On the Issue of Achievement Gaps

On the Issue of Achievement Gaps

Each individual has a sensory learning style that allows for optimum absorption and processing of knowledge based on the connection to the student’s auditory, visual or tactile centers of the brain. This is the key to bridging learning gaps. To foster accelerated learning, and allow students to ‘catch up’ to higher performing peers in their age group, the system has to organize classes based on learning style and then teach to the learning style with state-of-the-art methods.

DCPS should launch a pilot program to implement small group learning aimed at developing individual creativity and love for knowledge. Methods used in independent schools may be effective at fostering accelerated development. Use of the Harkness Table, for instance,is a method in which an oval table seating 11 students is the centerpiece of a classroom. Students are involved in a collaborative discussion of material and the teacher demonstrates how to learn as well as what to learn. Early childhood implementation of this system could revolutionize classroom experiences for our children.

Harkness Tables originated at Exeter Academy in 1931 when philanthropist Edward Harkness challenged the Exeter faculty to create an innovative way of teaching. The purpose of the Harkness Table was to make class more involving. The 1930s faculty also understood that Harkness Tables would make being smart more fun. They knew that discussing even your least favorite subject around the Harkness Table would make that subject more interesting. But did they know that the Harkness Table would teach students to collaborate rather than compete with each other inside and outside class? And did they know that it would make the whole community respect one another’s ideas and become a safer place to learn and live? (Duke TIP Digest of Gifted Research)

Our broadcast discussion on 12/20/2012 touched on a description of the social and psychological challenges inherent in being smart. We have arrived in the era where fostering a new urban value system that embraces exceptional school performance requires us to confront the hard issues arising from the definition of what it means to be ‘cool’ or acceptable within the social peer group. Is it safe to be smart in the African American community? Do we value learning to the same degree as our peers in other groups? Are we really cognizant of how lack of education plays into limited life choices later on? Who gets to start this dialogue and what are the potential pitfalls? Do we have the courage to ask the questions, and will God help us face the answers?

IMG_1510momface

Advertisements

Fleeing from a Truth Too Deep

My ex-husband and I once had the occasion to rush our then four-year old to the emergency room for treatment of a deep gash in his forehead. Although the wound was cavernous, and watching the technician place the stitches was practically un bearable, an abomination of another kind occurred while at the hospital.

Since the accident happened so quickly, and we were terrified that the injury could have resulted in long-term residuals, we scooped our son up and rushed him to the emergency room. In doing so, obviously neither my ex or I took time to put on ‘the Costume.’

You know…the makeup, suit, heels and hair that supposedly mark our membership in the professional ranks and make us immune from the disses, slights and insults tossed our way like so many chewed bits of gum. All in my mind, you say? Let me recount the story and you be the judge.

As we arrived at the hospital holding bloody towel to the forehead of a limp toddler, an emergency worker yelled at us to enter through another door: “This entrance is for emergency personnel only!!” He bellowed. In my natural plus-size lawyer Barbie mode, I’d have taken him out in one breath, given that I’m not one to back away from anyone’s mistreatment. In my fear, however, I just ran down the walkway and went through the other door.

Once inside, given the circumstances, the usual triage protocol was expedited, and my son was immediately taken to an emergency bed. That should have been the end of the story, but that’s where the real atrocity began.

The emergency room physician introduced himself and the suture technician. I found his relatively matter-of-fact demeanor reassuring.

As he described the procedure to close the wound and the lack of findings on the x-ray, I felt more comfortable that my beautiful baby boy would not be physiologically impaired or horribly scarred by his accident. When he asked if we had questions, I asked: “Will the wound granulate up from the muscle tissue, or will it close from the skin down?”. He looked at me, took a breath, and asked: “How do YOU know that word?”

I explained that I was a medical malpractice attorney at one time, and that I spent many years working as a disability attorney. He then launched into a lecture about how they disliked treating the children of attorneys, and how hard trial attorneys made it for them. I stayed nice and calm, and explained that I was only there in my capacity as a Mom.

I understand that the average urban hospital ER physician meets dozens and dozens of people who may have little or no exposure to medical terms or concepts, and that with curlers, dirty t shirt and shorts, I surely wasn’t wearing the usual symbols of my profession.

That said, what would have happened if I’d taken offense at his question, instead of internalizing the pain that it caused? What was the implication to be taken from his question? That someone who looks like me is so inherently ignorant that I should be patently unable to comprehend anything he had to say? Was I rendered unworthy of a straight answer because I hadn’t had time to put on the ‘face’ that morning? The little indignities that we hurl at one another all add up to a monstrous truth: We make assumptions about each other based on superficial factors, then back up those assumptions with hurtful or harmful actions. Because America’s social hierarchy still clings to the value system that places people of African descent at the bottom, we continually inflict harm or suffer. When will it stop? When can people connect to each other spiritually without regard to race or class? I have no answer, and since this is not a polemic challenge to the system we live in, I’m posing these questions simply because our survival as a species depends on our ability to take stock of our collective pain, get past these issues, and develop more compassionate, loving ways of dealing with each other.

