Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 3)

We focus intently on the achievement gap because we see closing it as the best way to combat poverty and inequality. As I argued here and here, this gets us into trouble when we define achievement too narrowly. But it actually oversimplifies poverty and inequality even more than it oversimplifies learning.

Two articles currently posted at the Atlantic make this point in depressingly persuasive fashion. The first reminds us that inequality is about much, much more than income or even wealth, while the second documents that while Clinton-era welfare reform was hugely successful in reducing the number of people receiving public assistance, that’s not actually the same thing as helping them re-enter the workforce or otherwise get back on their feet. Welfare reform deepened extreme poverty, and (more usefully for its authors) it also made it less visible.

The leap of faith that equates test score improvement with a ticket to the middle class grossly underestimates just how hard it is to climb out of poverty in America. It is a convenient, comforting thought that if we just focus all of our energy and effort on one thing, it will be the first domino to fall in a chain of broader social and economic transformation. But this view skirts two important truths. The first – obvious from the research but somehow taboo in ed reform circles – is that poverty changes education a whole lot more than education changes poverty. If we are really serious about addressing what Derek Thompson calls “total inequality,” we need to stop shredding the social safety net and making it all but impossible for poor people to enter and remain in the workforce. The second truth is that for those of us committed to educating disadvantaged kids, the skill set we need to help them develop goes way beyond reading and math: we need to teach them how to navigate and negotiate a world that is hostile to their very existence. That skill set includes the ability to be self-aware, manage emotions and stress, communicate effectively and persuasively, link short-term actions with long-range planning and strategy, build and utilize networks, and understand and navigate complex systems and institutions.

As educators, we do what we do because we hope to give kids a shot at a healthier, happier, more stable life. Closing the achievement gap is the proxy for this desire – a way to shrink an overwhelming challenge to a manageable scale. But the proxy and the reality it represents have diverged wildly. If we paused to consider what inequality really is and why it persists, we might think differently about what the work is, and how we define success.

Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 2)

I didn’t really know it at the time, but this graph would change the way I thought about the achievement gap.

CWRA result

Before opening the Workshop School, for two years we ran a small pilot project called the Sustainability Workshop. It was basically an alternative senior year program. We enrolled about 30 seniors a year from three neighborhood high schools, and ran them through an intensive one-year, project-based experience. To assess students’ learning at the end of the year, we administered the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA).

CWRA is the only standardized test I’ve ever seen that I really like. Basically, students are given a real-world problem scenario and a library of documents, data sets, etc. Their challenge is to come up with and articulate solutions to the scenario. Their “performance task score” is a measure of their ability to think critically and solve problems. Since the tasks involve making sense of numbers and writing out answers, CWRA controls for what it calls “entering academic ability” – basically the type of literacy and math skills that the SAT requires.

This graph above plots students’ critical thinking score (Y axis) against their entering academic ability score (X axis). Each data point represents a school or college. (CWRA is administered to both high school and first-year college students.) The line represents the regression, with the red diamond representing the average performance of first-year college students on the exam.

The red dot on the left hand side of the graph represents the performance of our students that year. Not surprisingly, when looking at entering academic ability, our students lagged far behind the typical first year college student. But when we look at critical thinking, their scores are nearly identical. Our students vastly outperformed what would be expected based on their entering academic ability (CWRA put them in the 99th percentile for this metric).

My point here isn’t that our students were awesome (though they were). It’s that our understanding of the achievement gap is a function of how we define achievement. If we define it in terms of traditional metrics, this graph tells the same old story: poor children of color lagging behind their more advantaged peers. But if we look at it in terms of critical thinking, the gap nearly disappears.

As someone who deeply believes that critical thinking, collaboration, self-awareness, ownership, and project management are just as important to students’ long-term success as literacy and numeracy (and maybe more so), I find this incredibly encouraging. Viewed through the lens of traditional tests, the achievement gap can seem insurmountable – a reflection of so many class advantages that it’s hard to see how it could ever be closed. Is it possible that because schools have not traditionally emphasized skills like critical thinking or collaboration, the “gap” between poor and middle class students is actually smaller?

