This is not an advertisement for The Education Trust, nor is it an endorsement of all that The Education Trust stands for.  This post is merely my commentary on one aspect of The Education Trust’s practices – assessing standards in practice.

In 2003, I was working at a semi-urban high school near Paterson, NJ.  Our school was seeing a major transition in demographics; more ELL students, Hispanic students, and first generation Muslim-Americans were enrolling.  It was a regional high school, so we did not have a handle on the K-8 curriculum.  Basically, what we were sent, we had to deal with.  Literacy rates were suffering and our students were in need of more basic reading and math skills.  In short, we were aware of the achievement gap that was present in our building; the honors courses and AP courses were completely Caucasian and the general level classes were nearly all minority.  We weren’t ready for this.  We had no plan other than to offer the mundane BSI courses.  But a crafty Assistant Principal, Jim Jencarelli (who is now the Superintendent of a NJ high school) had the novel idea of bringing in The Education Trust to help us with our achievement gap problem, curriculum redesign, and shifting of paradigms.

One of the first things The Ed Trust does when they come in to your school/district is to meet with the teachers and administration to discuss their Standards In Practice protocol.  I can remember the meeting very vividly – teachers were appalled at the presenters statement that one reason an achievement gap exists is due to the pity parties that teachers have for minority students and students who have less than stable home lives.  In essence, teachers and schools do no students favors when they lower the expectations based on the perceived inabilities or emotional concerns that teachers and schools have for struggling students.  What the Ed Trust ultimately condones is the practice of teaching every child as if they were college preparatory material. 

Standards In Practice consists of the following (you can view Ed Trust’s presentation below):

  1. Creating teams of teachers to review, analyze, and critique assignments
  2. Having these teams honestly look at the standards (usually state standards) and see if their assignments reach the expectation, or fall short.  (NOTE: you would be surprised how many tests and quizzes are comprised of recall and rote questions.)
  3. A rubric is followed whereby the assessment is measured.  If need be, the assessment must be redesigned to meet the standards.
  4. The teams meet regularly and each team member is on the "hot seat" – no one is immune from the clinical exercise.

What I found most intriguing about Standards In Practice was not the protocol.  Of course I learned a lot from the exercise (I disappointingly found that my assessments were far too "dumbed down") and gained insight into how to construct rigorous assessments, which, in turn, forced me to redesign my approach to students, lessons, and teaching.  No, what intrigued me most was the philosophy of the Education Trust.

Ed Trust is committed to narrowing the great divide between minority students and others.  I can’t tell you angry I get when I see school leadership revel in the glory of "beating" other schools at high stakes testing.  I take no pride in the following facts:

  • 32% of White adults (ages 16-65) read at the Basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)
  • 67% of Black adults (ages 16-65) read at the basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)
  • 53% of Hispanic adults (ages 16-65) read at the basic or Below Basic proficiency in Prose literacy. (2003)

Notes: Prose literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. Source: NCES Table 379.

What I have come to understand is that while we scurry to find new ways to meet AYP, get our students over the hump, and keep our schools out of the editorial pages, there is a quiet epidemic of illiteracy spreading in our urban schools.  The Education Trust (while not completely perfect) is trying to address the issue through their programs and protocols.  They seek to shift the paradigm of teachers and schools, not throw money at the urban schools and hope that a miracle happens. 

For my part, I can say that The Education Trust shifted my paradigm.  I now see the problem and a potential means of addressing the problem.

Whatever happened to that high school I worked at in 2003 where we brought in the Education Trust?  The Principal and Superintendent though it was too expensive and unnecessary.  Jim and I left for brighter futures and more open minds.  Yet, we are both committed to bridging the achievement gap… however, I now know that the achievement gap is a symptom of nothing more than institutional racism.  When any school thinks that a curriculum must be watered down in order to help the minority student, simply because that student comes from a family or neighborhood that is less desirable, then that school is acting in a nearly criminal manner.

Please examine your state’s literacy rates.  Is there a widening literacy deficit?  Are you in a school or district that seems to have more than a fair share of minority students either classified as LD or stuck in Basic Skills?  Once you have that answer, ask yourself if your school or district assesses students to the standard set forth by your state or county?  How much rote and recall do you see in your classrooms?

Mike Parent – guest blogger