Should We Teach “Other People’s Kids” Differently?

This post is the second of two in response to CNN’s “Inside Man,” my first was posted yesterday. I decided to make this one separate because while the reflection was sparked from a few scenes in that program it goes beyond that one hour and that one particular school.

In this Inside Man episode, Morgan Spurlock visited a school in Finland where he took a stab at teaching a class, then as a comparison visited a charter school in New York City and retaught the same lesson.  Watching footage of the New York City school, I was struck again by the sharp economic lines that are drawn between so many schools in our country and how in many those lines are strongly correlated with race.

by Seaweed Lady {cory} used under Creative Commons Lic.
by Seaweed Lady {cory} used under Creative Commons Lic.

Part of this post is to ask the same big question educators continue to grapple with, one that I am fairly certain we cannot solve in the education sector alone: why do we have a class system in our public schools?

The other part of this post is to raise an itchy question, one that won’t sit well with everyone that reads this, but one that I think we must face and  can address within the education community: why, at times, do we feel it’s okay to teach “other people’s kids” differently than our “own”?

Why do we have a class system in our public schools?

The Inside Man episode (to much the relief of many twitter viewers) brought up briefly the issue of child poverty in the United States, rightly pointing out that the US is has one of the largest child poverty rates of any developed country.

2012 UNICEF - Innocenti Research Center Report
2012 UNICEF – Innocenti Research Center Report

I would add that the US not only has an extremely high child poverty rate, but the gap between the official poverty line and what the average family living in poverty makes is the largest of the studied countries. (Note that Finland, which the show set as the answer to “America’s Education Failure,” has been near the top in both of these diagrams. A point the episode made as well.)

UNICEF - Innocenti Research Center Report
UNICEF – Innocenti Research Center Report

I, like I am sure you, see this play out in schools across the country in a startling way, where in many instances it is not that one school is deeply diverse in terms of income (some are, though they tend to be few), instead it is that schools become segregated within districts. Affluent students here, poor students there.  Race, then too often, follows that trend.

The New York Times did a series of stellar pieces in May of 2012 on the ethnic divide in New York City schools, the first called “To Be Black at Stuyvesant High School” and the second “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?” which resonates the loudest because it is largely told through the perspectives of students attending majority-white or majority-black schools.  And this corresponding infographic is worth the click, as it points out starkly that New York City schools are some of the most segregated in the large cities, though notice that segregation is not only a reality in New York.

Think of your own school. Now the one down the road. Now the one on the other side of town.

This is not new news. Jonathan Kozol wrote about the income divide and the racial divide in schools back in 1991 with Savage Inequalities. Yet, here we still are. Yet, every child’s life is of equal worth.

I also am not sure that this is an issue that the education sector alone can solve. I balk at the notion from some in the education reform movement that if schools were just “better” poverty would go away (see more on this in my post Education’s Own 47%). I do, though, think it’s one we need to continue to look at squarely in the eye and say out loud to anyone that will listen. It is not okay that in one district I can work with a school that has more technology, books, and supplies than it can possibly use and many of the children are white and largely middle and upper income. Then several miles away, in the same district, is a school with failing infrastructure, novice (though well intentioned) teachers, and many of the children are black and hispanic and largely lower-middle income or living below the poverty line. And I am not just talking about New York.

We need solutions, and we need everyone present at the table to make them. I would love to learn more for anyone who has pieces of solutions.

Why is it okay to teach “Other People’s Kids” differently?

Now the other part of this post.

I want to start off by saying that while I am aiming to raise issue with the practices that were portrayed on camera, I do not intend this to be complaining about just one school. I have seen practices, popular books, curricular materials, and even entire school cultures are designed in similar ways. I raise this one example to bring up many. Also, I do not take away from the well-meaning nature of the staff there or anywhere. You can see on the faces of the educators that this school was a place they were proud of, and I do believe they were doing the best they currently knew how to do without any intended malice.

One issue: the amount of time low-income schools spend testing.

This particular school prided itself on giving tests and collecting data all of the time. Truly, all-the-time. One scene showed an educator sliding Scantrons into a grading device and describing how it was important that they developed tests that really revealed what students knew and could do. While I do believe that gathering on-going data on students is useful, I also know that educators can learn to gather data in ways that do not leave students filling in bubbles continuously. Frankly, the better we get at studying students, reading their strengths and needs, the less we need to make dittos for them to fill out.