Class is always going to be a factor in students’ prospects for success, and literacy and numeracy are both important. But if we rethink what achievement means, focusing on the skills that matter most, we may find that the “gap” that we’re so concerned about looks very different.

Rethinking the achievement gap (Part 1)

There are a lot of ways to think about equity, and a lot of ways to think about achievement. In ed reform world, the most common is what we call the achievement gap: the quantifiable difference in test performance between poor and middle class kids. This concept has done a lot of good in highlighting inequities in our school systems, and creating a sense of urgency for change. But from a learning standpoint, this narrow understanding of equity has been terrible.

There are two reasons for this. First, schools (and school systems) focused narrowly on the achievement gap end up devoting most of their time, energy and resources to things that bring up test scores. It’s not that literacy and numeracy don’t matter (though on the math side much of we force kids to learn isn’t really numeracy). It’s that other things matter just as much, if not more. A narrow focus on the achievement gap pushes all of those things to the margins.

Second, if you’re mostly focused on getting a specific body of knowledge into kids’ heads, you organize a school that seeks to minimize or eliminate anything that gets in the way of that work. You create systems that reward compliant behavior, because it keeps everyone on task. It’s efficient. But kids don’t own their behavior in these systems. When young people leave school, they have to make their own decisions. Learning to be independent and responsible is just as important as learning to base claims on evidence. But somehow we’ve decided that we need to sacrifice the former in service of the latter.

This is deeply counterproductive. Critical thinking, problem solving, self-direction and awareness, and even grit require agency – students’ capacity to shape the world around them, and the related belief that they possess that capacity. How can we cultivate such agency in an environment where every word and action is prescribed, measured, and monitored? How can we expect students to think critically when we tell them that being a “good” student requires them to uncritically submit to micromanagement of even the smallest actions, or to an environment where the sole means of regulating behavior consists of reward or punishment?

The alternative is to create a space where students get to define, shape, and reinforce the norms and culture of their school. This is a messy, inefficient, imperfect process. When it’s working, it feels miraculous. When it’s not, it feels chaotic and maddeningly inefficient. The important thing is that between those two poles lies the daily work of figuring out who we want to be individually and collectively, and striving to live out those ideals and values. This requires honest self-appraisal, difficult conversations, and nearly constant struggle. And it’s a huge investment of time and energy; time that could be spent testing students, differentiating instruction, and providing intensive support in specific areas of academic need. All of these things would be much more efficient strategies for reducing the “achievement gap.” And that’s exactly why the achievement gap is such a flawed way to think about the problem we’re really trying to address.

Heard in the “teachers’ lounge”

Well, not really. We have one little office with a six-person conference table. There are four of us who share it as workspace (including the Principal), but it’s also the place where staff come during prep, and therefore doubles as the “teachers’ lounge.” (And besides, “teachers’ lounge” has certain connotations. Like, for example, the suggestion that teachers are “lounging.” So no, not really a teachers’ lounge at all.)

But anyway, one of the great things about all of us having to cram into this little space is that our conversations kind of smash into one another. And more often than not, the discussions are amazing.

Over the course of a couple of hours yesterday, we talked about:

  1. How to transform successful projects into long-term, school-based programs that students could choose to opt into. Imagine an 11th grade roster that included two hours working for the school newspaper, two hours with the EVX team, and a community college English class.
  2. How we might rethink high school learning progressions to focus first on community membership, then on project design and management, and finally on having students design, implement and grow projects tied to internship experiences.
  3. Ways to rethink our 10th grade Gateway process go better predict which students would succeed with different components of our “Upper House” like internships, college classes, or student-designed projects.

None of this was planned or programmed. None of it was initiated by me. And yet over the course of an afternoon, we all learned a lot just by being immersed in the work, asking questions, and sharing insights.

