Alfie Kohn’s recent article in Education Week, “Poor Teaching for Poor Children” (a longer version is available on his site) is getting a lot of attention among parent groups here in Oakland. He makes a passionate case against the double standard where poor children of color get “drill and kill” style rote teaching (the “Pedagogy of Poverty” identified by Martin Haberman in 1991), and middle class kids for the most part learn critical thinking and the other “21st Century skills.”
As Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford’s School of Education, once commented, drill-and-skill instruction isn’t how middle-class children got their edge, so “why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn’t help middle class kids in the first place?”
Essentially the same point has been made by one educational expert after another, including two prominent African Americans in the field: Linda Darling-Hammond (who observed that the “most counterproductive [teaching] approaches” are “enforced most rigidly in the schools serving the most disadvantaged students”) and Claude Steele (“a skills-focused, remedial education…virtually guarantee[s] the persistence of the race gap”). …
The result is that “certain children” are left farther and farther behind. The rich get richer, while the poor get worksheets.
Absolutely. But we should not conclude that all testing or assessment is bad, or that every student doesn’t need to have the basic literacy skills required to read (“access”) rich texts. As one teacher we worked with remarked, “my [low-income, black and brown] students have just as interesting things to say about poetry as any other students, they just lack the skills to perform well on the tests or write standard essays.”
We often share with teachers a brief overview of “How the Achievement Gap Happens” developed by Zaretta Hammond (before she joined our organization). The achievement gap begins when learning gaps appear as low performance in assessments (e.g., a literacy test). Those gaps are real and debilitating, and we need to understand precisely what they are through formative assessments (rather than standards tests, which are not useful as diagnostic tools), but the issue is how teachers and schools respond to the gaps. If the response is to address specific learning gaps (say, knowledge of prefixes and suffixes) in quick, engaging ways that foster student awareness, confidence and control over their own learning, and then integrate these new skills into the deeper curriculum, then students are empowered and prepared to learn more.
If, however, the response is to slow down and dumb down teaching, typically with good intentions (“my students face so many challenges, I don’t want to overwhelm them”), giving students less opportunity to master foundational skills and apply them to rich materials, then students become more frustrated, bored, alienated, low-tracked, and stigmatized, and fall further and further behind.
- More on Zaretta Hammond’s analysis of the achievement gap in this briefing paper, “Toward an Equity Pedagogy Framework“
- More on our approaches in developing Partnerships for Learning.