Improving academic performance

Written by  //  November 11, 2007  //  Education  //  Comments Off on Improving academic performance

We applaud the ideas in this column and hope that our own Wednesday Night School Commissioner and her colleagues will read and think about the recommended approach for all kids – can we call it “benign streaming”? Westmount High, thanks to a dedicated principal, teachers and parents, looks to us like a good example – why can’t there be more?

November 08
Africentric academic dilemma
Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail
My black acquaintances are right. It’s time to experiment with black-focused schools. Whatever it is we’re doing now, it doesn’t work. In Toronto, four in 10 black kids drop out of high school, and the news is even worse for boys. If there’s any way to save these kids from failure, we should find it.
Judging by our neighbours to the south – who’ve been wrestling with this problem for a quarter of a century – there are ways to make a difference. The trouble is, you won’t hear about them from most of the people who are demanding black-focused schools. Many of these people – educators, academics and parents, along with Toronto’s school board – seem to think the best way to help black kids read and write and stay in school is to celebrate their racial identity. Somehow, the students will be empowered by the knowledge that Picasso was inspired by African masks, or by math lessons based on the patterns of kente cloth. (These are real examples from “Africentric” courses now offered by the school board.)
Will this approach work? No. American schools have been recruiting black teachers and celebrating Black History Month for decades, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the impact on black achievement has been zilch.
So what does work? Here are a couple of suggestive snapshots. The state of Maryland doesn’t have “black-focused” schools, but plenty of its schools are mostly black. Test scores have improved dramatically among minority kids. Seventy per cent of black kids in Grades 3 to 5 are now passing the state achievement tests – up from less than 50 per cent a few years ago. Why? Because everyone is focused on performance. At one school, the students are grouped by reading and math ability for more than half the day. This controversial practice, which used to be called “streaming” or “tracking,” has long been viewed as evil. Today, it’s known as “performance-based grouping.” The school monitors the progress of every single student. Struggling ones get extra instruction, and are promoted to more challenging work as their skills improve.
In the U.S., charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate far more flexibly, are experimenting in ways that regular schools cannot. In California, two idealistic young teachers set up a charter high school for failing kids. The kids happened to be Hispanic but, in all other ways, fit the profile of minority no-hopers. Most had D’s and F’s in middle school. They came from homes where the TV was blaring all day, and nobody ever read a book or had a conversation. Audaciously, they named their school Downtown College Prep.
At first, the teachers assumed the problem was motivation, not academics. But they soon discovered that many of the kids could barely read or write. So they set up a skills boot camp and put in a structured curriculum. They focused on discipline, hard work, an atmosphere of community, and parental involvement. The school had small classes and long days. The teachers were highly self-critical and quick to change tack when things didn’t work. By 2005, Downtown College Prep had sent all the graduates from its first two classes to four-year colleges. It now ranks among the top third of public high schools in the state. (A terrific book, Our School, recounts the gritty blow-by-blow.)
There’s a common denominator to these stories: Strong leadership. Committed teachers. A commitment to finding out what works, not race politics or ideology. And an organizational culture that’s relentlessly focused on instruction, data and results.
Toronto’s public schools provide almost none of this. Perhaps black-focused schools – with a genuine focus on success – will eventually find the way. Let’s just learn a lesson from the people who’ve been down this road. The kids need pragmatism, not kente cloth.

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