Rejecting the soft bigotry of low expectations

February 8, 2017 - MSS In The News

Editorial by Benjamin Navarro, for the Post and Courier

Early Friday morning, I started my day by reading a column that appeared
on these pages titled “The Warring Forces in the Education Battle.” Later, I
visited one of the third- grade classrooms in our Title One School, Meeting
Street Elementary @ Brentwood, a public-private partnership school run by
Meeting Street Schools with the power to make all staffing decisions
independently and choose our own best practices for educating underresourced
kids. As I observed the learning taking place that morning, I was
filled with great optimism for our students and deeply disturbed by what I
had read.I have no doubt the authors were well-intentioned, but their argument
protecting the status quo of education betrays the children of South Carolina
in the most insidious way possible.

In case you missed it, the authors basically argued that due to the
circumstances of under-resourced kids outside of school, there is little we
can do to improve the horrible outcomes we currently experience in almost
all public schools serving these kids — who, by the way, make up over half
of our students in South Carolina. The authors would have us believe that
the conditions these kids face outside of school — their family incomes,
transiency, and lack of access to health care, employment and mental health
services — make it impossible to expect that we can achieve educational
outcomes that are consistent with more affluent children. This is indeed the
soft bigotry of low expectations.

As I sat in that third-grade classroom, I watched two highly effective
teachers use cutting-edge curriculum as they taught kids about “juicy words”
from a book about a traveling African American family. The teachers
incorporated breakout groups, effective classroom management techniques,
gentle peer pressure, and pure joy of teaching to ensure that all kids
participated and performed. During that session, a specialist entered the
room, and a child who needed help happily dashed off to receive one-on-one
instruction. It was like watching a finely tuned orchestra perform, where the
whole became more than the sum of the parts! And then, what really blew
me away, was that I walked into the third grade classroom next door and
observed exactly the same thing happening — same book, same juicy words,
same music being played by the orchestra. So what does all this mean in
terms of outcomes?

If you came to one of our Friday community celebrations, where all families
are invited and many attend, you would see the schoolwide culture of caring
and excellence; the implementation of our “Path to Success” life skills
curriculum; and the report card conferences where 100 percent attendance is
guaranteed by a staff that relentlessly tracks down any absent parents and
caregivers. And most importantly, you would see the bottomless
commitment Brentwood’s teachers have to our kids and the comfort they
take in the expectation that the child’s next teacher will care just as much
and be just as diligent as they are. If ever that expectation isn’t met, that next
teacher will be managed out, because all decisions are made based on what
is best for kids.

And what about those pesky test scores? Look at how Brentwood’s
standardized MAP test results from last spring compared to all other North
Charleston Title I schools. At Brentwood, 80 percent of students scored in
the top two quartiles, and only 6 percent in the bottom quartile. By
comparison, only 36 percent of test results for students at other North
Charleston Title I schools were in the top two quartiles, and fully 35 percent
in the bottom quartile. Can you imagine? Top two quartiles means college or
vocational school, good job, bright future … while bottom quartile means
dropout or best case social promotion through school.

Those scores put Brentwood’s K-2nd grades in the 78-97th percentile out of
approximately 15,000 schools that take the MAP test; and North Charleston
in just the 13-25th percentile. Same kids, same neighborhood, same
circumstances … radically different outcomes.

To be sure, in order to achieve these results it takes enormous change from
the status quo of public education. But the next time someone says we can’t
do better in educating our kids because of where they come from, get angry
because it’s just not true. We can do so much better. We know because we
are already doing it.

Benjamin Navarro is the founder of Meeting Street Schools and founder and
CEO of Sherman Financial Group, a Charleston-based global investment
company.

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