The Lures of the Privileged

I wanted to weigh in on two recent articles about testing. As a current charter school principal, former Philadelphia School District teacher and principal, recent Principal Ambassador in the US Department of Education, and CEO of The Fellowship, a non-profit formed to support current and aspiring Black male educators, I believe that opponents to standardized testing are hell-bent on throwing out the baby with the bathwater in their attempts to lure Black parents to join their ill-advised movement.

Historically, Schools and Districts Lack Accountability

The baby in this case is basic accountability and transparency for schools and school systems to provide effective instruction to all their students, irrespective of race or socioeconomic status.  We know, historically, schools and districts have lacked accountability.  If we reject all objective measures of students’ academic performance, we will continue to be wed to America’s all-too-familiar avoidance of educational justice and equity.

The bathwater we need to send down the drain in this case is twofold:  first, the reliance of schools and districts on obsessive test prep with “drill and kill” regimens in the months immediately preceding testing rather than effective instruction all year long to ensure successful test performance; and, second, too often, schools cut their art, music, and recess to narrow the curriculum to only provide what is tested. Although, over-testing isn’t the only reason (lack of funding is another) that schools make this disastrous decision, it plays a significant part.

Throwing out yearly standardized testing altogether, rather than reforming its use, will simply encourage a lack of system accountability and even more deception about students’ academic performance. Too often in the past, schools hid Black children by omitting them from even taking the exams. The No Child Left Behind law’s requirement that 95% of students in tested grades must take yearly assessments was the exact antidote to hiding school’s failures to support all students. Now, affluent families are attempting to trick Black families into hiding their own children, much to the chagrin of many families, educators, and civil rights organizations and to the detriment of children.

privileged opponents of testing avoid recognizing that parents need an objective measure of their children’s performance

The mostly affluent and privileged opponents of standardized testing wholeheartedly want to avoid recognizing that parents of struggling students need an objective measure of their children’s performance, which report card grades frequently do not provide.  Just look at the gap between the graduation rates of urban neighborhood high schools and the percentage of their 11th graders performing advanced or proficient on standardized tests and you will get the point.  In too many urban districts, graduation is a function of accumulating weak credits, which are not based on any objective measures, so we continue to graduate tens of thousands of 12th graders every spring whose skills are well below even a 9th grade level. And, opponents of accountability are fine with this charade.

One of the popular arguments against standardized testing is that its results simply mirror the socioeconomic status of students. Having grown up in proximity to poverty, and as a former social worker, I do not need to be reminded of the struggles of making ends meet and keeping a roof over the family and food on the table.

students’ poverty is no excuse for school failure

But students’ poverty is no excuse for school failure, as proven decades ago by Ron Edmonds, an African American Harvard education professor who put his research into practice as Deputy Chancellor for Instruction in the New York City public schools by identifying the characteristics of schools that broke the correlation between students’ poverty and schools’ effectiveness. Civil Rights groups and responsible educators know that the constructive use of test results, particularly academic growth, can be very useful in pinpointing where more effective instruction and intervention is needed.

Just as importantly, we need to know how schools and districts are doing in closing achievement gaps. By not having a yearly exam to determine progress, we would leave it to states-most of which have dismal records in ensuring educational equity and excellence-to inform us how students are doing.

Effective schools serving oppressed communities refuse to use poverty as an excuse for low standards

One of the key reasons for the failure of so many schools serving low income students is that they contend with their own deficit mindsets and tend to blame families for pedestrian student achievement. The other key difference is that effective schools serving oppressed communities refuse to use poverty as an excuse for low standards. Effective schools don’t blame families for institutionalized racism and systemic oppression and isolation of neighborhoods. Schools that have high standards for the adults, determine how to support students who may enter their schools behind in academic and social skills Ineffective schools and educators blame those they signed up to teach.

Most of those who are opposed to charters have never spent a moment struggling with where to send their own children

In Philadelphia, where non-profit charter schools now educate approximately one-third of public school students, most of those who are ideologically opposed to charters have never spent a moment struggling with the question of where to send their own children.  Privilege means never having to send your own child to an ineffective district school; either you move to a neighborhood with an effective district school, you find a magnet school, or you decamp for the suburbs.  No such options exist for the thousands of struggling families stuck with schools that, in many cases, have been low performing for generations.

The privileged often point with alarm at long waiting lists in academically under-performing charters.  They feel that traditional public schools will be shuttered if more students leave. What these folks have the privilege of not understanding is a simple hierarchy of needs: parents care first about sending their children to schools that are safe and orderly, great teachers, and high standards.  Many parents could not care less about the raging charter versus traditional debate. And no privileged parents send their children to unsafe and chaotic schools with low academic rigor. But, in their poorly veiled arrogance, they will insist that Black, Latino, and poor families attend those same schools that they avoid at all costs.

Some local educators who disagree with my views and I are planning some face-to-face dialogue on these issues because we believe that we can find common ground; first, by separating whether we need standardized tests from the issue of how some schools might currently abuse them; second, by helping privileged white people understand why so many people choose charters; and third, by building an inclusive movement in our city to insist that all schools incorporate proven instructional practices and discipline policies that will enable our communities’ children to flourish in all kinds of schools.

It is vital for want-to-be activists to understand that when they oppose school and system accountability, high standards, and school choice, they are choosing a path injurious to the interests of our communities and project indifference, callousness, and self-interest. To be a community activist, one must stand with the best interests of the community, not convince the community to stand with theirs. Too often, opponents of education reform steadfastly oppose the very families they claim to champion.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.



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