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A New Look at Gaps

Do our own expectations play a part in achievement differences?

By Marty Swaim

I look forward to the day when we are unable to predict children’s academic success when they enter kindergarten based on race, culture, second language status, class or handicapping condition. 

“Good luck with that!” was the response I got recently when I described that goal to someone. My response? “No, we can do this.”

I am a White woman, a high school and middle school social studies teacher, and a former president of the Arlington Education Association. When I retired from teaching in 2001, I taught teachers and other staff, beginning with a course called “Teaching Across Cultures.” Later, I began working on cultural competence materials for educators in Arlington schools. All this led me to the assumption I share with my co-authors of a book called Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds and Practice: The low expectations held for Black and Latino students by some teachers, other staff members and the school system are a root cause of achievement gaps. 

We wrote Gaining on the Gap to encourage educators to develop their own campaigns to get rid of achievement gaps. We’re committed to public schools and want them to be places of success for all students.

The Questions Begin: DC and Arlington
My journey started in 1968 when our daughter and then our son entered Peabody Edmonds Elementary School in Washington, D.C. I knew the neighborhood kids, and knew they were capable. As a new school board member, I knew the D.C. schools were spending plenty of money, but kids continued to fail.

In 1985, I began teaching social studies at Wakefield High School in Arlington. My learning curve on what public schools need for excellence followed two paths at the same time. In my ninth-grade World History classes I discovered that able Black and Latino students, in the school system since kindergarten, could not pass essay tests because they could not put into writing ideas they could express orally. This lack of skill was disabling, in social studies and other subjects. I asked myself two questions:

• What could I do to teach these students to write?

• How could the best-funded school system in Virginia produce students who couldn’t write? 

I joined the Northern Virginia Writing Project to learn how to teach writing—and reading. That worked, solving the first problem.
Answering the second question, however, has been more complex. I started looking for answers at AEA meetings, answers related to working conditions and teacher time. I met elementary teachers with no real planning time and counselors with workloads of 250 students. I myself had 125 students in five classes and three different preparations. I worked 60-80 hours a week, and was sometimes grateful for the students who did not write papers.

My economist husband and I pored over comparisons between U.S. schools and those in other developed countries. American teachers teach more students for more student contact hours with less planning time, less time with teacher mentors and lower salaries and benefits than teachers in those countries. As a result, individual students in American public schools get less “teacher time” than do students in the rest of the world, and many do not feel connected to even one school adult. 

So, did overworked teachers explain our failures with Black and Latino students? As a parent in D.C., I saw that Black kids had the capacity they needed to succeed. Then, as a teacher, I learned many techniques a teacher needs to be able to successfully teach students who come without a needed skill. I was, in fact, overworked. How much did that affect my work with Black and Latino students? Of course, teacher time is an important variable, and one that that schools can improve. But when I first started teaching high school and looking at teacher working conditions, I think I also had a back story in my head like this: “Maybe this Black student came to school without a big vocabulary, maybe he had no place at home to study, etc.” This was my own version of thinking that the students themselves were responsible for not being able to write in ninth grade.

A Change of Outlook
My thinking began to change when I transferred to Jefferson Middle School to teach as part of a team. Each year from 1994-1997 I taught two groups of 12 sixth-graders who were at least two grades behind in reading scores and below grade in writing. I had each group for two hours every day for a language arts and social studies block.  Most of these students had been in Arlington schools since kindergarten, and none got special education services.

This experience was a professional watershed for me: I used everything I knew from social studies, the Writing Project, and from my colleagues who taught first grade reading. All 25 of us in those two classrooms worked very, very hard—writing essays, personal stories, interviews, journaling, reading groups, daily individual reading, daily use of the Wilson Reading (phonics) method. We got to know each other very well. The first year, 19 of 22 students passed both the reading and the writing Literacy Passport. What a pleasure! I had never had such a huge “up” as a teacher!

But while I was teaching and getting to know these students, I thought, “How could they get to sixth grade without the skills they need? I know my elementary school colleagues work hard.” I had these students for only six to nine months, and I’m not a “walk on water” teacher. What made the difference?

Small class size and planning time helped. I had no more than 12 students per group, so I could know them academically and personally. I had a daily two-period planning block, while my elementary colleagues were lucky to get 30 minutes a day and two hours on early-release Wednesdays.

This class shook my back story about my Black ninth-graders who couldn’t write, and turned upside down common explanations of why students of color do poorly. Most were from two-parent families, and all the parents came to conferences and responded enthusiastically to phone calls. With one exception, the few White children came from very poor families. It crossed my mind: Could it be that these students came to sixth grade below grade level because that was what their teachers expected of them?
Looking back, I could say that when I taught the class it never occurred to me that my students would not pass the Literacy Passports tests, build writing portfolios and read books. I imagine I communicated that to them in many different ways. The two elementary colleagues who helped me lay out my curriculum for reading said, “You can teach these kids to read. Here’s how. All my students read before they leave me.” With their strategies and with practices from the Writing Project, I had a lot to support my students with in meeting my expectations. I know the class was not a magic bullet and those students left my class with much still to learn.

But in those three years I thought a lot about what causes achievement gaps.
During this time, I helped plan a teacher presentation about the achievement gap to Arlington’s County Council of PTAs. I prepared to have teachers there to address issues of planning time, teacher-student contact hours, class size and the salary gap that leads experienced people to leave the profession. All lead to less quality teacher time for students and less time to individualize or build relationships. After I had presented my proposed agenda, Cheryl Robinson, the Black supervisor of the Office of Minority Achievement (OMA) spoke. I didn’t know her then; she is now a co-author of Gaining On the Gap. “I think that a major cause of the gap is low teacher expectations for kids of color,” she said.

