How to Fix the Achievement Gap in Middle School Students

Policies that are outdated or have failed continue to be implemented in K-12 schools. The potential for student success is jeopardized in the present and the future. Our expert lays out the solution.

The word "success" means many things to different people. For some, success is defined as attaining financial security, and thus not having to worry about money. For others, success means attaining the personal goals they set out to accomplish.

It is critical to instill the know-how to achieve personal goals at an early age. Some receive this skill-set from their parents early on, after which it is often further reinforced by others within their communities. Many adolescents whose parents and community members taught them navigational skills to help set and accomplish goals in whatever they decide to pursue tend go on to achieve success throughout high school, college, and beyond. But what of the students who are not fortunate enough to have learned navigational skills-sets at an early age? How do they achieve their goals later in life? What will become of them?

The Limits of Present Mandates to Close the Achievement Gap

Over the past several decades, many federal and state policies have mandated that schools view academic success through the lens of standardized test scores. Although I believe it is crucial that literacy and numeracy remain at the epicenter of the educational experience of students at all grade levels, I think it is a mistake to make it the only experience for students, especially those who may not have other necessary skill-sets to attain their goals in life.

In my co-authored book, "School Leadership in a Diverse Society: Helping Schools Prepare All Students for Success," my colleague Floyd Beachum and I make the argument that schools have failed to consider the unintended consequences of focusing solely on standardized testing as a measurement of success. Among these unintended consequences has been the practice on the part of a few educators, as well as some top-level administrators, of resorting to cheating to meet certain benchmarks on state assessments. It would seem unnecessary to point out that such insidious endeavors by school officials are not helping the cause of ensuring an educated populace.

But another unintended consequence — one that is not often talked about — is the notion of actually stifling students' creativity and what Paulo Freire calls "ingenious curiosity." In essence, ingenious curiosity is when students bring to the educative process their own sense of making meaning from their communities and other surroundings.

What Should We Focus on Instead?

Good educators capitalize and make the most of students' ingenious curiosity. They recognize that students from the most vulnerable communities can bring an enormous amount of social and cultural capital with them. Perhaps these resources are alien to educators and school administrators; nevertheless, they offer ingredients that educators can build upon when they are not looking at students from a deficit perspective. But when the sole purpose of education revolves around rote memorization and test taking, it diminishes the learning experiences of students. Such endeavors often occur at the middle school level. These students are among the most vulnerable population.

Rethink the meaning of success

Educators and school administrators, especially at the middle school grade levels, should begin to rethink the notion of success for students. In urban areas, this reconceptualization will be a difficult task for many school officials. As was mentioned, oftentimes success is undergirded by conditioning students to test-taking practices and eliminating the "undesirable" students from learning communities through suspensions and/or expulsions. But I believe that success for middle school students goes well beyond such endeavors.

For educators to cultivate a school culture where students at this age level can be successful, they have to critique the policies and programs that may have an adverse impact on their students. Such a critique should be leveled at the federal and state level — as well as at the district and school level.

Often, policies that are detrimental to the most vulnerable student populations are implemented by educators without sufficient consideration of their potential impact. The stakes are too high for educators and school leaders to simply acquiesce to the edicts of federal and state officials without critiquing such policies and advocating for their students.

Challenge current policies that stifle student success

Not only must educators and school officials critique state and federal policies, but they must also critically examine their own school policies. In the book, "Using Equity Audits to Create Equitable and Excellent Schools", Linda Skrla and colleagues have determined that the best way for educators and school leaders to critique school policies is to conduct equity audits. According to the authors, such reviews are a means for school officials to determine if their policies are creating conditions where certain students are suspended and expelled at a higher rate than other students. In another co-authored book of mine, "Cultural Collision and Collusion: Reflections on Hip-Hop Culture, Values, and Schools," my co-author Floyd Beachum and I make it clear that students of color, especially African-American males, are subject to higher rates of suspension and expulsion for similar disciplinary infractions than other students. Research also makes clear that the more often students are suspended and expelled from school, the greater their chances are of dropping out altogether.

Assess whether students have access to high quality programs

Another way in which educators and school leaders can use equity audits within the school is by determining whether or not all students have access to high quality programs. In many instances at the middle school level, significant discrepancies exist between those students who are selected for gifted and advanced placement courses and those who are haphazardly placed in special education classes designed for remediation. Usually, students of color are woefully underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, while overrepresented in special education. Educators and school leaders have a responsibility to determine if their policies are contributing to such differences in program composition, and hence student opportunity.

Redesign the learning structure in classrooms

I believe one way to alleviate the differences regarding student discipline and placement is for educators to improve their pedagogy within the classroom. In research for our book, "School Leadership in a Diverse Society: Helping Schools Prepare All Students for Success," we found that young boys in middle school, especially African-American boys, were usually disproportionately misplaced into special education programs designed for remediation; they were also subject to higher rates of suspensions and expulsions.

We indicated in the book that one of the causes for such discrepancy is bad teaching. A scene in the movie, "Waiting for Superman," depicts good teaching using a cartoon in which the teacher proceeds to pour literacy and numeracy from a jar directly into the child's head. By contrast, the movie portrays bad teaching by showing a teacher who is preoccupied and misses the mark as she pours the lesson from the jar. For 21st-century teaching, both images are problematic and represent a correspondence or banking model of teaching, wherein the teacher disregards students' ingenious curiosity and makes learning entirely teacher-centered. For the most vulnerable student population to find success in school, teachers must adjust their pedagogical styles and make learning more student-centered. I believe that such student-centered learning could also have an impact on the discrepancy of student placement and decrease student discipline issues.

In Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, teacher and school administrators, especially at the middle grade levels, must begin the journey to re-conceptualize the meaning of success for all students. Literacy and numeracy are important concepts for students to master at an early age. But the acquisition of such competencies must carry with it the realization of how acquiring knowledge will lead to a more fruitful and productive life. Right now, many students in urban areas do not see the value of mastering literacy and numeracy skills, in large part due to teachers and school officials' obsession with increasing test scores. In essence, the educative process has the potential to become a hollow exercise for teachers and administrators to create clever ways to keep their jobs at the expense of authentic student learning. As long as this is the panacea for educating some of our most vulnerable students, the meaning of success for these students will always be an elusive goal.

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