Playing in the Schooltime of Others

A typical day in the life of an American toddler might include a trip to the playground, some television, snack time and perhaps a play date with a friend. With a few inexpensive additions to the normal routine, a youngster’s pre-school experience could be transformed from mundane to spectacular. A field trip to the museums, or a day at a petting farm are just two of the many exciting adventures that might spark a child’s imagination and eventually make an enormous difference in his or her performance in school and on standardized tests.

Very young children learn best when exposed to information that is visual or tactile in nature, that is, if a 2 year old can feel a bunny’s fur or hear a donkey braying, he is likely to recall those events, even unconsciously, when asked to make word associations on standardized tests. Observing the patterns in the veins of a leaf, or watching the legs of a caterpillar as it crawls, or listening to the chord progressions in a Bach melody are mathematical learning experiences more valuable than a thousand classroom hours could ever be.

When my oldest child was an infant, my law school professor suggested I try the Glenn Doman programs. “Teach Your Baby to Read”, and “Teach Your Baby Math” are effective strategies to introduce letters, words and numbers to young children, and we had lots of fun with them.

Aside from the educational value, the time that parents invest in their toddler’s early learning experiences will reap priceless psychological benefits. The emotional bonds developed between parent and child are the foundation for the child’s self concept. A healthy, well-adjusted sense of self is critical in the child’s later efforts to build positive relationships throughout life.

For parents, the seemingly childish act of laying face up on the grass to observe white clouds pass across the sky could be a profoundly relaxing departure from the challenges of the grown-up world. For a child whose parents took that time to spend with them, it could mean the world.

Book Review: War Anthem by Keith Andrew Perry

War AnthemWar Anthem by Keith Andrew Perry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War Anthem, A Review

From the evocative use of language to the stirring plot, this novel provides an insightful analysis of human behavior and politics.

The rich emotional life of the main character, Jason Diggs, is the backdrop for a description of historical events few have known of before now. From the rise of Washington, D.C.’s Black intellectual class to the development and implementation of DC Home Rule, the writer, Washington, DC lawyer Keith Perry, chronicles the dazzling changes which occurred in Washington from the late 1950’s to the present time.

War Anthem takes an unblinking look at the superficial value systems and shortcomings of the Black middle class, much like E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie. However, Mr. Perry also makes a largely positive and optimistic critical analysis of the way in which unique challenges and opportunities were confronted by Black Washingtonians.

Many DC political figures will recognize themselves on the pages of War Anthem. From the late Dave Clark and Walter Washington to Marion Barry, the personalities and behavior patterns of well-known individuals are clearly described. Without exception the writer treats individuals characters with respect and kind detachment.

Like all good literature, War Anthem tells more than one story. This book is a beautifully-written memoir about coming of age in Washington, D.C. as a fully conscious, self-aware Black male who understands the leadership responsibilities placed on gifted individuals.

“I understood how death changes both the future and our understanding of the past.

Gray images flashed before me of mother’s heroism during her illness and I considered the vacuum she was leaving behind. Had I been a weaker man, I might have passed through this time immune to my suffering, spurred by some grief induced amnesia; but like my mother, it was my privilege to consciously endure.”

Mr. Perry amplifies many archetypal themes in War Anthem, and in so doing provides a great service for us all. His achievement in this book is that he has woven a magnificent human tale regarding rites of passage and manhood with a story of political intrigue and municipal history. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I most assuredly recommend it as a piece of literature which I suspect will soon be required reading for young men matriculating through colleges all over the world.

Julianne Robertson King

When Disrespect is the Status Quo

I admit it, I’m fascinated by the national celebrity status recently conferred on DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. With the powerful Oprah Winfrey media machine and the blessing of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, she appears headed for an illustrious career as the national poster girl for educational reform.

There’s only one problem:

The objectively quantifiable data shows that her efforts have hurt student progress in District of Columbia Public Schools.

Math Proficiency Scores:

-14 schools are worse off in 2010 than in 2007 with declines as high as 25% and an average of 8%
-41 schools are worse off in 2010 than in 2008, with declines as high as 35% and an average of 11%
-61 schools (52% of all schools) are worse off in 2010 than in 2009, with declines as high as 30% and an average of 10%

Reading Proficiency Scores:

-40 schools are worse off in 2010 than in 2007, with declines as high as 45% and an average of 6%
-58 schools are worse off in 2010 than in 2008, with declines as high as 36% and an average if 9%
-66 schools (56% of all schools) are worse off in 2010 than in 2009, with declines as high as 41% and an average of 9%

(source withheld)

Other performance facts:

-AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) under Leave no Child Behind, results for DCPS: 10 schools achieved AYP in 2010 a 70% decrease from 2009, when 34 achieved AYP.

