Emma’s Tale

Guest post by Donna Wake

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, University of Central Arkansas

I was recently invited to speak as part of a panel at a conference on “bridging the achievement gap.”  In the lead up to the conference, I prepared by doing some reading and updating my knowledge of the research. Bridging the achievement gap, after all, feels like an admirable goal. Who doesn’t want to help kids to bridge the gap? It sounds almost as good as no child left behind, right?

But the more I thought about bridging the gap, and the more I read, the more unsettled I began to feel. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. Not until the day of the conference when my feelings of unease coalesced around an impromptu story I shared in response to a question asked. This is Emma’s story.

Emma is 8 years old. Her mother and I have been friends for many years now. Emma is in the 3rd grade in a large elementary school (name of state withheld). This is her fourth school. Her father is in the military and has served 2 tours in Iraq and 1 tour in Afghanistan since Emma’s birth. She’s moved across two states and multiple classrooms in her short academic career. She’s a tough kid with some great skills. She’s sensitive. She’s thoughtful. She’s reflective. She’s empathetic. She’s a rule follower. She loves to read and write. And she’s smart.

Emma was tested for the gifted program in Kindergarten at the request of her teacher. She was placed in the gifted class for first grade. She lost her status when the family moved schools in 2nd grade. I think it is important to note that Emma’s parents were not asked for input in this process at any point.

This year, in her newest school, Emma was tested again for the gifted program at the request of her teachers. I would like to say from the outset that I was opposed to this. Not for Emma’s sake, but because I have a philosophical and pragmatic problem with the idea of “gifted” in our school settings. Put simply, I think all kids should have access to “gifted” curriculum and resources. I also think that kids who receive the “gifted” label may be prone to developing a sense of superiority and entitlement. Be that as it may, Emma was tested. Her parents were ok with this decision because they liked the instructional style of the GT classroom and felt it was more inquiry and project based allowing for exploration and problem solving.

Pic_4Unfortunately, Emma did not make the cut.

In this school district, kids qualify for the gifted program by meeting a set cut-off score on TWO tests. One test measures verbal-linguistic skills. The other test measures visual-spatial abilities. Emma did not make the minimum required score on the second, visual-spatial test. She did well, but not well enough to be labeled as “gifted.”

The school made the decision to place Emma (and other students who did not score quite well enough) in the gifted classroom with the “gifted” kids. So for the entire academic year, Emma was in a room where half of the kids were coded as “gifted” and the other half were kids who were, well, almost “gifted.”

Of course, the kids know the lay of the land. They always do. You can call groups whatever you wish – red/blue, robin/eagle, tiger/chipmunk – the kids know. In this room, they actually knew they were either “gifted” or “not gifted.” So Emma’s already fragile sense of self-worth was challenged.

The issues accelerated in the last 8 weeks of the school year, after the end of testing. Emma’s teacher decided that the “gifted” kids in the room would undertake an elaborate enrichment project. They started by visiting a local news room and watching the production of a news show. I should mention that only the “gifted” kids got to go on this field trip. The other half of the class stayed at school. The “gifted” kids continued the project in the classroom by scripting and creating their own news production. Kids did research. Kids wrote stories. Kids blocked scenes. Kids shot and edited digital footage.

This sounds like an awesome project, right? But remember, this project was just for the “gifted kids.” What did Emma and the other less-gifted kids do during this 8-week project? They watched. And they worked on math worksheets. All day. Every day. Worksheets.

Now, I have no idea why the teacher of this classroom chose to segregate her curriculum the way she did. Maybe there were legal reasons. Maybe there were pragmatic reasons. Maybe there were financial reasons. I have no idea, and I really am not trying to vilify her in writing this account. I’ve never even met her. Which at this point is probably a good thing. But to me, a 20 year veteran of classrooms, this made no sense to me at all. Why on earth would someone choose to treat students so differently and inequitably? Couldn’t anyone see the impact this would have on the students in the room? And indeed. The impact was inevitable.

Imagine my frustration when Emma very carefully explained to me that she was “dumb.”

I was flabbergasted. How could this bright, beautiful young woman possibly feel she was dumb? She is a voracious reader and writer. Her past academic record and experiences are good. She is not a perfect kid, and certainly she has areas of strength and weakness, but Emma is not dumb.

