Schools in American Cities
Strategies for Change: A Student Centered and Activism-Based Focus
Various authors have discussed the detrimental effects of the pressure schools place on students to perform well on standardized tests. Au states that such tests “actually increase dropout rates and disproportionately affect poor students and students of color” (Au, 308). In addition, as Hogan points out, standardized testing measures “the already existing inequities of the cities school system”, rather than student advancement (Hogan, 98). Further, in the cases where the standardized test itself is confusing, due to the questions that have been asked, students are under increased stress. Unfortunately, the time and money devoted to high stakes, standardized testing does not seem to be changing. One idea to deal with this issue would be to work around the existence of testing. We could attempt to change classroom practices and instruction of standardized testing in such a way that teachers and students are engaging in conversations that are culturally and personally relevant to the students throughout instruction. This may allow students to be prepared for standardized testing, while not foregoing the importance of bringing their backgrounds into their learning. However, while changing classroom-level instruction of standardized tests may yield better results, it does not control for the several instances in which students are simply given bad tests. It also does not control for the pressure that the schools put on students to perform well, which can be detrimental in itself. In these cases especially, it is important for students and teachers to know how to push back on such detrimental policies.
I believe that the issues inherent in standardized testing lie, as many authors have pointed out, in not keeping students at the center of district, state and federal decisions. So, the strategy of change I envision begins, first and foremost, in the classroom, and has a few components to it. First, students’ experiences and backgrounds should constantly be taken into account. I believe that being able to have discussions about one’s own background, and reflecting upon these discussions, provides students with the validation that their experiences matter. Although I am sure that students think about their backgrounds seriously, and in critical ways even outside of the classroom, I think that the classroom nonetheless provides a good platform to build upon their own thoughts and ideas. It also provides a chance for students to vocalize what they are unhappy with, and what they would like to change in their communities. Next, using this student-centered approach in the classroom, teachers should expose students to activism and the practice of activism, whether this be through community-based projects, or scenarios that the teacher comes up with within the classroom. By doing so, students learn how to channel their thoughts for change into a productive action for change. Lastly, teachers themselves should focus on showing students the importance of activism, and the impact it can have on district, state, and federal decisions. By doing so, they set examples for students, and show them that regardless of one’s position in an institution, they have a right to be unhappy with and change the status quo. In this way, students and teachers can work together in pushing back against the detrimental effects of standardized testing.
Authors have discussed the importance, and the effectiveness, of keeping students at the center of the classroom, and of bringing their stories and backgrounds into class material and discussions. Duncan-Andrade, in his core pillars of racial and cultural competence, discusses the importance of getting to know one’s students, and building trust with them. Michie’s memoir integrates the experiences of seventh- and eighth- graders in a Mexican-immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. Lourdes, one of his students, expresses that “when your culture is brought into a class at school, it makes you feel good because you know that your culture isn’t just being recognized for, ‘Oh, today they caught five immigrants crossing the border,’ or whatever” (Michie, 17). Lourdes’s experience with including the students and their backgrounds in their learning is a positive one, because it shows her that her background and culture are important. I think that this is the first step in putting students at the center of state and federal decisions - the more their experiences are validated and taken seriously within the classroom, the more they themselves will be inclined to reflect upon their background. In turn, reflecting upon their experiences can allow them to recognize and think about ways in which they can change what they are unhappy with.
So, in order for this student-centered approach to be effective at the federal level, I believe that students and teachers need to focus on becoming activists. For this to happen, I think that teachers and others within schools should have very explicit discussions about activism, and student roles in activism. For instance, Christensen talks about heavily incorporating community and activism into the classroom. For instance, she and another teacher took the desks in the classroom and replaced them with smaller desks from another room without speaking to their students. As a result, the forty high school students in class staged a stand-in until the desks were returned. In addition, her students arranged a teach-in about Columbus for the Columbus quincentenary. In devoting time and space to “making it clear that solidarity and courage are values to be prized in daily life, not just praised in the abstract and put on the shelf,” students not only begin to value the creation of a community, but also learn to take their lives and experiences seriously, and do something to change what they are unhappy with (Christensen, 71).
In addition, teachers themselves can demonstrate the importance of activism, solidarity, and standing up for one’s own beliefs. For instance, Hogan talks about her involvement in a protest against the Chicago Academic Standards Examination (CASE), which she and other teachers felt was “a poorly written, content-based test that asked students seemingly random questions unrelated to the curriculum of survey literature” (Hogan 98). She and eleven other teachers then decided to take a stand against the test. They gathered data demonstrating that the CASE exam hindered student progress, instead of providing a measure to improve teacher instruction. They also informed the school’s administration know what they were doing ahead of time. Finally, they elected two veteran teachers to act as the faces of their small-scale movement. She explains that the students recognized the fact that the teachers were standing up for what they believed in. At the end, the CASE exam was discontinued. By being transparent about the ways in which they engage in activism, teachers can set an example for students, and not only demonstrate the importance of standing up for one’s own beliefs, but also the importance of knowing how to channel one’s beliefs in a productive manner. These instances also show that although standardized testing is a looming presence, there are still ways in which students and teachers can push back.
The fact that the new “Students Speak!” campaign, launched by Mayor Nutter, is allowing students to share their opinions through written or video essays on the necessity for full and fair funding in Philadelphia’s public schools shows a step in the right direction. The fact that students are being offered incentives (an Apple Watch, tickets to the Eagles’ 2015 home opener, etc.) in order for them to share these opinions also shows that the city is trying to involve them as much as possible. However, I hope that their voices are not just being heard, but also listened to, and taken into account in making decisions. I believe that it is only when this occurs that students are truly beginning to be in the center of decision-making.
Au talks about the lack of student-centered decision making, saying that “these budgets, first put forth by the president and then later revised and voted upon by Congress, serve as a set of articulated social and educational priorities, as a remembrance of who and what are deemed important in the eyes of policymakers” (Au, 307). In order to show decision-makers that students should be in the center of these discussions, and change the status quo, legwork and activism from teachers and students is highly necessary. Teachers need to work with students in order to show them that their stories and backgrounds are important, and that standing up for one’s beliefs in solidarity can foster change. Some change is already happening in terms of encouraging students to share their opinions. Nonetheless, while the goal is to take park in state and federal discussions, the work starts in the classroom.
Au, Wayne. “Remembrance: Keeping Kids at the Center of Educational Policy.” City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. Ed. William Ayers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gregory Michie, and Pedro A. Noguera. New York: New, 2008. 305-309. Print.
Christensen, Linda. “Building Community from Chaos.” City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. Ed. William Ayers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gregory Michie, and Pedro A. Noguera. New York: New, 2008. 60-73. Print.
Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey M. R. "Visions of Teachers Leaving No More Children Behind." Building Racial and Cultural Competence in the Classroom: Strategies from Urban Educators. By Karen Manheim. Teel and Jennifer E. Obidah. New York, NY: Teachers College, 2008. N. pag. 111-126. Print.
Hogan, Katie. “The Curie 12: A Case for Teacher Activism.” City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. Ed. William Ayers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gregory Michie, and Pedro A. Noguera. New York: New, 2008. 97-101. Print.
Michie, Gregory. “From Holler If You Heard Me.” City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. Ed. William Ayers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gregory Michie, and Pedro A. Noguera. New York: New, 2008. 10-18. Print.
"New Campaign Gives Students Voice in Funding Debate." Philly-archives. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 01 May 2015. <http://articles.philly.com/2015-04-16/news/61184423_1_city-school-district-middle-school-budget-cuts>.