Are We Having the Right Conversations?

I came across the piece I wrote a while back. It is resonating with me today, so I thought I’d throw it out into the world again as I continue to think about these important ideas…

Closing the Achievement Gap: Are We Having the Right Conversations?

This year marks my twenty-second year as an educator. I’m hard pressed to remember a time when the phrase “closing the achievement gap” was not present in my every day reality. The phrase has compelled us to disaggregate data, examine curriculum, create programs , buy programs created for us, delineate the difference between “equal” and “equitable” and define how to insure no child is left behind as we race to the top. Some gains have been made. And, yet, we still have not closed the gaps between our white students and our students of color across the board.

As I ponder this reality and I talk to parents, students, teachers and school staff, I find myself asking “are we having the right conversations?” Often, when we talk about student achievement, we disaggregate the data, come to a conclusion such as “Our students of color are not doing well in reading.”. Then our response becomes ‘Let’s develop curriculum/buy a program,” which we do. Then we disaggregate the next year’s data only to find any gains made are minimal at most.

Over the last eight years of my career, I’ve spent less time worrying about what program to use and more time directly asking my students what schools can do to help them be academically successful. The students’ responses confirm what I found myself asking. We aren’t having the right conversations or drawing the appropriate conclusions. When the students share their insights, much of it focuses on school attitudes and environment. The classrooms where they feel successful and exhibit academic success are classrooms where teachers greet them at the door, know their names and something about them as individuals, connect learning to their lives and to the larger world and classrooms where teachers address issues of race. It’s only after students talk about these aspects of the classroom that they begin to address the topic we typically focus on- curriculum.

So, why aren’t we having the right conversations, then? Honestly? For me, it’s been about 1) not knowing what I don’t know and 2) being a little scared of the conversations. There’s very little in our teacher education training that prepares us to talk openly and honestly about race or to even understand we should be talking about it. And once we are in the profession, our professional development focuses on our specific content area or the larger initiatives mandated by governmental and institutional bodies. So, how can we be better prepared to have the conversations we need to have? As a literacy educator, I believe strongly in the power of research and reading! Here’s a list of some of the books that have helped me on my journey to a better understanding of what I need to do as an educator to insure the success of all of my students:

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
by Gloria Ladson-Billings

We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools
by Gary R. Howard

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
by Lisa Delpit

Courageous Conversations About Race
by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
by Anne Fadiman

How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies
by Bonnie Davis

We’ve worked hard through the years to try and close an ever-present achievement gap for our students of color. We need to continue to work hard, but we need to shift our focus. Rather than focusing solely on what we teach in the classroom, we need to have open, honest conversations about race and what the implications of that are for us as teachers and for our students- all of our students. When we can do that, we can begin to focus on the environmental changes that need to occur to create learning spaces which invite and allow the success of our students of color.

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