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Will New Teaching Standards Lift Achievement Levels for Minorities?

New America Media, Question & Answer By George White

Ed. Note: To date,  45 states this year are beginning to implement the new Common Core States Standards for instruction of English-language arts and math. The new standards are designed to revamp the way schools instruct and assess their students, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving. Many wonder if school districts and teachers are prepared to create lesson plans for these more rigorous standards. There is also a debate over whether the new teaching standards will lift or lower achievement levels at schools in low-income communities of color. Teacher preparedness and black student achievement were subjects that Lisa Delpit, a professor at Southern University and A&M College, explored in her best-selling 2006 book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. In her 2013 book “Multiplication is for White People,” a title based on a comment by a black child, Delpit discusses the need for instruction that engages students and promotes critical thinking and high expectations – curricula with more studies related to Africa and African Americans among them. Delpit says that objective can be reached under Common Core and that the new standards can benefit black students – but only if teachers are given the training and freedom to address the needs of underperforming students. Delpit, who has helped organize independent assessments of education needs in New Orleans, spoke with NAM’s George White.

You’ve talked about the need for better professional development for public school teachers. Generally speaking, why is there a need for training?

Everyone needs better professional development. In schools, training is often hit and run. Someone gives a presentation and there’s no follow-up.

Please comment on the teacher preparedness requirements necessary to address the needs of students in schools in poorer black communities in New Orleans and nationwide.

Teachers in low-income communities of color need to learn to recognize that these students are inherently brilliant. They need to learn how to build relationships with these students and they need to know the local culture – particularly in New Orleans.

Also, teachers in New Orleans need to understand the lingering effects of trauma from Hurricane Katrina. If a student doesn’t suffer trauma, the parents may be traumatized or some of the student’s classmates may have trauma.

In addition, some teachers need to learn how to improve their reading instruction. Generally, teachers are prepared to teach reading in the lower grades but many teachers need to be more prepared to teach reading in the higher grades because many students are behind and need additional instruction.

The Louisiana Department of Education decided not to create a centralized Common Core curriculum for the state’s school districts. This means that school districts and/or teachers will have to create their own Common Core lesson plans. What are the ramifications, opportunities and/or dangers as it relates to teacher preparedness under these circumstances?

Teachers don’t have enough time prepare curricula for the new standards. To prepare for this, teachers should have been paid to work summer [2013] months to learn how to unpack and present each standard in the classroom. That hasn’t been done in Louisiana.

Initially, there were expectations that, under Common Core, teachers would develop approaches to teaching the new standards and post that information on websites and share best practices. That hasn’t happened because everything has been rushed. There was a potential benefit of teacher collaboration; but that has not happened.

As you see them, what are some of the specific examples of the challenges facing teachers regarding the implementation of Common Core – nationally and locally?

The student assessment tests [based on Common Core] haven’t been created yet and those test scores will determine whether teachers will keep their jobs locally and nationally. Without information on testing, teachers don’t know how they will be evaluated – and that’s a problem.

Under initial proposals for Common Core, the new standards were to be introduced only to Kindergarten and First Grade students and the standards would have continued to apply only to those students. However, the decision was made to apply the standards in classrooms for all grades. Older students will have difficulty because they haven’t learned the new standard’s expectations. This will, for example, create a real challenge for those having difficulty with math. We need plans to help students who are behind academically.

Charter schools are a very large percentage of the New Orleans public school district. They have more freedom in staffing and curriculum development. What are your hopes and fears regarding charter school transition to Common Core?

I’m assuming they are taking a look at the new standards. The problem is that there is no central authority regulating charter schools. We don’t know how they will adapt generally because some charter organizations have one school and others operate a group of schools.

You’ve said new standards won’t matter unless teachers build relationships with students. Should there be training in culturally responsive teaching along with Common Core training?

Yes. However, the culturally sensitive training needs to be imbedded in the Common Core training. Under Common Core, teachers have more flexibility in what texts they use and what writing assignments they give. If teachers provide more culturally relevant instruction in the classroom, that will help them build closer relationships with students. That’s important because students don’t just learn from a teacher, they learn for a teacher.

You’ve been critical of the New Orleans’ school district’s heavy reliance on Teach for America (TFA), saying that the corps of teachers are young, inexperienced and that many don’t stay in the profession. TFA says it’s providing some Common Core training. Generally, do you think there will be any difference in how well TFA-placed teachers adapt to Common Core? 

My experience is that younger teachers will have an easier time adopting the new standards because they are not as wedded to previous standards or they do not have anything to compare to Common Core. They may understand it but I don’t know how well they will teach under the new standards.

The problem is that many don’t appreciate the teacher-student relationship component and many don’t understand the community engagement component. Some are successful and remain in teaching. However, many who are successful leave the profession and those who are not successful early on also leave. I’d like to see it reorganized so that applicants can’t into take part in TFA programs unless they make a commitment to stay in the profession.

Can Common Core help students of color from low-income communities close the achievement gap? If so, how can school districts prepare to make it so?

I think the new standards can be an improvement for low-income students because many have been given boring didactic instruction and have been asked to learn by rote. However, the problem is that many students are behind academically.

Many teachers complain they are having trouble getting some students to read one text. Under Common Core, teachers will be assigning more texts and some teachers fear students will give up. If you don’t use texts that are based on students’ academic levels, you can’t expand their capacity to learn and that means there will an increase in the achievement gap. If teachers, university professors and education researchers develop plans to help those who have fallen behind, they can help prepare more African-Americans for college-level studies. Standards are important but curriculum is the key.

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