The best part for me is knowing that these aren’t hypothetical conversations. We learn by working on the school. It is our project. And as much as summer institutes or weekly “un-PD” sessions, it is through these informal conversations that we continue to evolve.

Teaching imagination and creativity

We all know that creativity is central to problem solving. We know that the ability to think critically and solve problems is critical to students’ long-term success. The question is: how do we teach people to be creative?

Last Friday, Michael Clapper posed this question to students in his eleventh grade advisory. You can read about what happened next here.

A school design thought experiment

Imagine your school with no curriculum and no roster, no standards and no assessments, just a space where students and adults show up every day. Imagine that the adults are available to the students but make no attempt to organize and govern their behavior, save the minimum requirement to keep them safe. What would happen?

If you know your students, you could probably make some decent predictions about what it would be like. For our school, they might include the following:

  1. Some students would gravitate to workshop spaces, and would ask adults how to use technology and equipment.
  2. Just about everyone would ask for a laptop.
  3. A group of students, concerned about grades, college, etc., would ask us for classes. They would feel deeply uncomfortable doing nothing.
  4. Almost no one would gather in groups to talk about themselves, their interests and passions, or how they hoped to change the world.
  5. There would be laughter. There would be dancing. It would be loud and often joyous.
  6. Students would form cliques. There would be drama. Sometimes, there would be fights.
  7. Phones would be ubiquitous, exacerbating #5 and #6.
  8. Attendance would fall and lateness would increase, but both would find a point of equilibrium. (For a whole host of reasons, a majority of our students want to come to school.)
  9. Eventually, a kind of bifurcation would happen. One group of our students would come to school because they need to go somewhere, and their friends are here. A second group would effectively design an academic program for themselves based in their individual needs and interests.

Now think about what you would like to see happening in your school each day. To keep it really simple, for the Workshop it would be something like this:

  1. Students are engaged in real-world problem solving.
  2. Students manage their own time and work. Advisors are coaches.
  3. Students understand what they are supposed to be doing and the reasons for doing it.
  4. Students work together and support one another.

Next, consider the gap between Scenario A (what would likely happen with no formal program) and Scenario B (what you would like to see happen). That gap defines what your school should be doing. Once you’ve defined that, then you can think about the people, organization, tools and routines that will help you to do it.

We always talk about designing schools from scratch, but the truth is that’s hard to do. Usually, we design them compared to a norm, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe as “real school.” It’s why so many of us are more comfortable describing our schools in terms of what they are not rather than what they are. But if we’re really trying to rethink high school, if we really want to build from the ground up, we need a more open framework for defining and explaining what school is really for, and that framework needs to be rooted in our understanding of who our kids are, their strengths and their needs.

The work we do

At our staff meeting this afternoon, we took some time to share appreciations – of the community we’ve created and of each other as individuals. There were many riffs on a common theme: we all appreciate being a part of a community where we can be creative, experiment, and take chances. We all are grateful to be a part of a place where we feel like the work we do is meaningful. We all value a community where people support one another, where it’s OK to have bad days and where successes (big and small ) are celebrated.

Meaning. Purpose. Connection. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all of us want?

This work is hard and sometimes heartbreaking. What allows us to come back and do it each day and not carry discouragement or resentment with us? The belief in what we do, and the knowledge that we don’t do it alone.

I am deeply thankful to be part of a place that embodies these values so fully. And I am proud to be part of a school where those values are central to the work we do with our students. Helping students find meaning in the work – especially when it gets hard – isn’t part of any standards framework. Cultivating deep, caring relationships with and among them doesn’t show up on state tests. But these are the most important things we do. This work prepares students for the future by making them less vulnerable to all of life’s turbulence and volatility. But just as important, it gives them more opportunities to experience joy and fulfillment, camaraderie and community today, tomorrow, and the day after that.

We don’t just owe these kids a future. They deserve a present, too.