This then brought to mind the amount of “test prep” I see schools engaging in across the country and how in many instances I observe the most in schools with the lowest SES. On average, I’d estimate that those high income schools I mentioned earlier typically spend anywhere from only 2 weeks before a standardized test up to, at most, 20 minutes per week, on test preparation. Educators there worry about their jobs like everyone else, worry about their scores showing “growth,” yet their students often perform so well on those assessments that the level of panic is lower than average.

Alternatively, those low income schools? Entire units lasting one month or more, plus “Saturday Academy” several weeks out of the year, plus after school test-prep time, and often multiple periods per week spent drilling. I get that largely these schools are running scared to show higher scores and doing all they can. But I also ask, is this okay? Should our lower income, many times minority, students spend less time in authentic reading, writing, math, art, music, gym, play than their more affluent counterparts? Does that sit well with you?

The other issue: the belief in how students learn to “do school.”

I was also startled by, as were several twitter viewers, how this school relied so heavily on hand snapping, clapping, cold-calling, and other methods of “training” for teacher-student interactions (and actually how much Morgan, the outsider, loved it!). Here is a clip (forgive CNN’s advertising lead in).

While I admire that Doug Lemov spent years studying new and experienced teachers’ management and he uncovered many truly helpful and clear techniques for his book Teach Like a Champion, which this particular school was built around, I was also struck by the stale nature with which these techniques were delivered and the what to me appears to be the joylessness with which many of those students, in tucked in uniforms, clap-snapped their responses. I know, as the show pointed out, that many students excel in that school — and I am sure in others like it.

Again, they are good people trying their hardest. This is not necessarily a knock on silly dances, gestures, or management techniques, either.  Tim, a 5th grade teacher at a school in Taiwan has a classroom chart of “claps” that they learn and make up together as the year goes on. It’s a hoot, it’s community building (I was partial to the “Paula Abdul”).

What this is a question of is, to be totally frank and probably not politically correct, would that scene fly in a majority white, upper middle class school? If not, how would those children be talked to, taught to act in the classroom, learn to “do school”?

It reminds me of a sit down with administrators at a small, largely low-income, school a few years ago. It had been my first day visiting the school. While the classrooms were light and bursting with a friendly atmosphere, in the hallways the otherwise lovely staff turned into drill sergeants, barking orders at students and at times even going beyond the point of disrespect. I sat in the office with the leadership team at the end of the day, during another passing period, and listened to the caustic yelling once again.  I said, “You have so much going for you here, but I just need to say this, the hallway behavior by the teachers I find offensive. Why are they talking to the students like that?”

The first response was not what I expected, “Well, that’s what the other school we share this building with does and they must be doing something right, their scores are so high.”

I pressed on, “But, who cares about scores? Would you want your children spoken to like that?”

We talked a bit more, they were clearly not happy with me and my observation. Yet, two weeks later, the hallway drill sergeant personas had largely gone away. And have never come back.

I am a realist, pragmatic, have taught my own students, and now teach next to teachers in schools all over. I get that some students can be challenging, that we reach for solutions when we feel we aren’t doing things well enough by them. I also, however, think we need to step back often and reflect:

  • am I giving these children the same dignity and respect that I ask in return?
  • am I teaching them the way I want to be taught?
  • am I teaching them compliance or independence?
  • am I teaching these students differently than I would others?
      • Why?
        • Does this feel right to me?
          • What can I change?

I, personally, aim to have the positive answer with each of these questions. But I also know I have not always. I certainly know more today than I did years ago, how to be instructionally effective while also giving respect to learners. Yet I know these are questions I much continually ask, because I do not always fit the image I want of myself.

by Contadini used under Creative Commons lic

We can always outgrow out best thinking and challenge our own assumptions. Our students need us to.

Thank you for all you do, and give, for your students and to those well beyond your doors.


27 thoughts on “Should We Teach “Other People’s Kids” Differently?

  1. I once visited a school that employed similar disciplinary actions, and when I remarked that the kids just didn’t seem happy, the response was, we don’t care if they are happy as long as we get results. That is a sad way to look at things in my book.

