Reinventing the wheel


January, around 1982: We were explaining that our program for students who were disruptive would not become an all white program. If any more African American boys were referred, “they would only come holding the hand of a white child on each side” …then and only then would we think about taking them. One teacher, who had referred only black boys out of his classes was clearly enraged. His voice rose to a yell, “Well what if black boys are the problem then? What if they are the ones tearing up our classes?”

My boss, a white man, held firm. He and his African American co-administrator of the SPAN program at Phillips School in the early 80’s, were convinced that the over referral of black young men to our 7-9 pullout program, was part of  the institutional racism that had to be countered by a firm refusal to provide a special education location to appease white teachers who did not want to deal with students of color. What happened after that refusal and after a policy was established was fascinating and heart breaking. We received some of the most emotionally disturbed kids ever to arrive in our program. They were white and they were sometimes suicidal, sometimes into tantrums that lasted an hour, sometimes destructive of the rooms where we taught. It seemed that when an insistence on referring white students in need of smaller classes and a firm, no-nonsense, carefully monitored and supportive school day, was made clear, teachers found those students most in need of our help. Our program then included a greater percentage of white students.

There is a kind of blindness in many of us who are white and even some of those who are not. We do not see students with any objectivity, neutrality or even fairness in relation to race. It takes years of work, both individually and in groups, to find a cure for this lack of accurate vision. When that happens, when you are forced to recognize behavior for what it truly is, and account for white misbehavior in adolescents as well as misbehavior of students of color, remarkable things happen. When you reach for connections to students, listen to them, figure out ways to create a curriculum that is responsive to them, while maintaining the authority they want you to maintain as their teacher, you learn, finally, to teach all students, and to see the brilliance in each of them.

The meeting described at the beginning of this blog, happened over twenty-five years ago. Still, we read in the Star Tribune last month about the over referral of young black boys to special education, and specifically into programs for EDBD (Emotionally Disturbed, Behaviorally Disordered) in great numbers. How is it that in education we cycle back to problems when some solutions, some excellent research has been conducted and results have provided a new way to go? How is that we come back to this identical situation today after all these years?

Along with my work in SPAN at Henry High school I developed a co-teaching plan in which I would teach with a mainstream English teacher and bring in seven of the students who had been referred to our program for EBD services. The total number of students would be the same as any mainstream class. Recently I read about schools that are just beginning to do this. They are adding specialists into mainstream classrooms, thus cutting down on the ratio of adult/student while integrating EBDB students into regular subject area courses. It works. With the right match up, with the necessary openness on the part of all adults, this combination of integration and extra adult presence makes a difference. With paired teaching we can keep more students out of special education altogether. What I don’t understand then, is if we showed that this worked years ago, why was it abandoned and now is being discovered as a new way to approach making sure our students of color are not set aside and excluded from a regular high school experience? What is it that lets us drift with the tide or mood or political flavor of the time, forever circling back to previous ideas, methods as though they are new?

In the mid 80s I worked with special educators to develop ways for teachers to identify students who might be in trouble and then provided them with a series of interventions that could alleviate the problem, whether it be a teacher or student who needed to shift attitude or behavior. We paired the behaviors with suggested ways to address, change or modify instruction. I am not sure when this system was discarded. I do know that we cut down on referrals to special education for behavior. Again, why do we circle around and reinvent ourselves without taking note of what we know helps kids?

Recently I talked with some teachers about how frustrating the current focused learning, daily monitoring system is for them. They are instructed to move their primary school students into a new concept whether or not these students understood the lesson from the day before. How do you build on knowledge and understanding that is not there? I have talked with educators from various school districts across the country about highly regimented and micro managed systems like the one being used in some of our schools. Both principals and classroom teachers describe using such a method and abandoning it within a year when they saw how detrimental it was to their students. Just a few years ago, we were encouraged to provide differentiated instruction, to meet students’ needs based on their skill level, while including them in the content of the instruction.  We were told to scaffold their progress on a firm foundation of incremental and individualized steps. The new lock- step instruction for the entire class runs counter to the differentiated classroom. When did we abandon what we know has worked?

This is not a call to return to the past. It is not a chance to demonstrate my own expertise and experience. All along the way everything I have done has been done collaboratively, with fine teachers and administrators. What I am asking for here is plea for considering ideas that are successful for young people in our care, whether they were implemented two months or twenty years ago.  

So much of this comes back to race, to how we train teachers, how we do or do not dig deeply into understanding the racism that is a part of our individual unconscious and ingrained our institutions. All of the elements I have described: supportive help for classroom management, differentiated learning, refusal to let Special Education be the norm for black students or suspension to be the automatic solution to incidents involving students of color, adult to student ratio adjusted to help all kids succeed in a class, must be combined with a new and vibrant and relevant curriculum. It will only work if we spend time examining the institutional structures that perpetuate and reinforce racism in our classrooms. It is a matter of envisioning our children in ways that allow us to see them as gifted, all of them.

We know that schools all over the country have figured this out: public schools with strong teacher unions and high poverty rates. Yet we don’t learn from each other, or even from our own experience in our own district. Are we so reactive that we cannot take a breath and rethink, and regroup? Are we so committed to single minded solutions for students of color—ie charter schools, “no excuses orthodoxies”, TFA members in every building, disempowering teacher unions,—that we cannot look at the history, the data, the success stories to understand how to go about the radical reformation we need to make sure black , Latino, Native American  and Asian students  experience equality of opportunity in this country?

I am tired of the simplistic, dismissive and condescending tone I hear regarding educators. I am also tired of the refusal of some in our ranks to examine our own flaws, our own ingrained racism, structural and personal. Our kids need it all: wrap around services, energetic teachers, supportive administrations, freedom to invent, explore and differentiate and a willingness go where there is discomfort and a demand for change in all we do.

Oh, one more thing…I heard on a radio broadcast about science and education that the common factor in schools where students test in the highest ranks in science, is teacher pay, and teacher respect. How about some of that too? I know that that helps. I’ve been there.