The Achievement Gap, The Black History Gap: What is “Education Reform” without Curriculum Reform?

take testWhen I was a middle school special education teacher, I taught ELA[English Language Arts] and Social Studies. My students were black and Hispanic adolescents who were burdened with the stigma of special needs diagnoses. A group of youth who were raging bodies of pure hormone intoxication, their ‘normal’ behavior, like most kids their age, was difficult to manage on most days. My students spent almost every school year in classrooms with teachers who neither looked like them, understood them and, in my opinion, didn’t or couldn’t appreciate their individual gifts and unique outlook. Disruptive behaviors had become their norm, due in part to their ‘label’. It brought stigma, an association with failure, lower expectations from others and hence, they showed very little interest in learning and developing new skills in school.

History and Social Studies teachers have certainly heard this from Black students, either being disruptive or not engaging in the content during a lesson: ” I don’t care about those [white] people!” That is the response to your verbal prompt to a student who refuses to engage, or behave appropriately in class. Acting out behaviors can often stem from the consistent presentation and “culturally exclusive” delivery of irrelevant, low-interest content in the classroom. Students will eventually tune out, disrupt, disengage and lose motivation, and it is our fault, not theirs.

we are the world kids

An overwhelming majority of children enrolled in our nation’s public schools are black and brown. In a national effort to eliminate learning disparities and inequity in our public schools, education policy and decision-makers have spearheaded many new reform policies. We have state common core curriculum standards, STEM and STEAM initiatives, implemented strategies to improve school culture/climate, adopted family engagement practices, and the reforms continue.

Yet, disparities still persist. Children of color continue to drop out and travel along the pipeline at unacceptable numbers.

That concerns me very deeply, and informs me that ‘WE’ have overlooked something huge. The obvious element that has been shamefully neglected pertains to the scope of subject area content within the general curriculum. It’s not how we teach as much as what and how inclusively we teach that matters.

Shouldn’t we consider that it is more than just the impact of poverty that contributes to the learning and achievement gaps?

We have dismissed black history, omitted it from the curriculum, and have not considered the profound impact that one class,  or just one lesson can have on student performance. School culture, climate,  student engagement and achievement would certainly rise.  Instead, we deliver content with historical references that disrespect black and brown children and denies potentially valuable lessons from all students. They are a captive audience and we continue to ‘mis-educate’ or under-educate black and brown children across this nation. It is usually these children who are challenged by  ‘risk’ factors that can be mitigated by presenting culturally relevant sources of information to ensure more positive learning experiences in school settings.

So, my own middle school students were hard pressed to pay attention or engage in my Social Studies lessons, until… a breakthrough! Because I wasn’t provided with any textbooks to accompany or guide my instruction, I consulted with my go-to teacher supply store. There I found a multitude of resources, and this is how my lessons were designed:

I used the teacher’s editions and guides, of course, and photocopied excerpts from pages in the books to give each student. Mostly, they were traditionally covered events and figures in history, and only one black person noted in the texts. My usually unruly, preoccupied students became transformed into actively engaged students when we covered Crispus Attucks-whose life was highlighted.

Eureka, I thought! That was it! I had found the key to engaging these special needs, middle school, black and Hispanic adolescents.  From that first lesson that featured a black person, someone who looked like themselves, I never had another outburst, spitball throwing, dancing in the aisles, note passing, giggling, hallway pass asking, bulletin board erasing episode from any class or group of students. Life was great as an educator.

My cues came from them, and I responded to what excited them. Though I still taught the proscribed content, at every point in the history of this nation, black people were there, impacted and instrumental. Their histories are indelibly intertwined and woven into American history, and everyday, I covered stories previously untold. We perform a profound disservice to children to omit the roles that people of color played at any time in America, and…


I therefore challenge every educator in schools everywhere to give black and brown children a piece of their history, people to look up to, and reasons to engage in learning at school. Try something different. Teach outside of the box and then take note at the level of engagement of your students. They need this from you and you CAN deliver!

P.S.: I will raise the stakes next time! Are you up for the next challenge?



Why It’s Important to ‘Belong’


Belonging is the feeling that one is respected and valued in a given context. Research shows that students are more likely to be motivated, engaged, resilient, and successful if they feel like they belong in school.

When people are uncertain about their belonging, they search for cues to help them determine if they fit in, if they are liked, and if they are valued and respected. This search for cues about belonging and related anxieties can deplete cognitive resources, and make students feel less motivated and engaged.

Belonging is especially important in the context of educational equity and achievement gaps. Students who are members of stereotyped groups are especially likely to be anxious that they do not belong. Research also shows that targeted changes to practice can reduce “belonging anxiety” and mitigate race and gender-based achievement gaps.

one blk

It’s almost impossible to talk about belonging without talking about stereotypes. While everyone experiences worries about belonging, those feelings are especially prevalent and have more of a negative impact for people who belong to groups about which negative stereotypes exist in a given environment.

