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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

To get to equity, teach ’em to read

Middle-schoolers at a Success Academy charter school in Harlem. Black and Hispanic students from the network’s Harlem schools outperform white students across New York City in math and reading.

Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality is tired of apologizing for her “narrow-minded” focus on academic goals as the way to “lift children out of poverty.” Education conferences now specialize in berating reformers for putting education — not “social justice” — first, she writes. (I don’t go to these conferences  myself.)

Try suggesting to any audience these days that a school’s first obligation to young children is to teach them to read, write, and become numerically literate, and that their teachers should meet a standard that suggests they are qualified to deliver those skills. These academic skills are, if not verboten, now just an aside, emblematic of our once narrow mindset, and too closely connected with The Word We Are Not To Ever Mutter Again: TESTING. It’s a sure way to lose an audience these days to remind them that tests have merit, not just for accountability purposes, not just because they measure numeracy and literacy, but because they are highly predictive of the quality of a child’s future.

In many of the schools the reformers helped create — especially charters —  disadvantaged children are achieving more, writes Walsh. She fears that trying to “also tackle the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students’ lives,” will make it harder to improve academic achievement.

“Achieving a complex, ambitious goal—like providing all children in this nation with a strong education—requires laser focus, determination, abundant resources, an ability to measure progress, exceptional expertise, and a strong research basis,” Walsh concludes. There’s more to be done.

Reformers should focus less on education policy and more on classroom practice, writes Robert Pondiscio.

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