For educators and policymakers who are passionate about social justice, one of the most vexing problems in American education is closing the achievement gap. On almost every measure of student performance—standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions—middle-class white students outperform lower-income students of color. In the nationwide discussion about closing this gap, a few charter school organizations have been widely heralded as models of success.
In mid-April, some fellow graduate students and I spent a day at one of these schools. After spending the past year immersed at High Tech High, I appreciated this opportunity to experience a different school environment with its own unique priorities and structures. Prior to coming to High Tech High, I was a teacher in Oakland, California, at a school where the student body closely resembled this school’s target demographics, namely, low-income African American and Latino kids with math and reading skills several years below grade level. As such, I was especially interested in seeing, firsthand, the strategies that this organization used to address the achievement gap.
What struck me first and foremost during our visit was the orderly behavior of the students we encountered. A sense of seriousness pervaded the school. In each of the classrooms we visited, the majority of students appeared focused on the lesson, working quietly on the task at hand. Every classroom had at least one student representative who stepped forward to introduce him or herself, looking us in the eye and extending a professional handshake.
A key element of this organization’s educational philosophy is an emphasis on shaping appropriate student behavior. Towards this end, the school has created a system of external rewards (known as “ganas”) and demerits (known as “debits”). At the school store, students can trade their ganas for physical rewards like pencils, sweatshirts, or bowling trips. The teachers also share a number of acronyms, chants, hand signals, and routines that the students learn early on and practice repeatedly. For instance, during the eighth grade community meeting we observed, rather than having students clap or cheer, the Director of High School Placement encouraged students to “shine” their approval silently by flicking their open palms back and forth or to snap their fingers quietly. In the fifth grade classrooms, when students wanted permission to use the restroom, they held their hands up in the shape of a “Quiet Coyote.” Students also learn call and response chants, as well as behavioral expectations such as SLANT (Sit up straight, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker). These little “gimmicks,” as one science teacher called them, acculturate students to respond quickly to adult direction, which allows for more “time on task” in the classroom.
My fellow graduate students and I had the opportunity to observe three fifth grade classrooms, where one of the school’s core principles—an “unrelenting focus on results”—came through most vividly. In each of the classrooms, the pressure of preparing students for the upcoming California Standards Tests (CST) manifested itself in a different way.
Throughout the math teacher’s lesson—direct instruction on calculating perimeter while students silently took notes—she made frequent reference to the exam. For instance, she emphasized the importance of putting the correct units next to a numerical answer because “little things like that will get your answer wrong on the state test.” When reprimanding students for their lack of focus, she expressed her disapproval by saying, “I only have 16 days ‘til testing,” making it clear that they were on a tight timeline.
In the science class, students spent a large chunk of the period playing bingo to review for the exams. The bingo questions required a great deal of factual recall, and students referred extensively to a pile of flashcards with definitions and memory aids. The teacher also used kinesthetic mnemonic devices to help the students remember concepts such as the path of oxygen through the body. Their exit card, a daily ritual, was a check for understanding of key exam content. Finally, in the English Language Arts class, the teacher made a point of telling us how much she wanted her kids to have an opportunity to write poetry, but she was concerned about spending too much time on the writing. Instead of creating poems from scratch, her students took an existing poem and swapped out some of the words with their own.
The latter two teachers, who graciously spoke with us at length, explained that a significant portion of their professional development time centers on strategies for raising test scores. Teachers work together to develop common language around test-taking strategies that they teach to the students, such as “Brain Bubbling” or “Power Stripping” or “Martian Style.” In the English Language Arts classes, teachers spend a great deal of time assessing each student individually on their reading levels using Pearson Education’s Analytical Reading Inventory. In the Language Arts room, a poster on the wall proclaims, “All fifth graders will move up at least two reading levels by the end of April.” To achieve this goal, the teachers are experimenting with using literature circles and Socratic Seminars, strategies inspired by their director, a former English teacher. Every six to eight weeks, all teachers administer benchmark tests using the EduSoft program, which generates CST type questions and provides detailed results by student. Occasionally, they also administer full-day CST practice sessions.
