Four short words sum up what has lifted most successful individuals above the crowd: a little bit more. They did all that was expected of them and a little bit more.
– A. Lou Vickery
The act of teaching and the act of learning are the most important of all human endeavors. Parents and guardians send their hopes and dreams each day to our nation’s classrooms. American public education aims to equip students with the skills necessary to be productive citizens. A comparison is often drawn between the school system and a factory; after all, the system is only successful if it can reliably replicate student success. However, the search for metrics to quantify student achievement has and will continue to fall short because it denies an axiom of education:
learning is just as much about whom the student is as what he or she is able to do.
Elementary school was a frustrating experience for me. In 1991, I occupied a seat in a fourth grade classroom, a time where differentiated instruction was not yet a popular term. School was frustrating for me because my teachers did not know what to do with me. After a meeting with the principal and my teacher, they decided I should spend time in a sixth grade classroom, so I would walk up two flights of stairs each day to join sixth graders in their classroom. There I would breeze through procedural worksheets in math and science and so I would not become a distraction to the sixth grade class, the teacher would sit me in front of a lone Apple IIe computer at the back of the room to play games. After a couple weeks, I mastered “The Oregon Trail.” The first phrase that comes to mind when I think back on that experience is “grueling pace, meager rations.”
I shuffled some papers to the right of the terminal and discovered a manual for the programming language BASIC. Through trial and error I wrote my first program – a multiple choice quiz over facts about the solar system with questions like the following:
What is the name of the third moon of Jupiter?
I used if-then statements to give the user feedback on their selection. For the question above, if the user chose B, the terminal would display the response, “That is correct!” If the user selected a different letter, the terminal would display, “Try again!” While my experience depended on floppy disks, the analog to today’s classroom would be writing apps for smartphones or learning initiatives like the Hour of Code from www.code.org.
Some people would share my passion for studying the solar system and objects in space. Others would disengage and find the subject boring. A Venn diagram detailing the content from my elementary school experience and the experience of another person might reveal very little overlap. As I reflect on my own professional practice as a teacher, I often think back to my elementary school experience. The pressure of standardized tests will have lasting consequences on not only classroom instruction in America’s schools, but also the economy and the workforce. Fairness is not sameness. Fairness is giving people what they need—an inspired, passion-filled learning experience every day.
Teachers must strike a balance between standardized learning and personalized learning. When I think back to my own schooling experience, what stands out is not what the teachers did. What stands out to me are the teachers who helped me see myself for who I am, the teachers whose actions cleared shouted, “I believe in you!” Mrs. Moody, Mrs. Wirth, Mr. Smith and my mentor John Graff—they saw in me things I could not see. They expected more, and then they did a little bit more to help me succeed.
The Opportunity Gap
I come from a single parent home and from poverty. The education system empowered me to overcome my circumstances. But we as a society deceive ourselves if we believe the rags-to-riches narrative generalizes to all students.
Smartphone and tablet technology, built for instant gratification, is changing the work of teachers. Technology has unseen consequences on young minds. Students have become incredibly skilled at scanning a cluttered webpage to find a single keyword or phrase. This habit has alarming implications for students’ reading fluency and text decoding which in turn impacts classroom instruction. Poor guidance and irresponsible technology use intensify students’ existing academic and social disadvantages. Many teachers lack the support necessary to keep up with emergent technologies.
Used properly, technology can be a great equalizer.
Students in low-income homes now have the opportunity to write an app of the same as or higher quality than professionals, and the app they create could transcend their life circumstances and provide them with novel career opportunities. For this reason, society needs to provide their teachers the technological support and resources necessary to harness technology’s power to transform students’ opportunities.
Equity issues plague our educational system, which amplifies already glaring class differences and fuels the poverty cycle. In the YouTube video “The Statisticks Lottery,” Morgan Freeman narrates claims from The Campaign for Grade Level Reading. The claims about U. S. students are staggering. A child in a low-income home, by his or her third birthday, has been exposed to 30 million fewer words than a child in a middle-income or a high-income home. Low-income students are four times more likely to be chronically absent from school for healthcare-related issues. Low-income students not reading at grade level in third grade are 13 times more likely to drop out of school. High school dropouts cost the U. S. economy approximately $1.8 billion per year.
What if the cure for cancer is locked in the mind of a high school dropout? Our society must stop living in denial of school readiness issues. The achievement gap is a symptom of a far greater problem – the opportunity gap. Closing the opportunity gap requires the public to view the work teachers do as the single most important human endeavor. Community and parental involvement in schools should no longer be optional or utilized only when convenient. Society must encourage policymakers to empower schools to provide meals, high-quality medical care and support for word-rich home environments for all learners.
Why I Teach
Our economy can no longer afford society to shame teachers and schools by labeling them ineffective for student performance that may be symptomatic of factors outside the teacher’s or school’s control. Our public education system, designed for a world valuing rote recall and memorization, must evolve alongside our learners, the economy and technology. Active participation from future citizens will depend on critical thinking strategies, particularly the capacity to analyze, synthesize and evaluate data and claims with fidelity. Our students need teachers to sharpen and hone these skills. To address the opportunity gap, our society must rethink its view of teaching and the work teachers do.
I teach because no one sees the target you aim for—all they see is the one you hit. Each day I aim to serve my students as my teachers served me. Each day I do all that is asked of me, and then I do a little bit more.