By Yaasiyn Muhammad
On March 1st, The LEARN Network hosted their annual conference at UPenn, and graciously provided a few passes for TAG teachers to attend. The conference brings together different viewpoints about education reform in Philadelphia. Below are one teacher’s impressions of the day.
The theme of the 3rd annual L.E.A.R.N. conference was “Achievement Gap or the Education Debt? Combating Racial Inequalities in Our Public Schools.” This theme acknowledges the existence of racial inequalities in the nation’s public school systems, a premise that I completely agree with, but some of the solutions proposed specifically by State Senator Anthony Williams are currently creating more inequality in the public schools of Philadelphia.
Williams, as the afternoon keynote speaker, supported his positions in favor of charter schools, cyber schools, and private school vouchers, each of these measures are taking funds away from the public schools of Philadelphia, in an attempt to provide parents with options. Williams claimed that these options are for the very families who are suffering because of this achievement gap, or as Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and Dr. Camika Royal would put it, educational debt.
Interestingly, when an audience member presented data that stated that families with the highest needs were not tapping into these options, Williams quickly dismissed that notion. A member of the morning panel validated the point that the audience member was making–Ms. Kia Philpot-Hinton spoke on one of the benefits of charter schools. She stated that she placed her child in a charter school because she understood that the parents of children in charter schools were much more active in their kids’ education.
Williams even dismissed the notion that increased funding correlates with academic achievement. Williams touted himself as someone who is in the middle on this issue, acknowledging that there is an achievement gap, that he understands there is an historical context as to why it exists, and that he is open for any suggestions.
Dr. Royal, as a participant in the morning panel, presented the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings when addressing the theme of the achievement gap. Royal espouses the belief that the term achievement gap is a misnomer that works to compare racial minorities to their white counterparts, in a way that blames racial minorities for their shortcomings. Royal prefers the term “educational debt” explaining that there has been a debt ran up in our society, a debt caused by structural racism, racism that aimed to prevent minority groups from accessing quality education everywhere in this nation. From her statements, it seems that Dr. Royal would like for politicians and the public to understand this issue in light of that historical truth and shift the conversation about funding and academic achievement, in a way that it focuses on addressing inter-generational effects of discrimination.
By contrast, Senator Williams made a statement in his address that told everyone in the audience that he is not focused on addressing historical inequities. Williams said that a teacher who was a C student in their school of education was more likely to be an ineffective teacher. That statement is a reflection of the hyper grade-conscious, test-oriented culture that has infected our students, politicians, and even our teachers. This culture exists in public schools and is expanding the empathy gap present in our schools.
At a late morning session addressed the notion of an empathy gap, one of the most memorable panelists was Philadelphia teacher (and TAG member) Jaimie Stevenson. She saw the empathy gap as her inability to build and develop a relationship with all of her students because of her inability to appreciate his values. She pointed to the lack of flexibility in her lessons and assessments because of the test oriented focal points of her curriculum, therefore, the student who is interested in art can never express that interest in his English class, much worse, his teacher can never express an appreciation in his diverse talents.
Just as Williams sees teachers with C’s as hurting the educational achievement of their school system, our schools see the students who are tactile and art-based as not helping the school’s test scores, because the politicians running the school system are focused on test scores and not the diverse contributions students and teachers bring to education.
Yaasiyn Muhammad has been teaching history for 5 years. Last year he was laid off from Northeast High School after 4 years there. He currently teaches at Central High School.