4 Easy Ways to End Injustice in Education Now
Updated: Jun 15
Children don’t compete on a level playing field in our country. There are a number of ways to get a leg up in America. Read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and you’ll get a disturbing description of the American education system, where there’s one type of school for the rich and another for the poor. If you’re rich, your parents can send you to a private school or live in a town with high taxes and property values. If you live in a middle class or working-class community, you can still get your child a higher quality education than the next kid by enrolling them in advanced or high track courses like honors, AP, or whatever label you want to throw on it. Kozol notes that the more experienced teachers usually get assigned the higher tracks. Even in the same school building, two schools exist, usually divided by race and income level.
One could argue that this happens because we need to meet students where they are. I’d argue that we can educate any child on our roster. I’ve been a student and a teacher in both kinds of classes – tracked and untracked – and I strongly believe that it’s an advantage to the children in higher tracks and a disadvantage to the children in lower tracks; separate but equal will never be a solution to anything.
Untracked classes, in my experience, benefit all students, not just students that would otherwise end up in the lower tracks. A student typically enrolls in a lower track because they receive advice from an adult, want to avoid stress caused by a much higher workload, don’t have the confidence to compete with their higher performing peers, want to avoid appearing nerdy or academic, can’t pass a required assessment, don’t receive a required recommendation from a teacher, or don’t have a high enough grade or prerequisite. The list goes on. Imagine telling every single student that their hard work in your class could lead to earning college credit. Parents concerned about college admissions might worry about losing the AP label, so let’s call every class AP and give every student a solid reason to work hard.
I know teachers can’t impact education policy, so the question then becomes, how can we teach so that any student that walks into our class can excel? How can we provide an exceptional student room to grow and a struggling student a chance to catch up and experience a moment where things click? How can we offer an excellent education to every single student? How can we create a level playing field, where every student gets a fair shot at success?
Here are four simple ideas to close the achievement gap:
1. Simplify complex concepts.
Students often fail to understand concepts because they sound academic or unnecessarily confusing. We all remember what a great teacher sounds like – they have an uncanny ability to clarify the idea; they make it easily digestible. Epiphanies should come to those who listen and participate, not to those who perform impossible mental gymnastics. Let’s challenge children, but not make learning a laborious process.
2. Provide as much choice as possible.
I try to assign complex and challenging texts that every student will enjoy reading. We can assign Bronte, Austen, Ellison, Woolf, Shakespeare, and Baldwin and also assign Dickens, Salinger, Whitman, Hosseini, Lahiri, and Steinbeck. A great book is a great book: it moves our minds and hearts and contains beautiful and vibrant language. I also provide students with a variety of assignments that ask for deep, creative thinking in addition to the essay including video essays, podcasts, short films, short stories, personal narratives, poems, and one-pagers.
3. Make knowledge, imagination, and wisdom the focus, not grades.
I avoid conversations about grades and instead focus on the value and relevance of course content. I start the year with these conversations and revisit them whenever I get the chance to help students place the literature in a meaningful, modern context. Personal stories and history also inspire students to value stories. Grades are just like money – they are imaginary. They represent ability and work ethic, but we should emphasize the importance of the final product and the big picture, not how the math adds up.
4. Limit required homework to the absolute essentials.
Home in the evenings can be a stressful, chaotic and cramped place for many students. Some students thrive at night, but many are tired after a long day at school, after participating in an extra-curricular activity, or after working a job. If you ask a student why they didn’t take an advanced class, they will most likely say homework. Let’s assign the same amount of work in higher and lower track courses and only assign reading that can’t be done in class.
It’s easy to create reasons to keep the status quo in education. We can blame anyone and anything but ourselves when it comes to the achievement gap. Instead, let’s imagine a world where students from different abilities, backgrounds, and races learn from each other. Let’s change separate but equal to together and equal.
online professional development for high school English teachers