Systems Check: Any Belief Gaps? (Part 1)

The Twitterverse’s gravity pulled me in hard a few Saturdays ago, when some of the medium’s best-known ed-reform thinkers pitched their ideas into a several-hours-long chain of tweets. And though the exchange is over four weeks old by now, it’s nowhere near done with me.*

* Before continuing, a quick note of thanks to Mr. Chris (@citizenstewart) Stewart: first for propelling and pushing the discussion itself, and next for generously reporting on it after it wound down. The posthaste packaging and paraphrasing of the discussion he posted on Storify is incredibly handy — especially if, like me, you missed big chunks because you were tending to weekend errands and family time.

At the risk of reducing the complex and sensitive discussion too far, I’ll leave out how it started, why it became rather heated at times, what was said to touch off which points, who did not say what at certain times to touch off still other points, etc., etc. (Besides: to do so here, considering again that the best recap of this has already been done by Mr. Stewart, seems unnecessary.) The short version is that it was a discussion about U.S. Education’s ‘belief gap’ — or, as defined very clearly by Mr. Stewart in his Storify post, ‘the gap between what [educators] think [children of color and/or low economic status] are capable of, and what [these] children are actually capable of.’

It’s a topic many have taken on. A dogged belief that all kids can learn is the most front-and-center value of mega-organizations like Teach For America and TNTP, even. And yeah, it’s an idea that can get a little slippery and slogan-y and that may lack practical/measurable teeth. Still, when @citizenstewart wrote this, in response to University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds,…

…I nearly fell out of my chair.

Seriously, in how perfectly it summed up realities I’ve worked amidst in education and conclusions I’ve reached through my study of education (see my book, Education Is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems), it was an assertion that just caught me square. More than anything, I appreciated that someone finally tabbed systemic expressions of the belief gap and their debilitating — ‘cancer-like’, per Mr. Stewart, and he’s right — effects on kids’ ultimate outcomes. Too often, ed’s critics, both from within and those coming from outside the enterprise, presume the gap to be a personal glitch in thousands and thousands of individual teachers. Though this is certainly and unfortunately true of a percentage of education’s practitioners, the real truth about the belief gap is far more complicated than just deep-seated individual racisms/classisms. (More on this in a moment.)

However: vital and dead-on as this point of Mr. Stewart’s was, it may not, due to where it appeared in the real-time, real-heat of the discussion, have received the elaboration or exploration it deserves. I saw this as unfortunate, as I’m intensely passionate about the direction Mr. Stewart was going with his statement. In short, I spent an entire book (again, that’s Education Is Upside-Down) arguing that if we really want to fix U.S. education, we must commit, first and furiously, to fixing precisely these systemic expressions of the belief gap. That’s right: fixing these systemic expressions of the belief gap should be prioritized higher than iffy teachers, administrative bloat, insufficient innovative school choices, over-testing, or any of the saws typically trotted out by reformers and anti-reformers.

Though it would’ve been great to see the idea explored further in a forum lots of ed people were watching, I can’t complain too much; lots of valuable food for thought was produced by the discussion, even if it wasn’t the food I was craving at the time. Still, the idea needs to be explored further.

The idea Mr. Stewart invoked (‘a failure to believe that becomes systemic’), after all, eludes many educators working daily in the field and having been trained through traditional teacher-prep channels. Acting as they do within belief-gap-driven systems, following belief-gap-driven ideals and carrying out belief-gap-driven ‘best practices’, many educators have unwittingly executed these systemic expressions of the belief gap for generations. Knowing no other way (or simply doing as their schools/districts require and/or train them to), they are flatly unaware of the ways some of their practices are in fact hindering the academic growth and ultimate post-K-12 readiness of many students.

And when they can’t see this, troubling disconnects occur in the improvement conversation at large — first for teachers, then subsequently for critics. These disconnects, by the way, echo off many corners of the above Twitter discussion. To wit, here are two:

  1. Individual educators can only take inventory of the beliefs they personally possess. Those who do, and who are accordingly confident they are true believers in all their kids’ abilities to learn, resentfully dismiss critics’ takes on them and push the blame for system failures elsewhere. (In the discussion, for instance, track the responses of participants like @AnthonyCody and @thechalkface, as well as the HuffPost piece written and suggested to the discussion group by  @drjohnthompson.)
  2. Many critics of education minimize (or are themselves unaware of) the systemic structures/requirements educators work within, and deduce that individual educators — lots and lots of individual educators — are disbelievers. (In the discussion, @xianb8 went so far, even, as to call these educators complicit in their separate & unequal systems. I wouldn’t go this far, mainly on the basis that most educators’ participations in these systems lack the intentionality of true complicity.)

And seeing their own sides of the argument as they do, these sides argue their cases so passionately at one another that systems-level actors and all their culpability — which Mr. Stewart raised but didn’t get to fully explore — get to sneak out the side door.

Not so fast, systems.

You’ve gotten off too easy for far too long. For what you train your teachers in as effective practice, then require of them to execute via uniform curricula, resources, and, ultimately, teachers’ professional evaluations, we’d like to have a word with you.

In the sequel to this post, I will explain my take on what a ‘belief-gap-driven practice’ looks like, as well as how entire districts ensure their implementation. As backing, I’ll look a little more closely at one district in particular — Minneapolis Public Schools, where I once worked — that has struggled to close achievement gaps for years but that, operating as it does (according to multiple layers of belief-gap-driven practices and operations, that is), is likely to continue struggling.

To close here: Thanks again to all those who participated in the Twitter conversation of a month or so ago. As I said earlier, the conversation continues to turn my wheels, and I hope it’s doing the same for many, many others.

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