teaching about politics end and partisan political teaching begin?”

I understand that there are times in our lives when it may be career-threatening (or outright ending) to speak up and take a stand. However, educators must each think globally and critically, and act ethically and on principal.  As Desmond Tutu wrote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” To extend this metaphor further, it’s time to speak up for our students, who are being stepped on and ill-served by politicians and administrators who craft misguided and misinformed educational policies. Let us each resolve to devote this year to reclaim our classrooms to make social change that will improve the lives of our students.

Let me hear from you. Leave a comment and tell me how you will be more politically engaged this year. And if you don’t plan to be (or feel you can’t), why not?