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When describing poverty, segregation, racial inequity, and all the other disparities in American life, the word “underserved” comes up a lot. I’ve had editors say that the word is meaningless. Others say it’s jargon. But two recent studies have put some research behind what it means to be “underserved.”
The Opportunity Myth, published by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), is a nationwide study of how classroom instruction, work, and expectations affect students.
The Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) recently released its 2018 Kids Count report on child wellbeing in Texas.
In the aggregate, both reports show that kids are not guaranteed access to the tools they need to succeed. These tools are supposed to be delivered by public schools, the healthcare system, and some mixture of the market economy and social safety net services. When these public resources fail to reach families, it leaves kids uninsured, unstable, and inadequately educated. That’s what we mean by underserved.
Both reports—The Opportunity Myth and Kids Count—make it very clear that the kids of color and low-income families are the least likely to receive the recommended services. That’s why the term “underserved” shows up so frequently in articles about racial and economic inequity.
Reading about what proper service should look like, and sometimes does look like, I was reminded of my own education, particularly, the eighth grade.
Mrs. Stevens and the Diagramming Debacle of 1997
When I was in 8th grade, my parents moved me from my suburban public school to a rigorous private school. In New Braunfels ISD, I had been in honors classes, and the school district was relatively strong. But on the second or third week of school at my new school, I was sobbing after English class.
I couldn’t diagram a sentence, and my classmates had just demonstrated their prowess by randomly selecting sentences from The Count of Monte Cristo and diagramming them—prepositions, clauses, indirect objects and all.
I remembered the unit on diagramming sentences from the year before, at my old school. It had been a blur, some basics, loosely held in my brain long enough to pass a test on a substantial grade curve, and quickly forgotten. I remember the teacher telling me that there was more learn about diagramming sentences, but that if we could just get the basics we’d be okay on the test.
Okay on the test, but not okay in my new school. I waited for my classmates to leave the room before I let the frustrated tears out. My teacher, Mrs. Stevens, called me to her desk, and looked over my nearly-blank paper.
“I know you’re frustrated,” she said (as I remember it), “But by the end of the year, you’ll be able to diagram any sentence you read. I’m not going to slow down for you, though. I think you’re smart enough to catch up.”
Mrs. Stevens knew something I didn’t. Not that I was smart—she’d only known me a few weeks. She knew that she was capable of getting me where I needed to be. She knew how to get me there. It was grueling, trying to catch up with my peers in English, Spanish, and Algebra. But I did it, making the most significant gains in my entire education. While you might debate the value of sentence diagramming, you can’t look at my career now and argue that I didn’t benefit from a deep grasp of English language and grammar.
I was also in a very stable home with access to nutritious food, medical and dental care, regular sleep, and loads of parental support. I had nothing in my way but the challenge itself.
That was the story that sprang to mind as I was reading the Opportunity Myth, and then I reconsidered it in the light of the CPPP report. Not every student has access to a Mrs. Stevens, but they should. Those teachers shouldn’t be tucked away in elite private schools, or filtered up to the highest echelons of AP, IB, GT and the rest of the letters that indicate “over achievers.”
Labor of Love
Rigor and deep engagement makes a difference for every student, but especially those who are behind at the beginning of the year. That’s the premise of The Opportunity Myth, a nationwide study produced by The New Teacher Project, an organization that helps school districts serving low income and minority students increase teacher effectiveness. They are trying to bring a Mrs. Stevens to every classroom, especially those low-income urban and rural classrooms where such teachers typically don’t stick around.
For students who came into the school year behind their peers, TNTP found that high expectations moved the students almost eight months further along in academic standards than those students whose teachers did not expect them to catch up and surpass grade level. Those whose teachers assigned them grade-level work— though they would inevitably struggle to complete at first—moved 7.3 months further than those whose teachers assigned them easier work, below their grade level.
The methodology of the Opportunity Myth is itself important. Classroom observation, test scores, and surveys are all part of it, but they also did some pretty intense listening . . . to kids.
It is more rare than you’d think, including children in the research done about them. Far more rare for that inclusion to be open-ended and meaningful. We see a lot of reporting on student data. Student outcomes. Slightly less we read about student perceptions, and then mostly in the form of “on a scale of one-to-ten” or perhaps a grab-n-go quote about the students emotions after a tragedy or triumph.
Less frequently do researchers and journalists ask students asked to analyze, critique, and explore their world over an extended period of time. Against the back drop of data that seems mysterious (falling college readiness rates in spite of rising graduation rates), student voice is both wry and insightful.
While there is some use of surveys, the report also includes deep, open-ended conversation and storytelling. The kids make sense of it all, because they are not so mysterious to themselves.
Students told TNTP that they suspect they are not being prepared for college. There’s a mismatch between what is being required in order to graduate, and what is being required to earn college credit, or to win a decently-paying job. They are keeping up their end of the bargain—homework, attendance, extra credit. But, according to the report, teachers aren’t demanding the kind of work that would prepare them.
To Meet the Demands
That word, “demanding,” is tough, as illustrated by another report released this month. The Center for Public Policy Priorities released its Kids Count report, the annual wakeup call for Texans tempted to self-congratulate on one data point or another.
For instance, yes, our economy is growing. Meanwhile, one in four children is still living in poverty, higher numbers among black and Latino kids. Almost one in ten are still uninsured, even after gains made by the Affordable Care Act.
While discussing the report before an audience of 300 on November 15, Rep. Diego Bernal said that fixing those numbers came down to political will. We find money for roads, walls, and tax cuts. We continually feed our ridiculously huge rainy day fund. We could expand medicaid, we could better fund schools, we could raise the minimum wage. We just don’t want to.
So in a world where we won’t take care of them, how can we justify demanding more from children academically?
From that dilemma comes two responses that have shaped 21st century education: pobrecito and “no excuses.” Pobrecito is the belief that a student’s future is defined by overcoming a particular set of challenges, and that stability and survival is the kindest goal we can set.
Meanwhile, “no excuses,” the popular motto of many charter schools in the late 90s and 2000s, suggests that if the students are simply pushed they will succeed at the same rate as their privileged peers. (There are also other interpretations of “no excuses” that are much less strident.)
These two reports, when stacked side-by-side, suggest that neither pobrecito nor no excuses will serve kids. We need rigor. We also need food. We need high expectations. We need healthy kids. We need full service. There’s no reason in the world we should try to solve these problems on one front only. Health, well-being, and financial stability are not “big dreams.” The CPPP report aims at lawmakers whose basic duty is to construct a society wherein the basics are in place for all kids.
But should those basics fall into place, it won’t create opportunity, it won’t bridge the astounding gaps in class income over generations. The TNTP report aims at school districts, smaller local governments that can create that opportunity. It’s a playbook for doing so.
The reports, again side-by-side, show us what we’re not doing. But they suggest how we might do it better, and they don’t leave the results up to our imagination. If we get this right and serve kids well, the dreams articulated by students in the TNTP report will become realities. Neurologists, police chiefs, trauma nurses all operating at the top of their game. That’s what we stand to gain.
Originally published as “Support and Demand: two studies explore what it means to be underserved,” Hall Monitor, November 16, 2018
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