Byron's Babbles

The Achievement Gap Elephant

Posted in Education, Education Reform, Leadership, Learning Organization by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on July 2, 2013


I spent this week in the classroom at Harvard University learning to be a more effective at closing the achievement gap in the Harvard Graduate School of Education program for Closing The Achievement Gap. This was a program made up of an outstanding curriculum with the learning being facilitated by incredible Harvard faculty and other expert facilitators. Part of my homework for this evening is to do a Learning Synthesis of the week. I was here at the beginning of this month for the Turnaround School Leaders program and used my blog for the Learning Synthesis. I have chosen to do this again.

We learned this week about “learned helplessness.” Dr. Ron Ferguson told the story of how an elephant is trained to stay in one place at a young age by having a painful collar and change placed on their leg. By the time they are older and big enough that the chain would not hold them it doesn’t need to even be attached to an anchor because the elephant doesn’t know he can get loose. In some ways I worry that this is the way we approach the achievement gap. Do we spend a lot of time discussing it, but then not just diving in and doing the hard work?

For this post I would like to share with you my list of 100 points that I want to use as spring boards to continuing the important work of closing the achievement gap. Here we go:

1. Shift school and district level foci to external benchmarks as points of comparison, instead of inter-group comparisons in the home community.
2. People feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge.
3. School administrators try to change too many things at once.
4. We start things but do not monitor the progress.
5. There are prescriptive disagreements – people do not agree on what needs to be done.
6. Plans and strategies seem incoherent to people who are asked to participate
7. Everyone (all stakeholders) must be involved in the process.
8. Everyone must believe that students are able.
9. Everyone must have the right attitudes.
10. Students make fun of peers who try to do well.
11. Leaders must combine passion with competence.
12. We need instigators, people who work behind the scene, to plant the seeds of change and help do the hard work.
13. Dedicated teams are needed to do the hard work.
14. We need clear central themes.
15. We need a streamlined and coherent “curriculum” for the change process.
16. Have an organizational structure and capacity to teach and motivate the adults.
17. We need patient, but tough accountability in closing the achievement gap.
18. There must be institutional gathering and management of the data.
19. Data driven decision making and transparency are keys to success.
20. Community involvement is paramount for resources.
21. Theories of action for closing the achievement gap must be simple, teachable, and very specific.
22. Warm, firm control
23. Family engagement plans must be simple, teachable, and very specific.
24. Identify the evidence to guide the strategic plan.
25. Strategize/plan for specific target groups
26. The moms and dads say, “Sit your ass down!” We say, “Will you please sit down.” Students don’t understand this change in leadership style.
27. Warm, firm control
28. Parenting style is more important than anything else.
29. Most of the parenting things that work for kids, work no matter what race. The only difference is when we talk to our kids about race – “the talk.”
30. Achievement gaps occur in life experiences.
31. Life experience differences accumulate.
32. Encourage “mastery” not “performance.”
33. We must be career-long learners to be the best educators.
34. Focus on high-expertise teaching.
35. Students need ownership in the classroom.
36. When a kid asks a question, don’t berate them over it. It should be safe to say you don’t understand something.
37. Class starts the second you walk through the door.
38. Teachers need to make a connection with the student.
39. Teachers greet the students as they come through the door.
40. In great classrooms, the students know each other’s names.
41. Focus on learning, not compliance.
42. Teaching is anything a person does that affects student learning – ANYTHING!
43. The school as a workplace is the most important place for teacher training/learning/and induction.
44. The highest gain teachers go ahead and do mastery grading.
45. Learning is messy!
46. High performing teachers will let students struggle, but will scaffold the struggle.
47. Ability is malleable – Smart is something you can get!
48. High performance teachers tolerate a students’ struggle in learning.
49. Generally students know how effective their teachers are.
50. You can take what the students think to be correct about education.
51. Only putting the objectives on the board doesn’t cut it; the students won’t get it. We must put it in kid friendly language and check for understanding.
52. There is no such right as: “Students have the right to fail!” We must take that perceived right away!
53. Create an environment where no staff member can overlook something that is a non-negotiable.