-The achievement gap between White and African-American 4th grade students for Math has increased to a 58 point gap in 2009 from a 53 point gap in 2007.

-DCPS tested 14% fewer African-America children in 2009 indicating that many African-American families are leaving DCPS for charter or private schools.

-Since 2007 DC School construction shows favoritism toward Wards 2 and 3, where outlays average between $118 and $152 per sq. ft. compared to Wards 7 and 8 where expenditures drop between $40 and $54 per sq. ft.

(source withheld)

The truth is that systemic educational reform is holistic in nature. The history, economic development, and social structure of the student population has to be accommodated before lasting change occurs.

Positive educational outcomes for all children require analysis of the learning styles, and teaching strategies that work best for each demographic group. I strongly urge that educators study a focus group created by DCPS in the 1970’s called The Innovation Team, which was formed to study the challenges and opportunities specific to Urban education.

Washington, D.C. was decimated by the crack and gun wars of the 1980’s and 90’s, and some of those lost were among our most vibrant, creative and intellectually curious. Domestic and educational policy of the Reagan Bush years has had the effect of stifling the momentum of the 1970’s as related to Black consciousness and upward mobility. The collective psychological development of the Black community is diminished as a result. The children we see in the classroom today are essentially postwar survivors, yet we haven’t developed a plan that faces that excruciating truth. The sick joke is to send Rhee here, to insult and demean and blame our community for failing to effectively protect our young people.

If Oprah cares, and I believe she might, if properly informed, she needs to focus, not on personalities and style and money, but on history. Refugee and post-war children around the world have to be nurtured in a very focused way to be returned to their natural brilliance.

A Sheep in Lion’s Clothing

When news of the Eddie Long scandal broke, people didn’t want to believe that he was guilty. He may not be guilty. The events leading up to this scandal, however, are reminiscent of horrific stories coming forth from Catholic congregations for decades. No one wanted to challenge the power structure or question the behavior of the seemingly Godly men in whom they placed their trust. Now the Catholic Church is paying billions of dollars in damages because the population failed to take precautions and speak out against sexual abuse of children. To be sure, someone within the New Birth congregation had an inkling, a feeling that something was amiss in their pastor’s behavior toward boys and young men.

Now, incredibly, people are postulating that this crisis should spur new dialogue regarding homophobia in the Black community. To be sure, that is a critical piece in the healing and reconciliation that has to occur among segments of the African-American community. Would Eddie Long have been as successful in the ministry as he was if he had been openly gay? Is it unrealistic to place the expectation of genuine moral purity on powerful men? Do their words mean less if we find them to have fallen from Biblical precepts? These are important questions.

However, the conversation regarding sexual orientation should take a back seat to the conversation about protecting our children from sexual predators.

Future generations of African American people will ponder the way we handle this current crisis in the Church. There are other sexual scandals brewing in several Black mega churches in the U.S., and whether they are quietly settled or brought to the public by the media, we all have to confront the inconsistencies between what we say we are and what we really are.

This situation calls for more than prayer. Someone has to speak for our children. Do we cherish our children enough to put their safety above the need to idolize men like Eddie Long?

Mirror, Mirror

The Evil Queen

The queen stepped before her mirror:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

The mirror answered:

You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But Little Snow-White with the seven dwarfs
Is a thousand times fairer than you.

When the queen heard this, she shook and trembled with anger, “Snow-White will die, if it costs me my life!”

Standing apart from the widely-accepted archetype of the female as life giver, care-taker, and warm nurturer, is the seemingly aberrant character of the Evil Queen. She crops up in folklore and fantasy literature as the arch nemesis of the likes of Snow White and Cinderella (that’s the evil stepmother upgrade.) Her jealousy, her spiteful and bitterly vindictive nature, and her apparently Godless lack of compassion or empathy are legendary. As villains go, the Evil Queen presents a disarming conundrum since she is usually endowed with physical beauty.

..and as we all know, beautiful people are always good. Right?

In our admiration of the beautiful, do we tend to lower the behavioral standards and norms the rest of us have to follow? Conversely, how accurate or fair is the stereotype of the beautiful, but superficial person who is consumed by ego-dictated goals and desires? Perhaps the Evil Queen and Snow White are two halves of the same whole. Maybe their extremes of character are posed in a manner that allows the reader to reflect on the idea that true beauty lies somewhere deep beyond the formation of cheekbones and eyelids and lips. Maybe real beauty is all about someone’s heart and soul.

