What Does an “A” Mean? A NYC Teacher Tackles Accountability

I recently read an article by a young woman currently enrolled in The Beacon School, an elite public high school in New York City. This young woman, part of a coalition of teenagers and adults under the hashtag #teenstakecharge, is using her voice to demand a more equitable school experience in an otherwise highly-segregated public school system that often denigrates our most disadvantaged and marginalized youth by subjecting them to sub-par standards. Her experience at her local middle school was vastly different than the one she now encounters at her exclusive high school. As a a middle school student, she easily received  “A’s” on her report cards. But she has found that those grades are much more difficult to achieve at her new school, which has far higher expectations for students.  Yacine Fall describes how shocked she was at the large disparity between what constitutes an “A” at her new school in comparison to her old school where “A”’s were easily earned.

This system of “easy A’s” is nothing new among poorly-performing schools throughout NYC. All too often students are given inflated grades even if they put in little work, but students in high-performing schools students are held to a much higher standard.

The Common Core State Standards were introduced in 2009 because “state school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.” This was a groundbreaking movement, as all over the country stories like Yacine’s were playing out, with students consistently being held to lower standards across the poorest districts in the country. The Common Core offered the first opportunity in the history of the education system in the United States to allow all students, regardless of zip code, to have access to the same high standards. Why, then, would students like Yacine be held to a lower version of the standards? As educators, why do we allow students to be held to that lower standard when we have the Common Core as a tool, as well as the excellent parent/teacher curricular resource EngageNY, which has been downloaded 50 million times?

Yacine’s experience is not unique. There is no one “quick fix” for students, but administrators, teachers, and parents must raise the bar. Teachers have the duty to ensure that all students are held accountable for the quality and effort of their work; administrators have the duty to hold teachers accountable for the rigor of the lessons they create.

Additionally, administrators must support all teachers in setting that bar high through professional development sessions that help teachers create rigorous lessons, giving the teachers time to collaborate and share what has worked and what has not, in the classroom, as well as giving feedback to teachers on how they can improve their practice. Parents must also be held accountable for their children’s learning, getting actively involved in their children’s day-to-day experiences at school. Sitting down for dinner as a family, or if that isn’t possible, setting aside some time each day that is devoted to listening to their children’s thoughts on the day they had at school, the learning they were engaged in, and the struggles they might be facing will help their children understand that their education is important and that they are personally accountable for their learning.

This must be an effort that includes not only quality teaching and supportive administration, but support that reaches outside of the classroom.

The NYC Department of Education has recently set up Community Schools which are “neighborhood hubs where students receive high-quality academic instruction, families can access social services, and communities congregate to share resources and address their common challenges.” These hubs will offer special training programs and resources that parents and guardians can access to ensure that their children receive the high standards they deserve.

When school administrators, teachers, and parents work in a community setting, students will be sure to thrive. Parental involvement has been proven to be a stronger indicator of student success than the time spent in a classroom. When you couple that involvement with rigorous teaching practices and academic standards, as well as strong administrative leadership and targeted community involvement,  experiences like Yacine’s will no longer take hold in our poorest districts. Ensuring that standards are kept high in all schools will allow us to elevate our students. It truly does take a village to raise, or educate, a child.

What do you think?

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