In preparation, I've reread the many comments on high school teacher Christopher Jackson's dispiriting (even if too, ahem, black and white) report from the trenches What it is Like to Teach Black Students, read current research to update my knowledge about what works in improving African-American achievement, took a few long hikes to contemplate it all, wrote a draft, which I sent to my wisest colleagues and friends (who happen to be diverse in ideology, race, and gender, I might add.) What you see is the resulting draft, which I continue to revise as your comments come in.
I strongly encourage your comments: where you agree, disagree, or have other recommendations you believe should be added or substituted.
I plan to submit the revised plan, the aforementioned teacher's article, a distilled version of your fascinating albeit often shocking comments, to the media, and to education and government leaders. As I said, following the previous post, my goal here is to make a small effort in response to Attorney General Eric Holder's calling us a nation of cowards about race and urging a full-dimension discussion of the issue, just as Bill Clinton urged some years ago.
Because most of my blog posts focus on issues other than education, I feel the need to establish a bit of credibility in this area, so here is a link to my bio. On that page, scroll down to read my background in education. Perhaps most relevant here is that I hold a Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in the evaluation of education programs. My dissertation was on reading achievement in African-Americans, which my advisor nominated for Dissertation of the Year. (It was not selected.) I subsequently taught in graduate schools, culminating with Berkeley. I then became the senior author of California's procedures for high school accreditation and for California Department of Education Program Review. But I'm not just an ivory tower guy. I left my work as a medical researcher at the Rockefeller University to run drug education "rap groups" with 7th and 8th graders in I.S. 61, a largely minority low-income New York City public school, and later taught similar kids in Richmond, California public schools. And I'm no stranger to prejudice: I am the child of Holocaust survivors--my mom, for example, was in Auschwitz. I attended New York City public schools, from kindergarten in a Bronx slum to college at the $34 a semester City University of New York.
I have sometimes been accused of being too idealistic so I have tried here to strike the balance between practicality and likely effectiveness.
1. Reduce teen pregnancy. It's well established that children of teenage parents are at greater risk of school and life failure. So junior and senior high schools, especially those with high teen pregnancy rates, should implement data-driven teen-pregnancy prevention programs. The research does not support abstinence-only programs and so political pressures to restrict such programs to those should be resisted.
Creators of programming aimed at teens (sitcoms, news, movies, video games, music videos, record labels) should be encouraged to create more content that would compellingly display the risks of teen pregnancy to the parents and child. For example, a girl's deciding when to have a child and who should be the father of her child may be her life's most important decisions. The consequences of a good and poor choice can be vividly portrayed in the media.
2. Provide parenting education early. To increase the chances that from Day One, parents have the tools to be good parents, full effort should be expended to ensure that high-quality parenting education is highly accessible, especially to pregnant teens in low-income locales. The best parenting education involves interactive video of critical incidents in parenting--for example, what to do if your baby won't stop crying? What to do to ensure your child develops good language skills? Ethics?
True innovation in delivery systems is required. For example, high school websites and others heavily visited by at-risk teens, for example, mtv.com, should be encouraged to post the aforementioned parenting training course. To ensure its availability to people without computers, the community center in low-income housing developments should have a computer installed, which includes the parenting education program as well as other high-quality interactive-video programs, for example, on teen pregnancy prevention and on preventing and curing substance abuse. In hospitals, especially those serving at-risk communities, the TV in each obstetric patient's room should have a TV offering the aforementioned parenting training.
3. Parenting training for welfare-receiving teen parents. As a condition for receiving welfare benefits such as TANF funds, teen or perhaps all parents should be required to successfully complete the online or an in-person parenting education course, much as we require aspiring drivers to complete a driver's education course.
4. Fully fund Head Start/Early Head Start IF the results of the just-completed major study support its cost-effectiveness. Logic suggests that Head Start (largely parent-run preschool education) should be of benefit. However, the data for its providing long-term education benefit has not revealed the outstanding results many politicians claim. Indeed, the early results of the latest major federally funded evaluation finds Head Start to yield only small benefit but the full study period ended on March 31 of this year. So I assume the report will be published in a few months. The extent of future taxpayer funding of Head Start should be affected by what that report indicates.
5. Better train teachers. Absurdly, pre-K to grade 12 teachers are trained primarily by theory-oriented academics who have never taught in a pre-K to grade-12 classroom, let alone been master teachers there. That must change. The primary instructors of would-be teachers should be master K-12 teachers, including those who have produced excellent results in educating heavily African-American classes.
That high school teacher who wrote the essay referred to earlier as well as many of the commenters suggest that teachers of heavily African-American classes may well need to be masters at motivation, using a skill set beyond that which is taught in most teacher education programs. So the increasingly required multicultural education course should include master-teacher-taught lessons on the art of classroom management, including strategies particularly likely to be effective in working with low-income African-American students.
