The bad coach has his system, and small children either fit it or they don’t.
BACK AT IT AGAIN
So, our children have their necessary school supplies. Our districts and campuses have their annual letter grade ratings from the state education agency. It is the first full month of the school year; the honeymoon phase is over. Ideally, we are all fully vested in the business of education, an LLC (Literacy, Learning, and Culture).
By September, two crucial community and family trusts have been cemented. The first type of trust is a long-term investment of time, tax money, and personal funds to (eventually) benefit our offspring; the second trust conveys confidence, or at least hope, in useful learning outcomes for all children. Thus, many families and community members have high expectations for public schools and are ready — perhaps too ready — to advocate for their children by actively holding educators accountable.
Early in the school year, despite the well-known Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (1954), students have returned to schools and districts largely segregated by race. EdBuild’s 2019 report found that more than half of USA school children attended districts where 75 percent of students are either white or not. This stat is only a problem because separate is never equal. For example, EdBuild also reported that nonwhite districts received $2,200 less per student.
Systemic segregation even creates districts within districts. Thus the 2019-20 academic year continues the historical, political, and social USA tradition of disparity between the mostly white, wealthy Joneses — the haves — and the Others — the have nots — who predictably struggle to keep up. Schools and districts full of Others are disproportionately and egregiously stigmatized by the myth of the achievement gap, a term I hear and dispute almost every day. In plain English, the myth goes: Based on test scores and college acceptance rates, Others have the problem of achieving less at school.
It is not a myth that all teachers enter their classrooms carrying conscious and unconscious beliefs, as well as explicit and implicit biases, about our children. Yet I believe that most teachers enter the profession to make a positive difference for at least one child. Individually and collectively, teachers impact far more than a single student’s life, for better or for worse.
The danger is in the details, specifically the vacuous blind spots.
GOOD COACH, BAD COACH
Since the new school year coincides with the beginning of the USA football season, it is a perfect time to insert a sports metaphor. My son El is tall, fairly fast, and has played sports at the recreation center three miles from our house for most of his life. He has never been a team leader, except when running the length of the field and back before and after practice. Yet Coach Buggs and Coach Nick have put him on a path to success in sports.
When El was 6, he tried flag football for the first time. The size, speed, and intensity of the players, along with Coach Buggs’ matter-of-fact instruction and expectations, had me texting Tif, “oh, this is serious.” I was inspired by how quickly El fell in line with the team that day.
After his third practice, I discovered that he had accidentally been placed on a roster of 8 year olds. By then, Coach Buggs wanted to keep him, and El did his best to rise to the demands of an advanced level. Coach even named a specific running play after El and kept calling it to ensure that he scored a touchdown by the last game. After that season, my son was used to the challenge, was running as hard as he could, and was prepared to score even more for his next coach.
As fall soccer season begins at our local rec centers this week, El will be with Coach Nick for the fifth time across three sports in two years. Nick grew up watching his mom run a home daycare in East Texas. At first, his coaching style seemed a bit casual. Nick let the 6 and 7 year olds “act their age”; he was not a hard-nosed disciplinarian; he never aggressively raised his voice, and he never lost his patience.
Coach Nick acknowledges each child’s personality as-is and never treats boundary pushers like bad kids. He recognizes their individual abilities, strengths, and potential as he personally guides them all to grow. “El, you’re my fastest player,” Nick said last soccer season. “But now I need you to attack the ball. Get in there so you can help the team.” Because he believes in all of them, it seems like each player improves and has at least one shining moment every season in every sport. Led by Coach Nick, El’s teams always finish with winning records.
But sometimes we have lost to the bad coach, the one who sees even primary sports as a game of winners and losers, the one who looks down on the beginners and the oddballs. He honors the advanced players, recruits them to stack his roster, and takes credit for the skills they showed up with. The bad coach only focuses on wins, even if it means that some seven year olds in his care sit on the bench all season (or find a new team). The bad coach has his system, and small children either fit it or they don’t.
How does this all relate to our schools and districts? Well, think of a typical public school, or the one closest to where you live.
Does it focus on the individualized growth of all learners, or does it run more like a large-scale processing plant?
Is it ultimately student-centered or test-centered?
Are the advanced and struggling learners least likely to grow academically?
Are the teachers typically good coaches or bad ones?
In the context of education, are good coaches and bad coaches even playing the same game?
El is an accelerated, independent learner. At home he has been smoothly practicing fractions and decimals for years, and recently started percentages. But in August, his new third grade teacher assigned a basic number line with some of the single-digit numbers missing. My son saw this first math worksheet and immediately considered that his new teacher had given his new class (in an elementary school full of Others) “work” he mastered about five years ago. Even my toddler could have filled in the blanks correctly if she could write.
“Do we have to start over?!” El’s classmate Junior asked aloud, wondering why they were expected to start years below grade level. His mother is the principal of the middle school that he and El’s school feeds into. Junior’s father is a graduate school of education student and stellar basketball coach who recently took the unranked varsity team to the final four at the state tournament where Others often excel.
When I contacted the teacher, her initial reply was: “Unfortunately, everyone has to start on the same level.” Yet I know of schools full of Joneses about 20 miles away that would never lead with low expectations. Some of them would proudly walk El up to 5th or 6th grade every day for appropriately challenging math instruction.
But, I’m also in a privileged position as a national educator of educators and former employee of my son’s district. I am knowledgeable about area schools and able to easily work with campus and district leadership to help support the teacher to support my son. It still took me a few weeks of maneuvering before she was ready and willing to appropriately guide him. If I had faithfully depended on my trusts, and not my chess game, would anything have changed?
Junior and El are literally and figuratively sons of good coaches. But what about their classmates whose parents may not have as much pull in the district, or experience in the education system?
What is the impact of leading with slow and low expectations for the “average” child?
How does the common reality of what Texas governor George W. Bush labeled “the soft bigotry of low expectations” 20 years ago impact Others in schools today?
This is basic math that adds up to what Angela Valenzuela calls Subtractive Schooling. What effect does it have on community and family trusts?
EXPOSING THE GAP
In September, the spirit of meet-the-teacher night wears off. Attendance drops at the subsequent back-to-school nights. The veneer starts to crack, and when you peel it back it exposes the educator achievement gap. The mythical “achievement gap” that essentially blames students, families, and communities beyond reason is a cover up; but educator achievement gaps are ingrained. This is a major reason why we’ve gotta be better on purpose.
For longer than I have been alive, the success and failure of the Joneses and Others in USA public schools have been reliably predictable. Vast resource and opportunity gaps separate the two commonly accepted types of schools and their students. Yet it is the professionals from top to bottom within our districts who either achieve academically, socially, and emotionally in the business of education (LLC), or fail to do so. Meanwhile all children are absolutely achieving and learning according to whatever we adults envision, reflect about, improve upon, and model.
I am hoping to learn from YOU, the reader, today.
Please post a comment answering any or all of these 10 questions:
10. How are we still overtly doing Joneses and Others in 2019?
9. What does enduring systemic educational disparity say about our social distribution (and/or organization) of power?
8. What are the effects of Others having mostly white teachers?
7. How is basing school expectations on the “average child” a good strategy?
6. What is hard about meeting students where they are?
5. What would happen if the Others’ average teacher was a “Coach Nick”?
4. Why are there so many “bad coaches” in charge of public school classrooms?
3. How likely is it that “bad coaches” are simply mimicking their own grade school experiences?
2. How robust and consistent is the instructional leadership at Others’ schools?
1. How do we best address low expectations of Others without harming educators?