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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

The belief gap

Credit: Richie Pope/NPR

Beth Hawkins writes about what it’s like when your child’s teachers don’t really believe he can learn.

Her older son was offered learning opportunities and challenges in Minneapolis Public Schools. Her equally bright younger son, diagnosed with autism, fell in to a “belief gap” at their well-regarded neighborhood school.

For a number of years, most of the conversation about Corey’s education centered on managing his time. How much of it would he spend in a regular classroom, where the ability to sit still and drown out sensory overload was frequently conflated with intelligence and motivation? How much would he spend with other special education students in spaces where the pressure to be “normal” was off, but so was any expectation of academic excellence?

The school was organized “around the needs of adults,” writes Hawkins.

I asked one of Corey’s teachers why he was pulling a D in her science class if he was scoring in the 98th percentile on the end-of-year state exams. “Oh, you know,” she said, squaring up her papers, “what can you expect, given everything?” He was pulling a D because at the slightest hint that he was frustrated, he was sent to the “resource room,” where, under the guise of social skills, he played Parcheesi.

Her son became angry. If he hadn’t been white, he probably would have been labeled “defiant,” rather than “deficient,” Hawkins writes.

Because she’s an education reporter, she was able to swing her knowledge “like a cudgel” to demand “a level of academic challenge appropriate to someone with those test scores.”

Finally, she moved her son to a small charter school where adults believed he could learn. He has.

A friend of mine who knows the data as well as I do is currently trying to feel her way around the wide end of this social-sorting funnel. It’s her first time playing the school lottery for her daughter, so naturally she visited the most sought-after elementary school in her prosperous corner of the city. She asked some detailed questions about math, hoping to hear that her very small girl, who is black, could work ahead, to her current advanced ability. “Don’t worry,” the woman leading the tour said, “they’ll help her catch up.”

Only 18 percent of black students at the school tested at grade level in math in 2017, compared to 79 percent of white students, writes Hawkins. Only a handful of special-needs students tested at grade level.

Margaret Gilmour’s son, who has a language-based learning disability, was making no progress in elementary school: Expectations were too low, she writes on NPR.

She sent him to a private school, with “high expectations, little distraction and a rigorous curriculum.” After two years, he was ready to transfer to a public middle school, which promised to include and challenge him.

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