54. We must create more consciousness of both positive goals and negative behaviors; we want balance in the degree to which each of these is a motivator.
55. Many students have positive self images; but they make decisions that can have long term negative consequences.
56. Difficulty can be taken as a sign that the goal is inappropriate for one’s self; the intervention helped change.
57. Incorrect assumptions about what other people think causes individuals to alter their behaviors to fit what they think other people value – “Pluralistic Ignorance.”
58. In many cases the kids already have the correct values – they just don’t know it because of pluralistic ignorance.
59. The cost of resisting what appears to be the norm can be isolation or worse.
60. When discussing issues we must create opportunities to reach consensus in the room.
61. Dominant social capital: behaviors, language, and signals that earn access and privilege in mainstream society.
62. Non-Dominant cultural capital: behaviors, language, and signals that earn access and privilege in the less dominant society.
63. Non-dominant cultural capital has value for members of non-dominant groups.
64. Tracking students increases achievement gaps!
65. Tracking helps high achievers and hurts low achievers, and exacerbates achievement gaps because people of color are disproportionately represented among low achievers.
66. The real problem is low quality instruction for classes of lower skilled students.
67. Differentiated teaching is very difficult and presents a challenge to mixed ability groupings.
68. Ultimately, the quality of instruction is what matters most.
69. There is no evidence that minority students are less likely to be assigned to high tracks if they have the same skills as white students.
70. Disproportionality of suspension and expulsions for students of color – differences in how discipline is administered. This results in depressing achievement.
71. We should use suspension and expulsion as a last result.
72. Kids decide how much you care, by how you discipline when they mess up.
73. Bias is the absence of neutrality.
74. Stereotype anxiety – “white men can’t jump.”
75. Implicit bias – unconscious behaviors that you do that you are not aware of.
76. Signaling – when someone is trying to send a signal that they are in a higher status group than they appear. As leaders, we need to find ways for them to signal.
77. Code switching and navigating – what behaviors will maximize your success in that particular setting?
78. “Sagging your pants is ok outside of school on your block, but here we are getting you ready for the adult world – the executive board room!”
79. The narratives around all the issues affecting the achievement gap are what need to be worked out.
80. Marginality: you don’t get the resources you deserve.
81. The third grade is when kids figure out the achievement hierarchy.
82. Survivors guilt – Students feel like they don’t deserve the success they have achieved.
83. If you really care about your family and community you must maximize your success so you can maximize your giving back.
84. Selling out – many times the low achievers will just say, “I don’t want to be like that anyway!”
85. Acting “white”
86. High achieving black girls tend to group.
87. High achieving black boys do not group.
88. If you take care of business from ages 12-18 you are set!
89. Training Fleas and training elephants – Learned Helplessness.
90. How do we leverage hip-hop to our students?
91. Flocabulary
92. Every course in school must be doing multiple high level and rigorous writing assignments.
93. The best people in the organization that can put structures in place for success are not necessarily the ones with the titles to do so – Lead from where you are!
94. If you are going to say there is bias; you must define neutrality!
95. We teach like we were taught.
96. We parent like we were parented.
97. Parenting Styles: Authoritarian, Strict Authoritative, Neglectful, and Permissive.
98. The neglectful parents do not set out to be this way. These families are overpowered by life.
99. No family chooses to be neglectful.
100. White parents get it wrong by being too permissive, but not on purpose.

Well, there are my 100 takeaways from the week. If you ever want a way to unpack what you have learned after a long week of learning you can try this exercise. I hope they have provoked some thought on education reform and closing the achievement gap for you. If so, feel free to leave a comment and we will begin a dialogue.

I really believe we need to put aside differences and join side by side in the important work of school improvement. In doing so we will begin to collaborate, build relationships, and gain the trust necessary to be successful in this hard, rewarding, and fun work! Remember, we are not tied down like the elephant thinks he is!


One Response

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  1. Aileen K. Crane said, on July 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

    We work hard every day to close the achievement gap and deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunity for all children, regardless of race, economic status or zip code. Our first priority is to provide a truly outstanding, gap-closing education to our thousands of students.


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