  2. I commend you for posing some very important questions in this blog post. I’ve worked as an educator in completely segregated schools in Chicago, as well as very affluent schools in the suburbs of IL. You were right on when you mentioned that we don’t just see this dichotomy in urban areas….it’s widespread. And from what I’ve experienced, there is a whole different school culture in schools filled with students of low socioeconomic status and/or ethnic minority populations. The prevalence of encouraging compliance rather than engaged, meaningful discourse that leads to developing students’ capacities to think is something we need to work on changing! All of those traits that we know helps kids be successful…. grit, creativity, curiosity, perseverance, imagination, playfulness, etc. All take a backseat to teaching students “self-control” , or rather teaching kids to NOT to question their world and engage in inquiry. With this approach, we make it highly probable that students will remain in a low SES in the future.
    I’ve also seen many schools that implement amazing and innovative teaching and learning that has translated into very positive student outcomes (in integrated settings and segregated settings). The power of good teaching transcends these lines. When good teaching occurs, we reduce the number of students needing interventions and schools are better able to funnel extra supports to those who need it. This, in turn, leads to higher levels of achievement for school populations.
    So much to think about! Thank you for sharing this information….I’m excited to see what solutions might be developed go start to address this important issue!

  3. Terrific post, Chris. You bring up so many important issues. As a principal in a low income school, I can empathize with the battle to keep schools balanced with regard to socioeconomic and racial status. I also appreciate your clear explanation about the faulty argument in trying to compare ourselves to Finland. As for the clip of the classroom using chants and gestures…they need to reconsider their definition of engagement.

    One of the best decisions I made when I took my current position as elementary principal was to bring my son along with me. He is supposed to go to one of the more “affluent” schools, but he attends my building instead. I am proud of his acceptance of others and his blindness to irrelevant differences. His mere presence has made a big impact on my decision-making and leadership actions for all of my students.

  4. Great post, and so thought provoking. The CNN clip made me really uncomfortable – there was something so programmed and un-kidlike about the students in the “academy” … and what a waste of time, really, to spend clapping and stomping and so on. And on cue, too!

  5. I’m not an educator in the sense that I make a living teaching – but we should all consider ourselves educators because imparting knowledge, understanding and real learning/thinking skills to children is one of the most important activities of any era. Thank you for giving me so much to think about – helping out in schools remains one of my favorite past volunteer efforts and something that I feel I should expend greater effort to get back into.

  6. Reblogged this on Mindful Stew and commented:
    Great reflection by Christopher Lehman on several issues:
    “am I giving these children the same dignity and respect that I ask in return?
    am I teaching them the way I want to be taught?
    am I teaching them compliance or independence?
    am I teaching these students differently than I would others?
    Does this feel right to me?
    What can I change?”

  7. This is a great post, Chris. Since my husband and I are moving closer to our family, I’m leaving my current district (high poverty) and received a job at a more affluent school. I really connect with this post because the school I’m now working for is part of the same ISD as the school I left. It’s sad how different they are and how those differences are affecting the students. I hope more honest conversations about this topic will take place. All of our students deserve the best.

  8. Such an important post and discussion you are initiating here. I will say first that I teach in Canada and thankfully, at this time, my students, my own children and I are immune to the testing mania that occurs in the U.S. However, I teach in a school that can be described as high poverty – poverty impacts so much. I am very outspoken about this. However, the relationships that we have with our students are the ticket to everything. Without them, all of the good teaching in the world is meaningless. Relationships are nurtured by respect, communication, attention and care. Another NYT piece I found important was this one: No Rich Child Left Behind. The emphasis here was to focus on poverty and its impact and make a difference for children and families through changes to social and family policy that would impact poverty rates and the huge and growing income gap we see in both the US and Canada. While we want to do everything possible to help all children meet with success at school, we cannot do it by ignoring poverty and we cannot do it by using techniques that do not respect the children in front of us. Thank you for your post.

  9. You ask some very thought-provoking and important questions here Chris. I appreciate your willingness to be honest about the ways that you have grown as a teacher and the ways that you are processing through some of this. I work with preservice teachers and this is the kind of thinking that I want them to see. Namely that teaching sometimes involves asking difficult questions not only of the profession but also of ourselves. It means that we need to be ok with being uncomfortable sometimes if it can be improving the experiences of the students in our classrooms.

  10. Great post. So many of our schools are now in a pre Plessy v Ferguson state of being separate and nowhere near equal.

  11. I was that kid who was lucky enough to be educated in IGC classes a long time ago. I was given the key to a door filled with endless possibilities, first by a mother who strongly advocated her seven children getting a great education, then, by teachers who cared about me as a little girl, despite being the only “colored” one in the class. As an educator for the past 17 1/2 years, I am dismayed to see learning in some classrooms become tricks, claps, chants and gestures. Along the way, the belief that minority, urban students need to be regimented in some way has taken quite a hold in education. I will continue to educate my students with the belief that they deserve the opportunities, experiences and autonomy that most suburban children get without question. However, I will not humiliate them or myself by subjecting them to these methods. Thank you for an excellent article.

