As a nation our educational legislative policies have, at times and likely inadvertently, caused some educators to blame poor achievement on student demographics. We've tried to close achievement gaps by "fixing" at-risk children for decades, yet schools still face inequities in student achievement. As the old saying goes, you can't fix what's not broken; our children aren't broken. Perhaps it's time to turn our efforts to fixing what's really broken, instruction. In an attempt to explain the ever looming gaps in student performance, the American education system has focused almost exclusively on student demographics that are beyond the control of educators. This resulted in school systems feeling hopeless with regards to the perceived achievement gap. However, when educators approach at-risk achievement from a growth mindset, they can find hope. By abandoning the deficit model of thinking, i.e. certain groups of students are lacking something they need to be academically successful, and instead recognizing that all students bring something to the table, we realize our jobs are the same for all students. When we meet students where they are, capitalizing on each child's strength and scaffolding as needed, all students have equal access to all aspects of the curriculum.
I'm reminded of a time when I was an elementary principal; every Friday we had "Backpack Buddies", a program for needy students to take food home for the weekend. We had a rule that students took what was offered without fuss or requests, in order to be fair and expedite the line. There was one first grader who would sometimes ask to trade out his food items for something different. Thinking he was just being picky, he was reminded of the "no substitutions" rule and sent on his way. Oddly, there were weeks he would break down screaming and throw a fit when he was told he couldn't trade items, but some weeks he was fine. I worked with our counselor to try to find out why he was melting down some weeks and not others. Finally, in the middle of a screaming fit, he was crying and kicking then shouted, "you're not listening to me". I escorted him to an empty classroom next door and as he hiccupped from crying so hard he tried to explain why he needed to switch his food items. Once calmed, he said, "I don't have any lights until my mom get's paid". He proceeded to show me which items he needed to trade and explained he couldn't eat the food that required cooking, boxed macaroni and cheese, instant potatoes, etc. Then he pulled out a can of ravioli to add to the can't eat pile and I said wait, these are pretty good cold. In an exasperated voice the six-year-old sighed and said, "The can opener can't work when we don't have lights". I wanted to chuckle and cry at the same time when I finally realized this child was brilliant and was planning ahead knowing when they could cook/open food and when they could not.
This child had demonstrated such real-life critical thinking and problem solving skills at such a young age. I realized in that moment this child was anything but deficit in the skills that we often struggle to teach such as problem solving. I always think of this child as an example that all students bring strengths to the table. Often at-risk students who are so quickly dismissed as being deficit in required prerequisite skills, bring even greater higher-level thinking skills to the table than their non-at-risk counterparts. Whereas a student who hasn't been faced with navigating struggles in real life, might possess common prerequisite skills but find it difficult to apply problem solving skills. This elementary example serves as a reminder to us to abandon deficit thinking and embrace a growth mindset, recognizing all students, regardless of demographics, have strengths. Moreover, all students, regardless of demographics, need some type of scaffolding. Creating an equal playing field doesn't mean each child gets the same thing, rather each child gets what they need to successfully master the required learning standards.
When we teach the learning standards at rigorous levels , we close instruction gaps and ALL students achieve. Closing perceived achievement gaps must begin with high expectations for all students, then becomes reality with equal access to common learning standards taught through rigor and inquiry. It's actually a pretty simple approach...ALL MEANS ALL.