Pushing against the achievement gap


The high schoolers in Claire Hypolite’s chemistry class are clustered in little knots of desks, heads down and pencils flying as they grapple with packets of homework problems. They toss solutions and gossip back and forth in English, Somali, and Hmong while they work. Watching this entirely generic classroom scene, it’s hard to believe more than 80% of these kids were failing this class only a few months ago.

Claire Hypolite came to Edison High School in Northeast Minneapolis eight years ago after completing her student teaching at North High and a doctorate in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She discovered she loved teaching while working as a teacher’s assistant in graduate school, tutoring undergraduate students, and teaching English in Japan.

Hypolite chose to work in urban schools, she said, because “I connect with them more…To urban kids, entitlement means ‘you owe me, you have to help me achieve.’ With suburban kids, they look at a teacher and say ‘it’s your responsibility to let me be a star.’ I didn’t really fit in with that.”

Hypolite’s easy smile belies a no-nonsense attitude toward her students. She teaches with the same flat voice a parent might use to explain to their five-year-old why they can’t have a cookie, and works her students hard. The homework packet they were working on the day I visited their class was 400 problems long, and the students were supposed to complete as much of it as they needed to understand the concepts backwards and forwards. Waiting in the hall before class, one student mistook me for a substitute teacher and sang “Joy to the world, the sub is here! We finally have some free time!”

This feeling is not just confined to Hypolite’s classroom, though. Students interviewed for a previous article on Edison’s fresh start said many of their teachers were holding them to higher standards this year.

The Strib looks at another Edison classroom.

When the year started, Hypolite said, students were simply not doing their homework. “I told these kids, ‘What can I do? You’re missing critical assignments.’” she said in an interview.

Her main goal, she said, was to motivate her students, many of whom had never been pushed hard. “There’s a whole generation of kids [in Minneapolis’ schools] who are used to being graded on not causing trouble and doing the work – kind of.”

Hypolite called the pattern a kind of “grade inflation” practiced by some of her Minneapolis colleagues.

When her students were suddenly faced with failing grades, she said, “they shut off,” because they thought she was not being fair. She said she could not speak for teachers in other districts, but that she was describing her observations from eight years of teaching.

“I fight this battle every year, but this year it was particularly bad,” she said. In the first quarter, an average of 83% of the kids in each of her five class sections was failing, and in one class 92% were failing.

Halfway through the first quarter, she took an unusual step of canceling class for a day, and instead told her students about her expectations, and explained research by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University. Dweck’s research dealt with how students perceive their own intelligence. According to this research, Hypolite said, students “shut off” because they think they’re smart (due to the way they’ve been graded in the past) and so they shouldn’t have to work very hard.

Hypolite’s hard-nosed approach is in line with a philosophy espoused by a number of education reformers like Washington DC schools’ Chancellor Michelle Rhee and New York City children’s advocate Geoffrey Canada. The idea that tough, motivated teachers are the solution to the chronic gap between white students and low-income students of color has made headlines across the nation, and ruffled feathers among teachers’ unions, education experts, and other reformers alike with slogans like “teachers have to believe poor children can learn.”

These reformers hold that teachers in urban, low-income schools – typically the most underperforming – need to demand excellence from their students, while giving them academic support (such as tutoring) in order to meet those expectations.

Edison is one these mostly poor, under-performing schools. Edison failed to make the Adequate Yearly Progress required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, so last year the school had to implement a process called a “fresh start.” Part of the “fresh start” was a process of terminating all teaching staff and requiring them to re-apply for jobs. In an email, Principal Carla Steinbach called the re-built staff “very hard working and committed.”

For Hypolite’s students, this approach has turned in results: halfway through the second quarter, 40% of her students are now passing, and she expects that number to grow. Even in the class where 92% were failing, only 65% were failing by the end of the quarter. Many of the students I saw in my visits to Hypolite’s classroom were warming to her style and rigor.

“She’s absolutely my favorite teacher,” said Freeman, a junior in one of Hypolite’s classes. “Last year [at a different school], they didn’t make you think.”

Some students have responded to her message that even smart people have to work hard. For others, she said, peer pressure has done the trick. In an email shared with me by Principal Carla Steinbach, Hypolite said that some students “changed their ways” and sought tutoring help after their friends started to do the same.

“I can’t really connect it with any one thing,” Hypolite said in the email, “but these are the things I know have changed in my classes since early October.”

In one of Hypolite’s classes, junior Brenda Vue jumped up from her desk to help a friend with the homework packet. “Did you get that one? Here, I’ll show you,” she said without waiting for an answer.

This kind of behavior is music to Hypolite’s ears. She acknowledges that she still has far to go – not all the passing students are getting good grades, and there are still a number of students who come to class, put their heads down, and sleep away the period – but the more she sees students like Vue, the more she thinks she’ll succeed in motivating her students.

James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.