Training should not end upon the teacher's obtaining a license to teach. Teachers experiencing the frustrations expressed by the essayist and commenters should be able to phone or email a hotline staffed by teachers who have successfully taught heavily African-American classes.
6. Flexibly group classes. In part, to avoid African-Americans being placed in low-track classes, ability-grouped classes have in many schools, largely been eliminated K-8, and reduced in many high schools. Unfortunately, that causes too great a teaching challenge for most teachers: teaching a very wide range of kids in the same class--from very-low achieving to very high achieving, from very slow learners to very fast learners.
The answer is what I call flex classes. For academic subjects at least, group classes by achievement level but conduct frequent reviews to ensure that all students, especially children of color, are given the opportunity to move up (or down) as appropriate to their learning needs.
7. Dispel the belief that working hard is "acting white." Berkeley researcher John Ogbu found that many black students believe that being studious is "acting white," and therefore is unacceptable. That is echoed in the aforementioned essay and in the resulting comments. "Cool" blacks, both peers and adults, who are studious, must compellingly convince students and their parents that studying hard is equally important for students of all races.
8. Chronically disruptive students must be placed in special classes. If a student, despite the teacher's best efforts (with help from the principal) continues to disrupt his or her classmates' opportunity to learn, that child must be moved to a special class taught by someone with special skills in working with such kids.
9. Begin career exploration in grade 6. Finding an exciting yet realistic career can be motivating to many students. And it reduces the problem of many high school and college graduates having no idea what they want to pursue as a career.
10. Give students a choice: college-prep or career-prep curriculum. Increasingly, in the name of high standards, all students, even high schoolers who read on a sixth grade level and who have far more ability in working with their hands, are being forced to take a college-prep curriculum, replete with Shakespeare, quadratic equations, the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars, and stochastic processes. In California, you cannot get a high school diploma without passing a special exam based on a college prep curriculum. Not surprisingly, this causes many to drop out of high school. Or if they graduate and attend college (today, many colleges are open-admission even to the grossly underprepared), they disproportionately drop out. And even if they manage to defy the odds and graduate from college, they are likely to join the ranks of the countless people with a bachelor's degree in a low-rigor, low-demand major from a not very selective college who are unable to find better employment than they could have found with just a high school diploma--meanwhile they incurred huge student debt, boredom, and ongoing assault to self-esteem from being forced to study academic material for which they were unprepared.
Junior high and high schools should offer a high-quality career-prep as well as college-prep curriculum. If I had a son or daughter who through grade 7 showed clear signs of not being likely to succeed in a college-prep curriculum, I'd encourage him or her to choose a career-prep program, which, for example, taught her reading, writing, etc but in the context of preparing her for a career that doesn't require college, for example, robotics repair or entrepreneurship.
11. Require a course in life skills. Before requiring at-risk, indeed all kids to learn simultaneous equations, the halide series of chemical elements, and the use of the doppelganger, students should be required to pass a course in life skills:for example, budgeting, interpersonal communication, and the aforementioned sex education and parenting education. To not do so is to be guilty of the very elitism that many educators and politicians decry.
12. Institute a debate (forensics) program in all high schools, including those with low achievement scores. There's some evidence (and a lot of common sense) to suggest that this could yield significant benefit.
13. Require colleges to provide full disclosure to prospective students. In their attempt to woo students, especially minority students, colleges and high school counselors, as in the Tuskegee Experiments, often hide the information students need to use to decide whether to enroll:
- the four-, five-, and six-year graduation rate
- the average amount of growth that students with particular high school records make in reading, writing, thinking, leadership, and quantitative reasoning.
- the average amount of student debt assumed, disaggregated by family income and assets
- the employment prospects for students who graduate, disaggregated by major.
- alternatives to four-year colleges that the student should consider: short-term community college programs, apprenticeship programs, the military, on-the-job training, etc.
- Pair at-risk kids with nursing home residents or hard-to-adopt animal-shelter dogs and cats who otherwise would be euthanized. I've seen hard-bitten people grow loving when involved with a non-threatening person or animal.
- Have kids plant vegetable and fruit gardens, cook and eat what they've grown and sell the rest. They'd learn science, cooking, nutrition, and how to run a business. In addition, they might join me in awe of the miracle of growth.
- Create peer mentor pairs: for example, at-risk sixth graders with at-risk first graders.There's no better way to learn than to teach.
- Provide free genetic counseling to at-risk prospective parents. We all are a product not just of our environment but of our genes. Educating prospective parents may help them make more fully informed and thus wiser choices.