Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easy diplomas, high expectations, and equity

Too many of these kids are struggling, and it's not their fault. They are the victims of systems and histories that make it all but impossible for them to stay above the waves. But knowing this, what can an educator do?

This question's been swirling around in my head since reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but finally an answer to these questions is starting to coalesce in my mind--a solution that I think is truly equitable.

If you've been following this blog, you know we've been working on raising the bar for our students while, at the same time, increasing supports. But you also know that we've been realizing our limitations, and that, to some of our students, support has meant helping them find a school environment that works better for them. And for some, raising the bar could mean they don't make it in time for a diploma in June.

And then there's Between the World and Me, challenging me to take a hard look at what I am doing and whether I really am a support or just another hound at the heels of these kids, just more wind in their face, as Coates' put it.

Am I wrong in not wanting to just give the kids a diploma--in wanting to hold them accountable, push them to improve, and have them leave here ready for what's next?

Which is more just or fair: to deny a student a diploma because you have high expectations, or to give him a diploma no matter what, so he is not further disadvantaged by lacking that piece of paper?

According to Paul Gorski, author of Reaching and teaching Students in Poverty, high expectations is one of the things these kids need most, but they also need that slip of paper, don't they?

How do I balance their need for a diploma with their need for high expectations, solid skills, and college/career readiness?

So I turned to a mentor for advice, one with experience working with disadvantaged kids and teaching administrators how to work with them. He encouraged me to take a two-pronged approach: One in the short term "here and now," and another for "the long game."

In the short term, he said, I need to try to support the students in my care as much as possible, including advocating for their removal to a program that works better for them, if necessary. At the same time, I need to continue to work on building a program that will work better for more kids in the long term. (And that's a huge undertaking, so take it a step at a time, and be patient.)

And as far as diplomas and justice, here's my take-away from our conversation:

No. I'm not wrong for not wanting to just hand out diplomas. This is one of the inequities of the American educational system: it "launders" diplomas instead of providing kids with the support and preparation they need. But at the same time, it's better to graduate a student despite a lack of readiness than to kick him out, as long as it's an ability issue and not an attitude issue. If the problem is their attitude--if they're not trying, then granting them a diploma they haven't earned is just going to reinforce their central problem. But if they're trying, and their lack of ability is keeping them from meeting the standards, then the equitable thing to do is to personalize the standards. You can have high standards without them all being the same.

And I think that's the key. High standards for all, increased support for all, but equity doesn't mean uniformity.

The goal is that every student will leave ready for what's next, but if we can't do this, at least we can keep from harming them further. In some cases, that may mean granting a diploma, in others, withholding it.

And hopefully soon, when we all, as a society, awaken from the dream that we are an equitable one, we'll really start doing whatever it takes to reach them all.

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