Failing schools that service low-income black kids will continue to get away with egregious levels of educational neglect because they know no one will hold them accountable, unless parents are savvy enough to demand what their children deserve.
Here are four questions that focus on school culture, instruction and assessment that parents should ask their children’s school personnel. Crafted from the perspective of an empowered and informed parent, these questions will force administrators and teachers at struggling schools to take the education of their students more seriously.
They create an added layer of accountability and external pressure to move lackluster schools to action. These questions are by no means exhaustive, but they are comprehensive enough to spark critical dialogue about school improvement.
1. What is the school’s philosophy about how children learn best? Some school leadership, for example, believe that students learn best through inquiry or hands-on learning. Others maintain that students learn best through critical conversations, reflection and cooperative learning. While others believe that students learn best through rote and memorization.
Unlike poor-performing schools, successful schools have a coherent and shared belief about how students learn best, which is consistently communicated to all members of the school community.
Teachers translate a school’s philosophy into their daily teaching practices and into the level of expectation they have for student performance. Students, similarly, translate a school’s philosophy into how they approach their learning, apply feedback and meet the standards set by the school.
If you pose this question and the teacher is unable to answer, that could signal a breakdown in communication between school administration and faculty.
In instances where a teacher is unable to articulate the school’s vision for pedagogy, it’s fine to follow up with a question about that particular teacher’s beliefs about how students learn best. Educators who are committed and serious about equipping students with the intellectual tools and social skills they need to succeed in a global economy will have no problem sharing their thoughts; they usually have strong opinions about this topic.
2. What standards are you assessing in this unit of study? A unit of study is a group of related lessons that are taught within a given period of time. A typical K-12 writing or math unit, for example, may last between four to six weeks. The objective or goal of every lesson should be guided by state learning standards or the Common Core Learning Standards. State standards and CCLS outline the skills, concepts and content that students should know by the end of each grade level.
In high-performing schools, teachers plan their lessons and their units of study with the standards in mind. On the other hand, in many cases, teachers at low-performing schools don’t refer to the standards when planning their lessons; leaving students with gaping holes in their knowledge base by the end of the school year.
As parents, it’s important that you have access to your state’s learning standards or the Common Core Learning Standards so you can assess how well your child’s homework, projects and assignments prepare them to master their grade-level standards.
3. What systems and strategies do you have in place to handle misbehavior in the classroom?Many low-performing schools apply a zero tolerance, reactive and punitive approach to disciplining students. In fact, black students are disproportionately suspended or expelled from schools compared with their white counterparts for the same infraction.
Poor classroom behavior, though not all, can be avoided when teachers develop deep caring relationships with their students, use positive reinforcement systems with fidelity or subscribe to a restorative discipline philosophy, which focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment.
Ask teachers and school administration about the current success of the behavior management systems. If you find that they can’t speak to specific systems that decrease poor behaviors, then you have grounds to ask them to find alternative structures.
4. How does my child know what “good” looks like for an assignment or task? In order for students to produce standards-based, high-quality work, they actually have to know what the assessment criteria are. Teachers need to make their expectations around assignments explicit and clear from the beginning of a unit of study.
Highly proficient teachers make use of rubrics and exemplars of outstanding student work in their teaching all the time. Rubrics provide students with explicit criteria for what “below grade level,” “approaching grade level,” “at grade level,” or “exceeding grade level” looks like. For example, if a teacher tells students that they will have to create an expository essay about the current presidential elections, a rubric may outline how many secondary or primary sources are needed to produce “exceeding grade level” work, how the caliber and quantity of vocabulary taught throughout the unit impacts grading, and how attention (or lack thereof) to grammar and conventions will factor into their overall grade.
Likewise, exemplars serve as concrete examples of what high-quality works look like. Exemplars can come from other students’ work or from the outside world.
There’s a Caribbean saying, “Force makes water go up the hill.” And in the context of getting our children what they need to succeed, it’s eerily apropos. If we are to ever close the achievement gap, we need to insist, persist and push. Our children are depending on us to advocate for their future.
Kate Myers is an educational consultant with over 15 years of experience fighting for equal and fair education for black and brown children.