  12. Wonderful post. Reminds of one by Kylene Beers, former president of National Council of Teachers of English in which she examined the same question. The question of equity in education involves not only what we do and don’t spend on all children in terms of resources, but how we teach and treat them while they are with us.

  13. Great post. I work at an affluent, predominantly white school but during my practicums I was placed in many poor, predominantly black schools (was this because of my race?) and noticed, as was appalled, at seeing some of these similar practices – the handclapping and the yelling. The yelling I attributed to poorly trained teachers, who often resort to intimidation because they literally don’t know what else to do – and this happens in both types of school. The hand-clapping? It’s like the types of books I usually find in the bookstore – black people are either slaves, former slaves, civil rights activists, or from the ghetto where this type of behavior is “common”. Many teachers read Ruby Payne. So, many teachers subconsciously believe that all African American or other poor people of color, are one. That they will not only respond to, but thrive in the face of, these “management techniques”. He called it “emotional teaching” but you rightly pointed out that these students were the opposite. They were NOT engaged. What’s engaging to students across the board? Respect. Good, sound teaching based on real discussion. The proper amount of background knowledge. Teaching students how to navigate the scholastic world – which does not involve much handclapping, desk slapping, or spinning around. Thankfully.

  14. I have noticed so many of the same kinds of strategies and techniques used in similar schools in my area. We need to build a culture of learning not a culture of compliance in every school. I agree with you. I don’t think it can be done by educators alone. A culture of learning occurs beyond the walls of the school. Thank you for writing this excellent post so that conversations and changes will occur.

  15. Love this post. You’re right–these questions can be uncomfortable, but we do need to be thinking about how we are teaching others’ children. I recently visited a few schools where the differences in climate and instruction were so different as were the demographics in terms of race and ses and it was so disheartening to see students who live ten, fifteen minutes from one another receiving very different levels of respect and teaching, not to mention the differences in the amount of support teachers received. These are powerful, important questions we all need to be thinking about when we’re stepping through the doors of our classrooms and the hallways of our schools. Thank you!

    • Such an important post, Chris. And that thorny but needed question you ask about how would all that cold calling, finger snapping and hand clapping fly in a white upper middle class school reminds me of the question Obama asked about whether a Stand Your Ground defense would have worked for Trayvon Martin if he’d shot Zimmerman because he felt threatened. Neither of those scenarios would fly because of the questions we’re simply not addressing about both poverty and race. So bravo for calling it as you see it.

      • Here’s a NYT Magazine article from 2006 that discusses the methods used in a couple of charter chains and the rationale behind them.

        When I was first introduced to this piece at a professional development activity, some of the African-American teachers present were outraged and felt the conclusions were a result of white bias against African-American culture and parenting styles.

        If the research in this piece is valid, poor (especially poor, black) kids arrive at pre-k already way behind their peers in the developmental skills -especially language of their middle class peers. The techniques used in those schools, and described in the original post are attempts to address the delays as well as counteract the ongoing effects of poverty the students are still contending with.

        Probably, the best way to address this is through prevention- comprehensive, quality birth- 5 programs for poor children. Even if the funds were allocated (Universal Early Head Start for all children in poverty? Can you imagine such a thing getting through this Congress?) there would still be some families who would choose not to avail themselves of the services, unless child abuse or neglect were involved and the courts mandated it. Yet Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone aims to enroll his students before they are born-while their mothers are pregnant through HCZ’s Baby College.

        A thorny issue indeed. Then, there is the nagging issue of segregation, 60 years after Brown v. Bd. of Education. Kudos to the educator who enrolled his child in his high poverty school. NYC public schools are comprised of about 70% black and Hispanic students, up to 2/3 of which qualify for free lunch. My local 6-12 school is 30% white (although the neighborhood is probably 65% white) and one of the few integrated schools left in NYC. My kids went there, Many neighborhood parents searched and chose “better” options. Most of the white and middle class minority parents that send their kids there do so because there are honors classes, and they felt their main concern- their kids being held back by children who are far behind grade level would be addressed by the tracking system. Most of the white and Asian students end up in the honors classes, as does all of the black and Hispanic students who are at least at grade level.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s