Many students have faced subtle and explicit discrimination due to stereotypes about their group. Stereotypes exist about the performance and misbehavior of students of color and low income students, and about women’s performance in male dominated STEM fields. Stereotypes can make students more unsure about if they belong in certain environments and anxious about confirming a negative stereotype about their group.

The stress of worrying about being stereotyped or confirming a stereotype can deplete students’ cognitive resources and make them feel less motivated and engaged in school. Over time, this can lead to lowered performance. Because belonging is influenced by a person’s unique perspective, it’s experienced by different people in different ways, even within the same context. So when a negative event happens, that negative event can also have different consequences depending on the student.


In any given classroom, students arrive with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences that shape how they interpret day-to-day events. As a result, different situations will impact each student’s belonging-related interpretation differently. It’s important to note, however, that the consequences of non-belonging often look similar: lower engagement, heightened anxiety, and lower performance. And these consequences can occur even if the student isn’t fully aware of their anxiety.


When students feel that they belong to a community, they trust their teachers and peers more, are more motivated and engaged, have fewer behavior struggles,  respond more adaptively to critical feedback, and ultimately, they have higher academic performance and overall well-being. Teachers can play an important role in helping students feel like they belong.


Here’s an exercise for teachers:  Think about the students in your class. Is there a student you can think of who might have belonging concerns? How might those concerns affect that student? Write 2-3 sentences from that student’s perspective. As you think about belonging, what questions and concerns come up for you?

When students feel that they belong, they are more likely to feel comfortable participating and contributing in the classroom. Paying attention to who is participating and who is not can provide you with clues about which students feel like they are valued and respected members of the classroom, and which students may not feel as safe. How will you know? You can do these 3 things:

# 1: Track how often students are contributing silently, and through speech.

# 2: After tracking students’ participation, reflect on what you’ve noticed and why this might be.

# 3: Support all students in contributing. Consider ways to help all students in your classroom feel comfortable and safe contributing.


People make inferences about places based on what they see in that environment. In classrooms, environmental cues can send messages about who belongs and who does not. Many students don’t get to see people like them represented within their classrooms. For example, in a History classroom, Black students might not see representations of themselves among the posters of famous historical figures around the room. This lack of representation can make students feel like certain classrooms, and by extension those subjects, are environments where they may not truly fit in. Cues that promote belonging, signal value, recognition, and respect should be incorporated into the classrooms of every educator. They will also include the following  :

Make eye contact with your students. Even just imagining an interaction with someone who doesn’t make eye contact makes one feel ostracized, it lowers self-esteem, and want to act aggressively towards the imaginary offender.

Use students’ names. It has been shown that sending home a personalized letter to middle school students on the first day of school reduces students’ feelings of loneliness and increases peer acceptance for students who may have initially felt excluded, compared to students who are sent a standard letter.

Correctly pronounce students’ names. Mispronouncing students’ names can negatively impact students’ views of themselves and their culture.


Small changes to those environments can help students feel like they are recognized, valued, and included members of the classroom community. It’s important to ‘belong’!


Ladder of Inference and 2 More Integrative Thinking Tools

hip hop

Ladder of Inference



The ladder of inference is a model for decision making behavior developed by Harvard professors Chris Argyris and Donald Schoen. Essentially, it helps students slow down and realize which data they are taking into account when they make a decision and how the data they choose is informed by their past experiences. Assumptions are often made in a split second decision because the brain is wired to prioritize data that confirms the model a person already holds. The ladder of inference is a way to check those assumptions.

The ladder can be used in a very basic way, for example, by showing 2nd grade students an image of a soccer player lying on the ground, one leg up, holding his head. The image can be intentionally a little vague. At first, students may conclude that the person had fallen. But as they work their way up the ladder of inference they begin to notice different aspects of the image and add those to their “data pool.”

Students begin to realize that there is a lot more going on in the picture just in terms of data than what they first said. For example, students would say the man was hurt. That’s not a data point, it’s an inference. It is then possible to tease out from them that they thought the man was hurt because he was on the ground, holding his head and had a pained look on his face. Notice that students will have started getting much deeper with more thoughtful answers.

As students practice using the ladder of inference in various content areas they will also start to use it on their own when dealing with social problems. When there is a disagreement, students can now use the ladder of inference to back up and think through the data they choose and the assumptions that stem from that data. Using this tool, students will solve problems on their own or ask a friend to help them make their ladder.


They learn that there’s nothing wrong with questioning, so the students become much more willing and accepting of criticism because it’s not really criticism anymore. This integrative thinking tool naturally encourages students to build a growth mindset about all aspects of life because multiple viewpoints amplify different ways to solve a problem and are a core part of why integrative thinking works. Difference is the strength of the model that promotes growth mindsets, and facilitates the development of critical thinking skills. Important to note that when facts and inference merge, students will be better equipped to distinguish the two in many situations.