Shelving my anger for a minute, I began to ask Emma some very open-ended questions. She was more than happy to explain. She felt dumb because she didn’t get to do “that TV project” the other kids were doing. After all, Kay-lee who acts like she knows it all must because she gets to be on camera for that TV project. Emma knows she’s not good at math, because they keep making her do math worksheets, and why would she have to do that if she wasn’t dumb, particularly at math? It went on and on. Her logic was impeccable.

I left Emma’s house that night feeling frustrated, disgusted, and outright angry. Beyond Emma’s story is the fact this isn’t an isolated incident. I am well into my 2nd decade in a profession that I love, but it is a profession that continues to astound and disappoint me. The decision this teacher made and its impact on Emma’s mental and emotional state continued to haunt me in the weeks and months following my visit. At the end of the year Emma requested to not be placed in the gifted room next year. Really, who could blame her?

So what did this have to do with my panel and “bridging the achievement gap”? On the surface this appears to be an unrelated story. I mean, really, Emma missed the “gifted” cut-off by a few points. We have little to complain about in Emma’s story compared to those kids who are segregated from good instruction for far more egregious reasons.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s all the same broken system. It just seems to me that in the system, we come up with ways to “label” kids. On the surface, these labels do not seem bad. After all, they help us try to figure out how to sort and categorize kids so that we can serve them and somehow match our meager resources to meet their needs. So we assign them a “tag” – gifted, basic, low SES, ELL, on the bottom side of the “achievement gap.”

Only these labels, they backfire on us. The unintended consequence is that we do treat kids differently, in ways that are noticeable (by the kids!), and in ways that are not aligned with best practices or common sense. Labels create a hidden curriculum that tells kids their worth to us and to the larger world. In fact, when these labels are present, common sense appears to fly out the window. Indeed, in the case of Emma’s classroom, common sense may have shattered the window as it left the building.

We appear to base labels on a very narrow set of criteria, often created by non-educators. In terms of those “basic” kids on the bottom side of the gap, those criteria include their abilities in literacy and mathematics. But what about all of the other skills and attributes we value in our kids? Ourselves? Our culture? What about content areas like the arts, like sports, like interpersonal and intrapersonal skills? What about those more content-based-but-somehow-less-valuable areas like social studies and science? Do these not “count” in our current system? Are they truly relegated to the sidelines as electives or not important? Yet many adults I know would contend these areas are more important in the context of the real world quality of life experiences.

Please believe me, I am not discounting literacy and mathematics. I am a literacy teacher. I think it is important that kids work and grow in these content areas. However, even these content areas are very narrowly defined by standardized testing. On the standardized literacy and math tests, no kid will be ever asked to write creatively, to dream big, to make new worlds, to talk about citizenship, to discover, or to problem solve. Yet we label them based on a few random days’ work in April on skewed ideas of what we should measure and what we should consider as important in defining our children.

Even more horrifying, labels are used to vilify teachers and the teaching profession. Listen, I am all for accountability. I have seen my share of poor teachers who needed to be removed from the profession. On the other hand, I cannot think it justifiable to hold a teacher of any ilk to a narrowly-defined standard that may be unreasonable and unreachable. Any Kindergarten teacher knows that some of kids come to school already knowing how to read while the others come to school hungry, dirty, and without having had a good night’s rest.

Those hungry kids are the majority of learners on the bottom side of that achievement gap. And most teachers I know work hard to support those kids as they move through their school careers. Most teachers I know help their learners navigate a system that (to our learners and their families) is perplexing and mysterious, one that historically has not served them well. Most teachers I know try to find the strategies and approaches and methods that work to best serve these students.

But let’s face reality, the problems in our society are a lot bigger than can be fixed by one teacher, one district, or even one education “system.” We aren’t talking about an achievement gap; we are talking about an equity gap and an opportunity gap. To fix this, something larger must happen in our culture first. And until it does, there will continue to be an “achievement gap” and worse yet, people who believe they can magically close such a gap through more tests.

So here is my message to Emma’s third grade teacher. Let’s start using some common sense with our kids. Let’s find our voices. Let’s advocate for ourselves and for our kids. Let’s dispose of our fear of rocking the boat. Let’s teach based on the relationships we build with our students. Let’s teach things like empathy and creativity and passion and inquiry. Let’s stop labeling kids based on narrowly defined constructs. Let’s see the whole child and all the gifts they bring to our classrooms. Let’s do what we know is right by working with each of our kids, where they are, who they are, and by giving them what they need to the best of our ability.

All the kids. Not just half the room.

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