Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fall Into the (Achievement) Gap: A Uniform Decision

Recently, thanks to the keen eye of my mentor and good friend Ray Jones, an article has come to my attention that deserves to be discussed. The article itself is from the Winston-Salem Journal and describes how my former middle school intends to implement school uniforms starting next fall ( This in itself is not much of a surprise. This was something that had been discussed while I taught at Philo and was something the administration and staff had supported. However, I felt compelled to comment on this topic not so much because of what the article said, but because of the abundance of comments that the article generated. Let's take a look at some of these from the Winston-Salem Journal website:

"It sure was nice long ago when us kids could wear whatever we wanted and no one was around to ruin it for the rest of us. Why don't they discipline or remove the offenders?"

"We must provider these kids meals because they and their parents decide to spend money on expensive clothing and not food. Many of these people are not poor. They are just lazy, greedy and vain. Such people are an insult to the true poor."

"Parents are also negligent for allowing their children to wear unacceptable clothing. Most problems start in the home."

"I wonder how many of those who qualified for the discounted meals [free and reduced lunch] own 1 or more cell phones? 1 or more vehicles? 1 or more color televisions? A sophisticated video game system?"

"The ACLU needs to challenge this. No way a public school can demand that a child must dress a certain way. A school can certainly BAN an item of clothing but it has no right dictating what a child has to wear in order to attend public school."

After my head stopped spinning from reading these comments, I felt I had to express my own opinion seeing as I actually had set foot inside Philo's hallways unlike any of the above posters. First and foremost, I feel this is a positive decision for the school. Truth be told, we tried to implement a quasi dress code my first year at the school for the 07-08 school year. We required students to tuck in their shirts and wear belts to keep their pants from sagging. The students at Philo fought, and fought hard. We tried to suspend our repeat offenders, but it got to the point that students flat out refused to do what was being asked of them. I saw students disrespect not only teachers but administrators as well by refusing to adhere to the dress code. About 2/3 of the way through that year, we as a staff decided to cut our losses, and we vowed to implement a school-wide dress code the following year.

Unfortunately, with the change over from one administration to a new one, the idea of a dress code got lost in the shuffle. It was not until about two months into my second year that the idea was breached again, and by that time it was too late to implement anything for the 08-09 school year. However, there was without question a need for the dress code. Students wore sagging pants, inappropriate shirts, as well as gang affiliated clothing. It got to the point where I could tell you which young men would be coming to school on a Wednesday wearing white t-shirts and jeans. That was no accident, those were gang members showing off their "true colors." When a group of 15 boys walk down the hall together wearing the same thing, you know something is up. Any time students can openly broadcast their gang affiliation, it is time for a needed change.

That is why the offenders were not removed as one of the comments suggested. In terms of the ACLU getting involved, well I wouldn't lose any sleep over that one. Besides since 80% of the parents and staff approved the new dress codes, they have no legal recourse anyway. One comment I didn't post mentioned how students would now want to leave the school if they had to wear a uniform. This poster clearly has no idea about Philo's demographics. Half of our students are Hispanic. Many of their parents or even themselves come from a background of wearing school uniforms. This is nothing new and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the families actually embraced this new dress code. There will inevitably be a handful of students who leave. That is their choice and ultimately, if you don't buy into a school's philosophy then maybe you should consider other options anyway.

I also wanted to comment on the posts about welfare and the socio-economics of the lower class. These posters clearly have no idea about what is going on. The truth is that there is a class system even within the urban poor. One way to assert your status in this group is by what you own. Conspicuous consumption is not a trait reserved for the elite. Students from lower socio-economic families know they too are being judged on a day-to-day basis. Yes, they are on free and reduced lunch. However, this doesn't stop them from owning an iPod or having new sneakers. I have seen near fights break out over some boy scuffing another's shoes. Walk into any middle school boy's bathroom and you will see the boys fixing two things: their hair and their shoes. If you ever want to get on a young male's good side, complement his shoes and he will immediately respect you.

Lastly, the comment about letting their child leave the home dressed the way they are was simply foolish. These are single parent homes for the most part. Some students live with a relative, others live in foster homes. The whole idea of "dressing properly" is a middle-class value that we assume our students to have when they get to us. The truth is, they don't know what it means to dress "properly" and neither do the parents. I have met parents who dress the same way as their children. Some dads come in to parent conferences with baseball caps, baggy jeans, and do-rags. Some moms come in to parent conferences with t-shirts that are 1-2 sizes too small. It is the culture and we should not be judging them for their mode of dress. Students either emulate their parents or their peers in terms of dress. Also, a lot of their parents work multiple jobs and multiple shifts so many of them are forced to fend for themselves in the morning. They wear want they want to and so do their younger siblings that they might be in charge of. For students of poverty, how they look in the mirror when they leave the house is the least of their concerns.

