The repeated theme at last week's ED task force meeting is that all children can succeed, but it's going to take a lot of hard work from the school system to help the students out.
The tenor of the Wake County school board's economically disadvantaged student performance task force meeting was set when this YouTube video of Sir Ken Robinson was shown to a packed room of teachers and principals.
Robinson contends that the current educational system is based on the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and the environment of the Industrial Revolution. He argues that most people don't benefit from that model, creating the plague of ADHD.
Robinson advocates the idea of divergent thinking, in which people have the ability to come up with multiple answers to a problem.
He pointed to a study of 1,500 kindergartens in which 98 percent were tested at genius level for divergent thinking. But the same students scored sharply lower when the test was repeated over time.
Robinson said the study shows most people have the capacity to think creatively but it gets weeded out over time in the education system.
"It makes you think," said school board vice chairman John Tedesco, the head of the ED task force, after the video was shown. "Some things we can agree on. Some things we may not.”
Tedesco said the video was poignant because of his personal belief that children start out inherently brilliant. He said he wants to talk about how to expand that brilliance.
The next presenter was Angel Harris, a Princeton University professor and author of the book "Kids Don't Want to Fail: Oppositional Culture and Black White Achievement Gap."
Harris contends that the achievement gap is not the result of cultural pressure in the black community for students to "not act white."
Harris contends that black students perform badly in high school not because they don’t want to succeed but because they enter without the necessary skills. Harris finds that the achievement gap starts to open up in preadolescence, typically at elementary school, due to factors such as socioeconomics.
Harris pointed to national data showing that the average white high school senior is four years ahead academically of black seniors. With the white population expected to become the minority in the decades ahead, the country can't afford to ignore the racial achievement gap.
“You can’t have half of your population walking around with an eighth-grade skills set," Harris said. "It will have an effect.
Harris, who is African American, then gave his personal story about being in the bottom 10 percent of high school class in Brooklyn. He joked that the GRE exam had him as only being mildly literate.
But Harris said he was encouraged to go on to college, getting his bachelor's, master's, PhD and now a tenured position at Princeton.
"You can look at a high school student at the bottom 10 percent and not know what’s possible," Harris said. "It may not be probable. But it may be possible."
During the Q&A, Harris said that schools are oriented toward white, middle-class students. He said they need to find a way to help black students to adjust to that.
On the issue of institutional bias, Harris said it can exist even when it's not intentional. He said that the U.S. education system is racist and classicist because of the results. But he said he doesn't believe there's anyone behind the screen engineering the results
"It’s not KKK racist but racist by different results by class," Harris said.
Harris said some people may be uncomfortable about addressing it because more black and brown kids will be competing for spots at UNC and Duke. Tedesco was nodding his head during those remarks.
Tedesco said that institutional bias been built into the system over time. He quipped that Harris spoke as if he was on task force all year because he was addressing the issues the group has looked at.
Next up was Fuquay-Varina High School Principal Ed McFarland talking about how they implemented elements of Project Bright Idea at his school. While geared toward elementary students, McFarland said it's also applicable at the high school level.
McFarland stressed how successful implementation would require extensive staff development and training. He said a key is training teachers on differentiation.
While he said he couldn't attribute it all to Bright Idea, McFarland pointed to how they're seeing more students pass the EOCs and the achievement gap is narrowing.
Margaret Gayle, the head of Project Bright Idea, was the closing presenter. She said the program has been shown to transcend poverty, racial and ethnic inequality and background knowledge.
She talked about the importance of starting of kindergarten teachers starting their students talking in complete sentence on the first day. She touted the benefits of having students practice thinking and reflecting on what they learned each day.
She talked about immersing these young students in advanced vocabulary and analysis skills.
"Bright Idea teaches every child as if we think they’re gifted and then you start seeing magic things happening," Gayle said.
Gayle cited the example of how first and second grade students at a school in Thomasville had done research for a debate on whether Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo was the greatest creator of all time.
She said it will take rigorous staff development, noting how some teachers actually broke into tears about all the work it would take to develop lessons that would challenge students.
But she said the result has been a closing of the achievement gap and more Title I students getting identified as academically gifted. She said teachers changed their perception of Title I students and they no longer felt like they didn't want to push the kids based on everything they were going through.
Also during her talk, Gayle praised Wake, which has had schools in the pilot programs, as dong a great job of identifying Title I students for AG services.
Click here for a March article by Jane Stancill about Bright Idea. While it's had success, it's not a cheap program to implement.
The presentations will eventually be posted on the task force website.
After the meeting, Tedesco said he'd like to expand the use of Bright Idea at all of the schools in in Wake. He said he's talked with Superintendent Tony Tata about whether they can at least begin training the staff at the Renaissance Schools on the program.