Our visit took place two weeks before the California Standards Tests, and we kept clearly in mind that our observations might have looked very different had we visited during another time of the year. Nationwide, though, this organization’s intensive focus on preparing students for standardized exams has been hailed in the media as an effort to give disadvantaged students an unparalleled education. Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine, characterizes the approach of these schools as “an unexpected twist on the ‘separate but equal’ standard.” He describes the founders’ attitudes as follows: “An ‘equal’ education is not good enough. Students who enter middle school significantly behind grade level don’t need the same good education that most American middle-class students receive; they need a better education, because they need to catch up.”
My observations left me wondering, though, about the use of the word “better.” Are the low-income students of color at this school truly receiving a better education than their counterparts at more affluent, suburban schools across town? If “better” means more time and effort dedicated to raising standardized test scores, then perhaps the answer is yes. The organization’s behavioral norms, instructional strategies, and professional development are impressively well aligned toward achieving higher test results. More than any other charter school I have visited, this school struck me as a well-oiled machine in its clear focus on a unified, coherent goal.
But closing the gap between low-income students of color and affluent white students means paying attention to more than standardized test scores. In terms of predicting life outcomes, college admissions and college graduation rates are, arguably, more important measures to consider. Indeed, the school’s own mission statement is a nod to the latter argument. Its mission is “to ensure that students develop the academic skills, intellectual habits, and character traits needed to succeed in top-quality high schools, colleges, and the competitive world beyond.”
The organization’s emphasis on extrinsic motivation makes me question how effective it is in achieving these goals. In the short run, the school’s ganas and debits system, its hand gestures and other routines, efficiently shape student behavior and quickly facilitate compliance with adult directions. I wonder, though, how these structures affect the students’ internal motivation in the long run. A significant body of psychology research has shown that both rewards and punishments are largely ineffective in producing lasting change in attitudes and behaviors. University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci has found that these techniques, in fact, undermine children’s ability to take responsibility for their actions. I wonder, then, how many of these students actually internalize their “good student” identities, developing intellectual habits and traits that endure well after they leave the school. And how many are just behaving like good students in the short run because of their highly controlled environment?
I also wonder to what extent the students are developing meaningful skills beyond those tested on the standardized exams. To succeed in “top-quality high schools and colleges,” students need the ability to write fluently for a variety of purposes and audiences. They need practice crafting multiple drafts of their writing, so they can learn to self-assess and refine their work. To succeed in “the competitive world beyond,” they also need opportunities to practice collaboration and creative problem-solving, to work through group conflicts and wrestle with challenges that push their critical thinking. Most of all, they need to develop skills in self-direction and self-advocacy. With few role models in their families who have gone to college, these students need opportunities to explore their areas of passion and define their own goals, so that they have the drive to stay in college when obstacles arise and there is no one around to advocate on their behalf. All of these skills, which have no place on standardized exams, take a great deal of time to foster, and I question whether an intensive focus on test prep leaves time for their development.
In short, this charter school organization, and many others across the country, have staked their reputations on proving that they can help disadvantaged students achieve high test scores, but at what cost? Why is it that low-income students of color must spend the bulk of their days on work that emphasizes factual recall, when their counterparts in a wealthier part of town likely spend a larger proportion of their time on more meaningful tasks? Does their behavior need to be molded so strongly, their time apportioned so narrowly, that they have such little opportunity for self-expression? Is that what it takes to raise the test scores of disadvantaged students: a tightly controlled environment where kids have little room to be kids?
And what of the teachers? It was clear from our visit that the school attracts highly dedicated, hard-working teachers who care deeply about their students. But when I asked the fifth grade science teacher what she craved professionally, she expressed a longing for more time to “form relationships” with her students, to focus on them as “teenagers and to meet them where they are as teens.” How discomfiting at a school where students are with the staff from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon, that teachers feel there is little time to build relationships with their students.
At my own school in the future, working with a similar population of students, I hope to seek out a different balance. There’s nothing inherently problematic with having a school-wide focus on results or with using assessment to guide instruction. The problem is equating “student achievement” narrowly with scores on standardized tests, at the expense of all else. Just as much as their wealthier suburban peers, disadvantaged urban students need to engage in activities that build intrinsic motivation, help them discover their passions, allow them to explore and provide them with opportunities to express their unique identity. Depriving them of these opportunities for the sake of raising test scores only deepens the social inequities our society has charged schools with addressing.
To learn more about Lillian Hsu’s work towards a better education, visit her HTH GSE digital portfolio at http://lillianportfolio.kaye.to/DP/School_Leadership.html