I have worked in public education for 20 years. I entered the profession because a freshman sociology class in college introduced me to the idea that there were two institutions that impacted socioeconomic mobility—the military and education. The end of segregation in America’s public schools in 1954 is considered a landmark case. But given the critical disparities in graduation rates between Black and white students, how far have we really come?
National Center for Education Statistics data published in 2018 shows an 11 percent gap between Black and white students. This remains an equity and access issue. We have tried numerous early intervention strategies with limited success. I know from my own anecdotal experience as a former elementary school principal that intervention programs were successful in the short term, but we have no way of tracking students’ long-term success. We throw the interventions at the wall and see what sticks.
Sadly, this is how we tend to resegregate our schools. Look at the disproportionality in any school’s low reading group versus the average or high reading group. Look at a school district’s percentage of minority representation in AP coursework. It rarely matches the ethnicity of the school in aggregate. We regularly revisit this data within our school district and challenge our own in-school metrics and systems to ensure equity and access.
Social injustice is rooted in our children at a very young age. Our students are significantly more “woke” than at any point in our history. And anyone who thinks a third grader doesn’t know they are in the “low group” is welcome to buy a bridge in Brooklyn. Over time, this damage to a child’s psyche can be compounded by socioeconomic challenges that further exacerbate the feeling of disparity, distress, and injustice.
Moving Students to Honor Classes
A year ago, I tried something different. I shattered one tier of ability grouping by moving a significant number of students who had been traditionally assigned to regular classes to honors classes. My justification was that it was the same set of standards and regular classes had not worked in creating the upward mobility and success we had hoped. And students that had been in the same “low” reading group since the third grade had been with the same students in English language arts for the past six years. They knew their classmates better than they knew their own families. And they knew they had been tagged with the label “underperforming.”
While initially hesitant, most of our teachers found that students quickly adapted. I had less than five parents ask for their students to receive regular instruction rather than honors instruction. When listening to their reasoning, they used the very same verbiage I once used in explaining my rationale for holding students in additional intervention blocks during recess as an elementary school principal. It revealed a sad reality—the indoctrination of low-performing interventions had codified in many parents. They, too, had low expectations for their kids.
As a result of this change, we saw a reduction in discipline, reduction in bullying, a flattening of gaps between ethnicities, and successful attainment of meeting all ESSA subgroup performance metrics in year one. Lagging indicators also include our graduation rate this year, which will be a school all-time high.
The Bigger Picture
So how does this relate to social injustice? Social injustice began centuries ago with the sins against Native Americans and Africans brought to North America as slaves. Fast forward to 1954, which was supposed to end segregation in public schools. Sadly, not enough progress has been made to provide equitable learning opportunities because we indirectly “track” students—even though tracking supposedly died in the late 1980s with the rise of a technology-driven economy.
If Pre-K programs and early literacy intervention at the elementary grades are designed to support low-income and other underperforming subgroups to help close the readiness gap, we have experienced poor return on investment on these programs. Part of the reason is that we typically need four years before we can possibly correlate the effectiveness of a Pre-K Program through norm-referenced or criterion-referenced testing. And even then, the variables of teacher and instruction effectiveness and mobility, among others, are a struggle to control for when trying to establish correlation.
- What if we developed a multitude of metrics over a period of years to determine whether enough improvement has been made to accelerate a chronically low-performing student?
- What if we started by specifically targeting students approaching proficiency in English language arts, math, social studies, or science and placed them in an honors class?
- What supports will be available when students start to struggle in their honors classes?
- How can we onboard students to a new set of classmates?
- What considerations need to be made to evaluate materials to ensure students’ life experiences are relatable to the texts, examples, and new vocabulary learned?
- What teachers are teaching these courses? Do they share your belief?
I’m tired of hearing the refrain that all students can learn at high levels when we clearly don’t have the courage to set up the systems and structures (or master schedule) to ensure that they have the opportunity to actually learn at a high level. I’m fortunate to work in a school district that is committed to equity and access.
It’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is. Do you want to really engage social injustice? Then let’s give our Black students a real opportunity for postsecondary success!
Mark Shanoff is principal of Edgewater High School in Orlando, FL, and the 2019 Florida Principal of the Year. His opinions are his own. Follow him on Twitter (@DrMarkShanoff).