I applaud Philo for this decision. The truth is that once clothing threatens the safety of a school, it is time for a change. That is how I felt about the dress code when I was there. I have nothing against gang members. I have taught them before and I teach them now. Some of them have been very pleasant young men and women in the classroom. However, what they do outside of school needs to stay outside of school. The more visible they are, the more likely it becomes that younger children will want to emulate them. I saw gang membership increase twofold from my first year to my second year at Philo. That is because of the presence of gang members and their gang-affiliated clothing. People knew who the gang members were. I had one African American student find a Hispanic gang member's bandanna with the gang colors. He dragged it on the floor and then took it into the restroom where he urinated on it and flushed it down the toilet. He knew what that bandanna stood for and so did I. With uniforms, that tension that the African American student displayed will be greatly decreased. Then and only then will the teachers at Philo be able to teach in an environment that is truly conducive to learning.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Making The Grade: Reevualuating How We Assess Our Students

As I finish up a week at my school where teachers have just given their mid-term examinations, I felt it would be an appropriate point to raise the issue of grading. Grading is one of those things that all teachers do. It consumes our planning periods, week nights, and weekends. Students constantly ask us what their grade is because depending on which of the first six letters of the alphabet they receive (excluding E of course) can dramatically alter their weekend plans. We as teachers can be graded and schools as a whole are also readily defined by one of those magical five letters. Clearly grading should not be taken lightly. However, I pose the following question: Should we even be grading at all?

I can hear the outcry now. Of course we should be grading! How then would our students know how they are doing? They need grades for graduation, college admission, and job applications! This is all very true. Our current educational system is entirely dependent on grades. Those with A grades graduate with honors and go to the best colleges and universities. Those with B and C grades graduate and have opportunities to attend local colleges and community colleges. Those with D grades barely graduate and most likely join the work force right away. Those with F's, well they don't graduate because a lot of those letters mean that the student just hasn't cut it in his or her classes. There is the system in a nutshell. Your future prospects all depend on which of those 5 letters are most abundant on your report card.

I want to take you all back to ancient Greece. Here, teachers did not have all the technologies and access to information that we have today. They taught their pupils outside and taught them about the world they lived in based on the teacher's experience. Believe it or not, even the great Aristotle was not a straight-A student. In fact, Aristotle never received a 100 or an A on ANY assignment. That's because his teacher, a gentleman named Plato, was not constantly assessing his students with either a number or a letter grade. Despite this lack of evaluation, Aristotle seemed to do okay for himself. He not only produced some work on his own but he also managed to impart some of his wisdom onto some of his own students, especially one named Alexander, who later on was moderately successful in the field of empire expansionism.

The thing to think about is that we learn so much more from our mistakes then our successes. Think about when you've learned the most in your life. Odds are it was when you did something wrong, instead of when you did something right. I can't remember the countless words I spelled right during my elementary school spelling bee days. What I do remember is how to spell "bailiff" and "dumbbell" as those two words were the ones that brought my magical runs to an end. The same holds true for other areas of school. You don't remember your answers to that quiz you got a 100% on. But that one test where you missed one question and got the 99%, ugh, that one response will stick with you for a while. Has anyone else realized how backward this is? The more our students make mistakes, the more they learn from those mistakes. Yet those making the mistakes are the ones who "fail" classes as opposed to those who don't.

I know I am not the only one who feels that grades are superfluous. A former colleague of mine and good friend is currently trying to adapt this philosophy to his high school classroom. He is being met with much resistance. Why? Because it is so ingrained in students' minds that grades are the only thing that matters. I have lost track of how many times students have asked me, "Are we getting a grade for this?" If for whatever reason I say, "No" then students respond with a "Well then, why are we doing it?" Long gone are the days of ancient Greece where students learned to learn. Everything today is geared toward the acquisition of one of those 5 little letters. A class without grading? Why, that's just foolish. How could anybody learn in that environment?

I personally believe that this kind of environment would create superior learning. Think about having the opportunity to try classes in both high school and college without having the pressure of a grade. How many students would try something new like a shop class? How many students who have never drawn a picture might want to take an art class? How many high-level math students would try their hand at a class like calculus just to see how high they can jump? Think about the opportunities for students to pursue knowledge that they would genuinely find interesting and exciting. This would revolutionize education as we know it today. Students would be learning. Teachers would not have to have a red pen in their back pocket and be giving up their free time to grade. Colleges and universities would have to actually get to know students, interview them, and talk to them instead of basing admission on a sheet of paper with a lot of funky letters on it. The possibilities are endless and I get giddy just thinking about them.

Of course then I realize it will never happen. The system is too cemented. The American system of education needs easy ways to differentiate students and letters are the easiest way. We as teachers need to know why one student is understanding 95% of the material while another is understanding 70% of the material. Clearly, one deserves and A while another deserves a C-. Cultural backgrounds, language difficulties, home life, attendance, none of this is important. One student is an A-student and the other is a C-student, case closed. They can't both get A's that wouldn't be fair. And if they didn't receive grades, well, we've already gone over the anarchy that system would cause. In the meantime, it is up to us as teachers to decide how we can best assess our students. As for me, my students get a grade every day. If they are physically present and not disrupting the class, I see no reason why they should get anything lower than a C. Their grade is based on the day's lesson and is something that if they have been working diligently then they will have success on. I realize this is a far cry from my ideal gradeless world. However, I do think it is a positive first step in the right direction. It's not a flawless system, but in my mind it is A-OK.