Student voices: Great Opportunities for Students at Workshop Industries

By Max Perez

This year the Workshop School has started a company called Workshop Industries. This is an after school program in West Philly to teach kids real life skills.

One of the many skills is entrepreneurship. A 9th grade student Victor Ginsburg said, “I joined Workshop Industries for the money. My favorite part is selling our product.”

Todd Menadier, an engineer and a teacher at the school, started this program in the fall. “I had a vision one day of a world where children do as I tell them and I make money off them,” he joked.

It seems that his vision is coming true. This program is selling over fifteen items every day and has made hundreds of dollars. The money goes to the school and the students who are in the program.

The after school program is selling lip balm for $2.00 each and their signature jawnaments for $3.00 each. The 9th grade student Mohamede Diallo said, “I think its cool because you can make lip balm.”

Ninth grade students Samira Brooks and Daniel Watson think this program will help students in the future. Samira said “I think it’s something different and can get you somewhere.” Daniel said, “It seems like a great way to learn about entrepreneurship.”

For many students, Workshop Industries is a great opportunity – to learn, to make money, and to experience entrepreneurship.

Student voices: Workshop Community Has High Hopes for March Basketball Tournament

By Giovanni Brabazon

This March, the Workshop School will be participating in a basketball tournament in Delaware to try and bring back a trophy. The players are very positive about the upcoming tournament.

One 9th grade player, Moussa Sidibe, is trusting in his coach’s abilities. “I think I’ll play good because I have a good coach,” he said. The coach, Anthony “Hubba Bubba” King, played for the Miami Heat.

Another 9th grade player, Jason Hall, is relying on his shot to bring the team to victory. “I’m going to play great because my shot bread.” He also scored 7 points in the championship game that they lost by 10 points.

One of the teachers, Ms. Rowe, was very supportive. She gave the team advice: “I think they need to play together and get to know each other better.” She was a big supporter at the last basketball event that took place at the gym at 5th and Allegheny.

Another 9th grader, Addison Hart, plans to put in some extra time to prepare. “Ima put some work in at the gym. I’m going to play fantastic because I’m going to be prepared.” Addison is a starter for the Workshop Wolverines and is looking forward to the tournament.

With alot of support from the community and the fans, they hope to take back a win and a trophy to represent the Workshop School.

Student voices: Workshop Students Share Opinions on Police Presence

By Jamell Williams

After the non-indictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, students and staff at the Workshop School shared their opinions on the police presence in their neighborhood.

Drina Davis, a 9th grader, shared her thoughts about her West Philadelphia neighborhood. “I don’t feel no type of way about the police in my neighborhood. Everytime they call the cops they take forever to come or show up.”

Mikaya Harrell-Davis, a 9th grader, also lives in West Philadelphia. She said about the cops, “They are racist and cruel to blacks. White cops call black poeple niggas.”

Jamell Williams, a 9th grader, had a similar opinion about West Philadelphia police officers. “The cops are sometimes cruel to kids in the neighborhood because they are black and look suspicious. If you are person of color you get followed until they see you’re not doing something.”

Kathleen Melville, a 9th grade teacher, had a different opinion about her neighborhood. “I really don’t have any interactions with the police in my neighborhood but sometimes it bothers me that they dont always follow the rules that are enforcing. I do not think I have ever seen or heard any racist things going on between police in the neighborhood.” The difference may be that Melville lives in South Philadelphia, not West Philadelphia.

The population of African Americans in West Philadelphia is much higher than in South Philadelphia. Could this be the reason that students in West Philadelphia report negative experiences with the police?

The facts, according to Daniel Denvir in City Paper, show that the police do seem to spend more time giving out citations in West Philadelphia than many other neighborhoods in Philly. A great number of these citations are for small offenses like drinking in public or selling loose cigarettes. This may explain why Workshop students often do not feel comfortable around the police in their West Philadelphia neighborhoods.