After game-changing research conducted by TNTP where they produced informative reports like the Opportunity Myth, we see evidence that Black and Brown students are getting limited access (if access at all) to grade-level content. It also verified that students are not being prepared for college, which we have known for some time and are reiterated with studies out of East Carolina University (2018) and Western Michigan University (2021). The Opportunity Myth showed that over 80% of the teachers believed in the Common Core Standards but less than 50% of teachers actually teach grade-level standards to all students. So why don’t they put grade-level content in front of students? Based on my own experience, it’s because it’s tremendously difficult.
As a principal in East Harlem, we had students performing 2-5 grade levels below their assigned grade level. As a school, we decided to figure out how to teach grade-level content to all of our students regardless of their current academic performance. Why? Because that’s what our students deserved. They deserved to have the best education possible. We had faith in the common core and so we knew we had to teach those standards to our students. Without the commitment to teaching college and career standards, we could not problem-solve on how to make it engaging for students. We could not develop strategies to give students access to those standards. Without a goal to aspire to or accepting the challenge, there is no solution-seeking. There is only finger-pointing, avoidance, and complaining. Nothing gets done those are filling your conversations.
As the leader of the school, I pushed for professional learning so the teachers could figure out how to teach grade-level standards to students who were not yet able to read at grade level or had gaps we needed to fill in their learning to grasp grade-level standards. I discovered teachers needed time and guidance on how to break down those standards, get clear on what it meant to meet a standard, and how they could best teach those standards without dumbing down the content. They needed a safe place to try out strategies, experiment, and explore strategies to put in front of students. It had to be a safe place for them to say, “That didn’t work. Let’s try something else” because this work was messy. Trying to be perfect was only going to perpetuate a fixed mindset, artificial practices, and an environment that blamed children.
Finally, we had to identify the best way to measure whether our strategies worked and whether or not they were able to retain those standards for the long-term. We used data to inform our teaching practices. We would first look at whether the students met the standard and then explore how we could adjust our instruction based on the misconceptions of our students. Sometimes we used one open-ended question to see specifically what kids were not understanding. We looked at data collections as opportunities to fine-tune our craft of teaching and make it engaging for students. As Gloria Ladson-Billings called it, “the art of teaching.”
In the end, teachers must commit to teaching grade-level content so the problem-solving can begin. Leaders need to provide time, space, and data to ensure that teachers learn how to problem solve, learn from their colleagues in problem-solving, and monitor the strategies outputted from their problem-solving. So accept the challenge and start finding the solution. Yeah, it’s hard work but it doesn’t have to be as hard when you have a team of people with you trying to figure it out.