Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Dicken Elementary Snafu--Some Context

For those who missed the story on the news, Dicken Elementary (Ann Arbor, MI) principal Mike Madison, in an effort to help struggling students, set up a "Lunch Bunch" composed only of African-American students. He then took these students to hear a black rocket scientist speak at the University of Michigan. When the kids got back, those excluded from the trip booed them.

Now, what he did was just plain stupid, not to mention probably illegal. (In 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2 which bans preferential treatment based on race.) I've never quite understood the idea that we achieve racial equality through inequality. If we hope that kids will judge each other on the content of their character and not race, then dividing them based on race seems a little counterproductive. Sending one group on a field trip while the others stay back at the school reinforces a message that these kids hear all too often: that they're different because of the color of their skin.

Also, if the situation was reversed, I have a feeling Al Sharpton would be coming to town. It's difficult to even imagine a white principal scheduling a field trip for only white students. Perhaps they could visit an NBA team and listen to a white basketball player so they see that they too can play in the League.

So why would an otherwise intelligent person and, from what I can gather, good principal, do something so dumb?

Answer: No Child Left Behind

NCLB requires schools to make "Adequate Yearly Progress," which means that the percentage of students scoring "proficient" on the state standardized test must go up by a certain percentage every year. Too many years of failing to make this improvement and the school faces progressively harsher sanctions, many of which will cost the school money (money they don't have).

So why does that matter? Because people who work in schools are no different than anybody else. If they are judged largely on the basis of one test then they will focus their energies on preparing students for that test. If they must improve the overall percentage of proficient students every year, then they will focus their energies on improving the performance of those who didn't pass the test the year before, assuming, usually correctly, that those who already passed the test will pass it again. All of which means that an incredible amount of energy, time, and money are put into helping the least successful students and very little time, energy, and money is spent on the high achievers.

But it doesn't stop there. NCLB also requires that each school achieve AYP in a number of subgroups, one of which is race. So is it any wonder principal Madison did what he did? I am sure that if we looked at Dicken's MEAP scores we would see an African-American population that performed below the level of their white counterparts.* To increase these students' performance, the principal creates this Lunch Bunch and then looks for opportunities to motivate the kids. The white kids are ignored because a. they scored better on the MEAP as a group and b. they are not an official "subgroup." In other words, they get the same treatment most students who do well in school get: they largely get ignored.

All of which leads to this conclusion: When put in ridiculous situations, even smart people will be do ridiculous things.

And for what it's worth, as a white kid, I think I would have dug listening to a rocket scientist. No matter what he looked like.

* I don't know Dicken's demographic breakdown, but statewide 89% of white fourth graders scored proficient in reading versus on 69% of African-Americans.


Larissa said...

I taught first grade for four years before leaving because the overwhelming sea of paperwork from NCLB made doing my actual job almost impossible.

It's even worse here in FL, because we do have one test that decides literally everything: the FCAT.

To describe the absolute stupidity of this would take an essay, so I will just say...

Excellent post. Thank you.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Some Snafu. That's messed up.

Anita said...

Hmmm...I'm going to have to read the article and think about this one. It's tough for me, because I hear racist comments ALL THE TIME and so I know kids of color need a little extra something something to pull through.

In CO, our "gifted" kids have to experience a score increase, too.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Michigan statistics are like Michigan weather forecasts, always unreliable.

My high school had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state for two years in a row, there were a lot of Juno's walking around. I am not sure why I fins this relevant.

Jason said...

Ahh the FCAT. I have not heard that in a few years. I have never heard one person say that it was doing any good, not one. Way worse than the MEAP.

Anonymous said...

Of course No Child Left Behind is a crock. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a private school for my final five years before college, but before that I attended public magnet schools, and both of my parents and my sister are public school teachers.

I've never heard of special field trips for only one group. That seems silly. But if the national news is reporting on my fantastically embarrassing homestate on this yet (, it should be pretty clear as well that some students do need an extra push for extra learning and extra sensitivity. That's not to say that gifted kids don't deserve things, because they do--I was always frustrated in school because it often felt like I was being punished for being smart. I had to do extra work or not be challenged, or I had to act as a teacher's assistant for the kids who didn't get it. That's not fair.

But also, as an African American and Latina, there are some areas in which I and my peers were less supported, and people who want to ban minority-sensitive initiatives are not helping. The reason things like affirmative action exist is so that in the future they won't have to. It's also because of white privilege that things like BET, ethnic studies classes, etc, exist. This is not to say that I feel like I've been kept down all my life, or anything like that, because I've lived more like a middle class Jewish Democrat (since I am one) more than anything else, but there is still more of a struggle for representation for minority students than white students.,%20White%20Privilege.htm explains this really well, as does her other article on privilege.

The black students should not have been taken on a field trip that all the students could have benefitted from. One thing that I think would aid in the moving towards eliminating affirmative action and all is exposing all children to the histories and cultures of all, rather than only teaching black students about black people. But it is perfectly valid to provide extra or different support or education for students who may not receive an education about people like them automatically. And it is absolutely unacceptable that the white students booed them. People like that are why these programs still have to continue. Nobody should feel that they are bad people for learning about other people like them.