I hadn’t thought about teacher expectations being a “major cause,” so I pushed back, asserting that planning time and class size made a difference for students of color. Cheryl persisted, saying, “Those things are important, but bottom line, this gap is about expectations.” Her point resonated for me as I thought about my students at Wakefield and my sixth-graders at Jefferson.

I went back to my school and watched. I could see there were kids of color who were A and B students in one teacher’s room and failed outright in other classrooms. In sixth grade, this didn’t seem like teenage rebellion. Maybe this was something else. Maybe Cheryl was right.

New Understandings
At about the same time, I began to teach a class at George Mason University called “Teaching Across Cultures: Readings in the Classical Literature of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, and Conversations with Parents.” My premise was that educators’ knowledge of student culture is the foundation for building relationships and demonstrating respect, thus increasing the chances of student success. The literature we read was full of the struggle for respect and pride and a sense of self-worth for minorities in White America. Arlington parents described judgments made about them or their children based on race or second language in schools. In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum’s discussion of racial identity development and children’s experience of what she calls, “that stuff…racist, sexist or classist,” taught me that the students of color in my classroom more than likely had experienced stereotyping. They’d probably seen it happen to their parents, too. I could see that until I demonstrated otherwise in my classroom, I could be seen by a child of color as one of those stereotyping White people.
Teachers in “Teaching Across Cultures” became aware of how a child of color might feel “outside” in their classroom. They were asked to do an informal study of what might work to improve the success of their Black, Latino and Asian students. They used a variety of specific strategies and began to report changes in their own behaviors and frequent improvement in student results.
Arlington Public Schools initiated or extended many efforts to close achievement gaps between 1999 and 2010, including public discussions, strategic planning, teacher and staff training, and changes in “business as usual,” such as getting more students of color into advanced classes. Progress has come slowly, with a gradual rise in scores and decline in gaps and improvement in all scores for about the first five years, followed by a persistent plateau of the scores of minority students for the last five years. Significant gaps remain, although the bottom line is higher.
As then-superintendent Rob Smith says in Gaining On the Gap, “The issues of expectations and access to opportunity were affected by elements of institutional racism reflected in the perceptions, perhaps unwittingly or unconsciously, of an overwhelmingly White administration and faculty. I came to believe that the issue of cultural competence and issues related to White privilege must be confronted directly, systematically and over time if we hoped to continue the progress we enjoyed in narrowing the gaps in the early years.”

With this shift away from the idea that students themselves cause the gap, APS took responsibility as a system for achievement gaps and called on teachers and administrators—of whatever race—to look at themselves and their work. As Gaining co-author Tim Cotman, a minority achievement coordinator who is Black, wrote, “We are each part of the problem and part of the solution. I am part of the problem when I do not reflect on my own biases and the impact they have on my interactions with others. I am part of the solution when I speak up when I observe inequitable policies and practices. “

Spreading the Word
For the 2007-08 school year, the superintendent asked Cheryl Robinson to develop and carry out training in race and achievement gaps for all administrators. Cheryl’s resources were drawn from diversity workshops and graduate level courses for teachers that she and others had taught for years. After that year, administrators asked that their school staffs receive the training, now called cultural competence. OMA built a trained cadre of teachers to serve as paid teacher peer-trainers. They trained for one year in the curriculum and in facilitation, and most gave two years as facilitators.

Deliberately and methodically, cultural competence training is spreading throughout APS. Schools volunteer to be trained, and for that year all staff must participate. Teachers and their attitudes toward students are a key variable in student success, and one that we as teachers and schools as systems can change.

Palma Strand’s introduction to Gaining clearly states our current ideas in the journey for answers about why my students of color could not write in World History and why my quite capable sixth-graders came to middle school below grade level. I believe they had absorbed messages that they could not succeed in school when in fact they could do the work. Here is part of what Palma, a White mother of Biracial children, wrote:

“We have begun a shift from viewing achievement gaps as resulting from problems with the children who come to our schools to viewing them(the gaps) as resulting from problems with the school systems to which these children come. This perspective does not deny the relevance of other factors such as poverty; level of parent education; social support such as medical care, quality child care and pre-school; and per-pupil spending. It is to suggest that school systems can take responsibility for doing what is in their considerable power to eliminate gaps.

“Institutional racism encompasses racial disparities that result from institutional structures and operations, although generally not from overt acts of intentional discrimination. Institutional racism is entrenched, intractable and not easily eradicable, in part because those who perpetuate it are often not even aware that they are doing so, and in part because it operates through the cumulative action of multiple people rather than as a single readily identifiable act of one individual. Tackling institutional racism thus means taking responsibility and looking for solutions as a system.”

As a teacher, I take pride in the fact that Arlington teachers have been at the forefront of this work. In 2008, over 100 educators volunteered for a year of training on race and the achievement gap, spending nine three-hour sessions studying after school. They read books and articles, and committed to facilitate 15 or more hours of training for the following year. They took big risks in inviting colleagues to talk and think about race. Besides the gift of time they gave to teach other teachers, they also became a resource in their home schools. They built capacity. When we close our achievement gaps, these teachers will have been our school pioneers.

Swaim (, a former president of the Arlington Education Association, has retired from teaching and continues to provide staff development and training to teachers and other school staff members. She is the co-author of two books: Teacher Time and Gaining On the Gap. She would like you to know that her co-authors show equality all around: three men, three women, three Black, three White! It just happened that way.



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