Pro/Pro chart


Another integrative thinking tool called the pro/pro chart offers some good examples of how students learn to think flexibly. Most people are familiar with pro/con charts, but in a pro/pro chart the group thinks through the positives of two different ideas. Rather than deciding between two choices, this tool helps students identify the positive traits of different viewpoints, and then create a third option by merging the good qualities of both.

An example: Ask  students to brainstorm ideas for the worst restaurant of all time. When they have a good list of terrible ideas,  ask groups of students to each take one idea and explain why it is the best restaurant of all time. One group can initially propose a restaurant with no seating would be the worst; they then reframe that to say  if everyone was standing up they would move through the restaurant faster and turn more of a profit. A second group may say that a restaurant in the woods would be terrible; they reframe that as dining under the stars.

Students will come up with really good ideas out of a terrible idea. It helps them see that they are capable to switch mindsets. Building on the activity, ask the groups to pitch their ideas in a Shark Tank -like contest. Students come up with slogans and designs for their restaurants and what may have started as a silly, fun activity becomes a rich interdisciplinary project with written and oral communication, presentation skills, media literacy, and the process skills that enable them.


pro pro.jpgStudents are not afraid to think as they become creative and critical thinkers. Integrative thinking tools can be used in math instruction. For instance, students can use the ladder of inference in a word problem, or the Pro/Pro chart for different multiplication strategies. Integrative thinking tools can provide a solution to a problem that many  teachers have struggled with for a long time: how to deepen student thinking.

Asking students to do a causal model — another core integrative thinking tool — can  encourage an exploration of values. Ask them to pick three to five things they value, anything from profound qualities like independence or kindness, to passions like music or basketball. They then having to dive deeply into why they value those qualities. The best part is that this often requires that they have conversations with their family about values they were taught from an early age.

Sharing these ideas in the classroom, students will realize that people have different values.The causal models go up on the wall as a reminder that everyone in the class is different and that the diversity of values, perspectives and opinions makes them better problem solvers, more tolerant, and respectful of the uniqueness of others. In a diverse society, with diverse schools, and diverse students of diverse backgrounds, critical thinking skills must now be cultivated earlier than ever before. The classroom is where we can make it happen!


A Nation Divided: Talking Race in America’s Schools

merry goCurrent statistics indicate that the racial diversity of our national demographic, by the year 2020, there will be more black and brown people than whites in America. The traditional, established ‘majority’ will soon become the ‘minority’ group. That speaks volumes, and statistically alone, there will be changing of the guard, so to speak. Since there is already a racial it is time for adults to engage one another, and initiate meaningful conversations about race, racism  NOW!

Children under 8, who are considered minority, or about whom the term ‘diversity’ refers, will outnumber white children under the age of 18, and right now, in 2016, they already do. These children attend our schools and because educators and teachers remain 77% white,  there is a pressing need for them to acquire a practice that reflects a culturally proficient mindset. Self-reflection, training, and biases must be challenged, confronted and altered if necessary.

The one setting where children engage with adults, who represent the larger society, is in school settings. So, administrators, teachers, parents and all adults, whether knowingly or intentionally, you are role models who inform and influence their self concept, motivation, sense of belonging, classroom behavior and contribute to their developing worldviews.

So, how does this difficult process begin? Conversation, and more conversation, and this is critically imperative to engage as adults before you can comfortably and respectfully engage in meaningful talks with your students. Hence it begins with adults.

When do you have these conversations? Administrators should make a decision to engage staff during weekly meetings, and ensure your school culture and climate is supported by a collective alignment with the goal to deliver to all students quality-filled educational experiences with equal opportunities and respect for diversity. Here are a few conversation starters to put you on the road to equitable excellence in education. You may present one question per week, but it must be ongoing and continuous, throughout the year. If we are going to continue to talk the talk, then we must walk the talk, as well. After all, words without work is just rhetoric!



Questions to Start Adult Discussions About Racism in School


  • Does racism exist in our schools? What does it sound or look like?
  • What would it take to create a truly race-neutral society? Do we want this?
  • Am I racist? Why, or why not? Am I open to others’ critique when it comes to how I relate to other races?
  • Does the rise of certain groups’ influence—Latino, Jewish, white, Muslim, or whatever—mean a decline in other groups’ well-being? If people say yes, discuss whether this represent a “zero sum” mindset. Is this a mindset we want to communicate to students?
  • How can we counter negative stereotypes?
  • Are we responsible for teaching students and colleagues to recognize and confront racism?
  • What should we do when we inadvertently do or say something racist?
  • What do we communicate to the parents of our minority students about our expectations for their children?
  • How are we battling the student opinion that academic proficiency is inherently white?
  • Do we have a disproportionate number of administrative referrals for our minority students?


Start talking, reflecting, and be the change we wish to see…in the best interest of our students and ourselves!