Today I was asked why so many of my students, previously “rock stars” in English class with grades of 90% and above, now have much lower averages. Correction: the question wasn’t even posed to me. It was asked of one of my colleagues after some of my students and their parents complained about the lower grades their children were given by me. To say that I was annoyed at this discourse would be putting it mildly and I have several postulations as to why those raising concerns were so angry.
First of all, I don’t “give” grades. Students in my class earn grades based on their rubric-aligned academic performance, not behavioral compliance which is often the gold standard for assessing achievement for students — particularly students of color. Just sit down and be quiet and you’ll get an “A”. That’s why so many Black and Brown children are disproportionately written up and streamlined for disciplinary action and insubordination that leads to suspension. While a student’s behavior is sometimes linked to some egregiously disruptive actions, oftentimes it can just mean a kid is thinking freely and challenging what the teacher is teaching the class. Students of color who are vocal, like teachers of color who are vocal, are often deemed trouble-makers. I’m not that kind of teacher. I encourage students to exchange on-task ideas respectfully. (That’s the part that tends to stump them, but we’re working on it.)
Second of all, having taught every grade from kindergarten to twelfth at some point in my career as a teacher, I know the skills that students need to possess in order to achieve success as they move from one grade to the next, and I hold them accountable for garnering these skills. This is not often the case for many students — especially for students of color. Even with the roll-out of the Common Core State Standards and its goal of having all children held to the same standard regardless of what state they reside in, the harsh reality is that the academic bar that is set for them is lower and less rigorous than that of their White and Asian peers.
For example, in a 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled “Should Schools Set Different Goals for Students of Different Races?,” the author writes,
While all individual students are ostensibly still expected to reach proficiency in core subjects, some states have adjusted their “annual measurable objectives” for schools so that the percentage of students that must show progress on standardized tests varies by race and ethnic group. In Florida, for example, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of whites, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks will be expected to demonstrate proficiency on the state’s reading assessments by 2018. A similar sliding scale has been set for mathematics….Drawing particularly fierce opposition was Virginia’s initially proposed new policy, which would have required just 57 percent of black students to be proficient in math by 2017.
I didn’t need to read this article to know that it’s true, which is why I push my students the way I do, and why I take such offense at their parents and some of my colleagues questioning why their grades dropped! Perhaps it’s because they’re finally being challenged? Perhaps it’s because an 80% in my class is like a 95% in someone else’s class? Perhaps it’s because there’s a heavy emphasis on multiple genres of writing and the writing process overall that is new to them? Perhaps it’s because we’re delving into culturally relevant pedagogy that actually calls for them to think, not merely regurgitate?
The answer is all of the above and I will not change one iota of how or what I impart to my students. I know what the future holds for them as Black and Brown students in America. Their high grades and neat clothes and well-mannered behavior may very well still render them educationally and socially inept in comparison to their White and Asian counterparts. The work I put in with them every day and the standards I hold them to are my due diligence as their teacher. All teachers should be accountable to their students and schools. More parents need to jump on board, stop bashing exceptional teachers, and start holding themselves and their children accountable for claiming their education with as much fervor and zeal as I do.