“I am accountable for how much Black kids learn?!”
I was recently asked what it would take to accelerate the achievement levels of Black students. This is a question that people have claimed to have been grappling with for decades. A plethora of “strategies” have been implemented to varying degrees, yet results are mixed and sustained success for most has proved fleeting.
While people dance around the subject, the impact of the not-so-soft “bigotry of low expectations” for adults is prevalent and not always housed in an ideology one might suspect. While the left can certainly prove that the right undermines efforts for equity through oppressive tactics like unfair school funding, the middle class left consistently displays stances that contradict their supposed solidarity with Black, Latino, and other oppressed students and families.
There is no such thing as “soft” bigotry
A whole lot of folks sign up to help Black students. However, to the chagrin of our communities, very few educators are willing to be held individually and collectively accountable for what and how much students actually learn. These educators are much more willing to sign up for accountability if the students enter school already proficient in academic and social skills. If the students are behind academically, dealing with trauma or poverty, too many educators hide behind consistent and convenient walls; the willing shields of their unions, societal oppression outside of their immediate locus of control, and inept mindsets.
We see the accountability averse mindset in the launch of the movement to opt out of yearly standardized testing. Previously, affluent schools and districts opted certain youth out of these tests to avoid accountability and transparency. Now that there is accountability with growth in students’ achievement and participation on these annual tests, affluent “allies” -including educators themselves- try to lure communities into unwittingly helping educators avoid accountability for students’ achievement. Schools attempting to avoid accountability conveniently opted kids out of assessments by sending them on trips, telling them to stay home, etc. Now, we have educators trying to lure families into taking their kids on trips or keeping them home. They will tell you their intentions in both instances were pure.
too many folks are averse to being held accountable for student outcomes
When I began my first year of teaching, my assigned teacher coach, Mrs. Yvonne Savior, an award winning teacher, asked me a series of questions before we began working together. She grilled me about my mindset. She listed myriad scenarios that students in urban areas may grapple with in my classroom. After each case, she pointedly asked me if I believed that those students could achieve at high levels and if I thought I could be the lever to drive their achievement. I and her other coachees swore to never even consider that a child of oppressed circumstances or a child of parents who were “absent” from school (most often because of institutionalized racism), could not demonstrate significant growth in a very short period of time.
I answered the question of “what will it take?” by stating the obvious. Educators must hold themselves accountable. People, who purport to educate our youth, too often wish to avoid accountability for the growth and development of said children. Accountability is one of the key tools to accelerate achievement. Accountability does not undermine support, in actuality, it should increase support. A district or school cannot fire its way to great student achievement levels, neither can it stand complacent and nebulous about its mission. Adroitly dancing around the issue undermines all of our efforts.
Accountability is for everyone, not just teachers
I am not speaking of holding teachers accountable in a vacuum. The accountability standard should be for everyone. Principals, politicians, coaches, and everyone else should also receive a report card about how they are supporting the achievement levels of students. However, too often, I hear some educators say that they cannot effectively impact student outcomes until all of social ills are addressed. While neutered educators communicate academic impotence, others believe the very students before them are going to be the ones who address the social ills and are teaching them like they are the next generation of freedom fighters and nation builders regardless of their circumstances. Our schools and communities need far more of the latter.
As a child of activists, I was always taught to embrace accountability to my community, yet that no one should hold me more accountable for uplifting my community than I should hold myself. We know the impact of two years of back-to-back effective instruction on students’ achievement levels. Let’s hold ourselves and each other accountable in ensuring students have 12 plus years of strong instruction.
We will know that we are serious about the achievement levels of these resilient children of oppressed and marginalized communities when the adults who voluntarily signed up to work with them embrace both internal and external accountability.
And, of course, we need equitable funding, smaller class sizes, and, in the case of Philadelphia, a teachers’ contract. And, we also need mindsets that hold ourselves and each other accountable for student outcomes.
When all educators bring the necessary levels of fortitude and self-efficacy that freedom fighting educators exude in their classrooms, Black, Latino, and poor students will be far more successful. Only educators with the mindset of supporting ultimate liberation can assist students to fully realize their potential.
Please stop dancing around the issue.
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.