Proverb. First found in a work by Sir Thomas Overbury’s, 1613:

“All the carnall beauty of my wife, Is but skin deep.”

In Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters author John Steptoe describes similarly polarized opposites. Manyara and Nyasha are both dazzlingly beautiful, but one is compassionate and sweet while the other is ambitious, cruel and spiteful. They are both sent to see the king as he prepares to chose a wife who is the most worthy and beautiful young woman in the kingdom. Since Manyara and Nyasha share the same upbringing, parents and life experiences, the differences in their character and personality must be the result of deeper, inborn traits. These traits are exposed as they endure the journey to the palace, and the king chooses the daughter who is beautiful both inside and out.

The story raises the twin questions of the nature of worth, and its relation to beauty. In the story, the King desires ‘The Most Worthy and Beautiful’ daughters in the land. What does it mean to be worthy, and must one be beautiful in order to be worthy? If not, why does the King have this added request for beauty? Would he reject a worthy queen who was not beautiful, or a beautiful queen who was not worthy? Which is better, and what do you think? http://www.teachingchildrenphilosophy.org/wiki/Mufaro%27s_Beautiful_Daughters#Questions_for_Philosophical_Discussion

For me, American society’s fascination with external appearance and body consciousness is as destructive a force in our collective psyche as any mass hallucination to ever take hold on a people. The questions of who is beautiful and who gets to decide is a never ending fairy-tale that drives sales in cosmetics, hair care, jewelry, advertising and a dozen other sectors of the economy. The deeper, more fascinating inquiry is in the nature of a personal individual quest: If my spirit shines brightly enough to overshadow any physical flaw or imperfection, how could it matter?

Praising the Baby Genius

Mommy, where’s my vertebrae?”

I actually looked around the room to see who spoke those words.  There just had to be a ventriloquist with a tiny little voice somewhere under the bed.   No part of my mind could grasp the idea that my 18 month old daughter just asked:  “Mommy, where’s my vertebrae?”  The words were so clear, and the concept so fully formed, it was obvious to me she’d been able to think in highly developed terms for a while.  She’d just waited until I could handle it.

I didn’t answer.  Maybe if I pretended not to hear, she’d pretend to be a ‘normal’ baby-girl and we could fake it until…  “MOMMY, Where’s my VERTEBRAE?”  “Justine, where did you learn that word?”  I asked.  “I heard it on tv.”  “Oh.  Your vertebra are in your back.”  I playfully rolled her onto her side and tickled her spine to emphasize the location of each vertebra.  Although she laughed,  the balance of power in our relationship changed right then and there.  By demanding instruction so early in life, she challenged us to provide intellectually stimulating experiences on a consistent basis. 

My older child, 22 months her senior, is also gifted.  His ability to sculpt objects from any material stopped many a bystander  when he was a tiny boy, and his eye for form, color and movement allowed him to distinguish the work of Lautrec from that of Degas, or Monet or Vincent VanGoh by age 7.  He could sight read and identify the continents and planets in the solar system by age 4.  Growing up in Washington, D.C. allowed me to spend countless hours in the free museums, and eventually take my kids there too. 

Part of the joy of motherhood has been watching my babies grow into very interesting people.  Sometimes I wonder if I did enough for them.  Other times I feel that I sheltered and fussed over them too much.  At times I wonder if creating a deep well of knowledge for them set them apart from others in a bad way.  After all, I too had been that kid in the ‘hood who always had their hand up in class, and who “tried to talk white.”  Sigh…

As for Justine, she began to max out in the public school system, getting all As and occasionally rankling teachers who themselves did not have perfect recall or full mastery of a particular subject.  To honor our commitment to her, we enrolled her into a private college preparatory academy.  She performed well and she’s a now a college student.

The pain of being ridiculed by classmates has faded for me, but my son had to hide his intellect for years in order to fit in with his friends.  When Justine went to a private high school, her old classmates all dropped her friendship, and the mothers and some school faculty gave me such a hard time.  When did a high IQ disqualify someone from being ‘down?’  What rule said you can’t have a challenging school experience and still have ‘flavor?’ 

The achievement gap between  urban schools and suburban schools is alarming, and parents should not be forced to resort to private school education in order to find a challenging curriculum for their children.  Instead of improving schools, Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative created new nationwide graduation requirements without funding for instructional support.  In that context, the requirements have become penalities that may prevent scores of children from receiving diplomas.  We must push the new administration to reverse this trend immediately, and whether Barack Obama wins the election on Tuesday or not, his education and achievement, and that of his wife must serve as an inspiration to us to push our babies to succeed.