Turn on the news and listen to the state of America’s educational system. Chances are, the stories you hear will be bleak.
- Even though the economy is doing relatively well, school spending is down – 34 states are contributing less per student than they contributed 10 years ago (Lynch, 2017).
- According to U.S. Census Statistics, 38 percent of high school dropouts come from households that fall below the poverty line (Lynch, 2017).
- In 2015, American 15-year-olds ranked 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in (Geiger, 2018).
- Students’ reading skills can vary depending on where they attend school. Rural and urban kindergartners have similar reading achievement levels, while suburban students have higher achievement levels. This difference follows students through elementary and middle school in both reading and math (Lavalley, 2018).
- 37% Black and 31% Hispanic children under the age of 18 are living in poverty, compared to 12% of white children (National Center for Educational Statistics).
- Over half of black male students who attend urban high schools do not graduate. Known as the School to Prison Pipeline, nearly 60% of those dropouts will go to prison at some point in their lives (Lynch, 2016).
The educational system in America appears to be broken and it suggests that today’s schools are in trouble. Many of these findings stem from or are largely complicated by social justice issues, such as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, just to name a few. Looking at these grim statistics, one would think all is lost. But there are success stories in classrooms all across America that show promise and hope:
- Esperanza Elementary, located in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has many challenges. Almost all of its students (close to 90%) qualify for free or reduced lunch. 75% of its students are at risk for eventually dropping out of school. And the majority of its students (more than 80%) are labelled ELL, with Spanish being their primary language. With achievement test scores slipping, newly appointed principal, Emily Morales, knew things had to change. As a professional development opportunity, she took her teachers on a “Neighborhood Bus Tour” to their students’ neighborhoods. Teachers had the opportunity to meet with parents and students during the tour. This experience started a line of communication to open up between teachers and parents. It also gave teachers insight into the lives of their students and better appreciation for the hardships many of them endure. (Rodriguez, 2012)
- Crellin Elementary, a coal-mining town located in Oakland, Maryland, is a Title 1 school. Its students come from families that struggle with deep poverty similar to its neighbors in the Appalachia region. The school’s success lies with its place based learning curriculum. This approach brings the community into the school. Local community members share their knowledge and expertise and work with students on ongoing place-based thematic projects that span several subject areas. Teachers use its outdoor Environmental Education Laboratory to study habitats such as wetlands, forests and ponds. Teachers also weave lessons involving science, reading, writing and even math at its Sunshine Farm. (Lavalley, 2018)
- At Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville, over 90% of its students receive free or reduced lunch. Almost all of the students have some sort of identifiable trauma that has affected their lives. Teachers use the practices and teaching methods associated with SEL or Social and Emotional Learning. The goal is to build and foster strong relationships between students and adults in the school. Central to its success, the school focuses on five core values that include grit, responsibility and putting others first. Consistency from class to class, high expectations, small group advisory meetings and conflict resolution are just a few practices that are working to close the achievement gap. (Berger, 2018)
- Located in the Bronx, The Brotherhood Sister Sol program (BHSS) offers support to Black and Latino youth in this economically disadvantaged community. Its emphasis is on morality and ethics. BHSS offers an after school and summer program, counseling, job training and college counseling. Most of their members graduate high school (85%) compared to only 24% in similar neighborhoods (Prager, 2011). The pregnancy rate of BHSS’ female students is below 2 percent while the teen pregnancy rate in Harlem is 15%. And in the 20 years since the group was founded, none of the BHSS’ students has been incarcerated. (BBHS website)
These stories point to the promise and hope of today’s and tomorrow’s education. The successes of these stories are because of many things: additional funding, new and innovative approaches, identifying the specific needs of their students, just to name a few. But to me, the one aspect that came up over and over while researching success stories was that of expectations. The school’s expectations of their students, as well as the expectations of its teachers. During the five weeks of the Social Justice section of this class, the one thing that has really hit home with me is the promise and hope of teacher expectations. I rediscovered this semester that the expectations that teachers have for their students can either positively or negatively affect a student, not only in school, but also in their personal lives. In the elementary years, a teacher might spend more clock hours with a student than that student spends with their own family. During that time, teachers have an amazing and awesome opportunity to have a great impact on that child’s life. Having high, positive and realistic expectations for a child, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic class can the set the course for that child’s success.
I’ve had a interesting teaching journey. I was very lucky in my early teaching career to have a group of very diverse students. Not only were there differences in race, my students also represented many ethnicities. I had a set of twins who were Sunni Muslim. I had a Sikh student who wore his turban to school every day. Also, since my school was 98% Hispanic, I was introduced to their culture as well. I learned a great deal from my students. I learned about the conflict between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. I learned that Sikh men never cut their hair – ever! I learned that mariachi music (several of my students were in the school’s mariachi band) is very popular with Hispanic youth (I would have thought it would have been more popular with the older crowd). I also learned that a very popular Hispanic breakfast dish is beef brains and eggs! I learned all these things because I was immersed in cultures that were very different than my own. I was able to see each of my students for who they were and to appreciate each one of them for who they were. My expectations for each of my students was the same, no matter their sex, their race or their ethnicity.
I’ve been a substitute teacher for the last seven years. This school year, I’m focusing on trying to bring this same mindset to each of the classrooms I visit. I’ve tried to be clear to students about my expectations – even writing them on the board. At the outset, students know what I expect of them and they know what to expect of me. I’ve noticed that when I walk into a classroom with high expectations, the day generally goes well. It’s not always perfect every time, but it’s been a good way to start the day. By focusing on high expectations for the students I teach, I would like to think that I’m making a small contribution to the promise and hope of tomorrow’s education. And at the end of the day, I hope that I’ve had a positive impact on at least one child’s life.
Kim Liebbe is a former high school science teacher. For six years, she taught at the High School of Medical Professions magnet program at NorthSide High School in Fort Worth, Texas. She was very fortunate to have had such an amazing and diverse group of students!
Photos from Kim’s Anatomy & Physiology & AP Biology classes (May 1996)
Berger, T. (2018, February 5). Closing the Achievement Gap with SEL. Edutopia (blog). Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/closing-achievement-gap-sel
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol website. Retrieved from: https://brotherhood-sistersol.org/
Geiger, A. (2018, September 7). 6 facts about America’s students. Pew Research Center (blog). Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/07/6-facts-about-americas-students/
National Center for Educational Statistics. (July 2017). Indicator 4: Children Living in Poverty. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rad.asp
Lavalley, M. (2018, January). Out of the Loop. Center for Public Education. Retrieved from: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/research/out-loop-rural-education-us
Lynch, M. (2017, April 3). 18 Reasons the U.S. Education System is Failing. The Edvocate (blog). Retrieved from: https://www.theedadvocate.org/10-reasons-the-u-s-education-system-is-failing/
Lynch, M. (2016, August 18). Black Boys in Crisis: The School-to-Prison Pipeline. Education Week (blog). Retrieved from: https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2016/08/black_boys_in_crisis_the_school-to-prison_pipeline.html?r=1747922987
Prager, K. (Fall, 2011). Positioning Young Black Boys for Educational Success. Policy Notes – News from the ETS Policy Information Center. Retrieved from: https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PIC-PNV19n3.pdf
Rodriguez, M. (April, 2012). “But They Just Can’t Do It”: Reconciling Teacher Expectations of Latino Students. The Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1555458912442605?journalCode=jela