Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Academics or Culture? How Best to Raise Achievement

We devote a great deal of time in our pre-service preparation program to helping our future teachers grapple with issues related to teaching diverse groups of students. In a course called Diverse Learners and Environments, we introduce the wide range of diversity that exists across today's general school population and examine the increased professional demands that this diversity makes upon teachers. We explore a range of diversity issues including economic, social, racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, and physical and cognitive abilities and backgrounds of children.

Through field experiences, upper division course work and finally student teaching, we attempt to get students into schools where they will experience the full range of this diversity. We also share current research and approaches to working with different student populations.

Given our emphasis on developing teachers who are sensitive to the needs of all children, I was particularly interested in this recent article from Education Week on strategies for Native American students. Entitled Varied Strategies Sought for Native American Students, the article examines approaches taken in states where Native American students make up a large portion of the minority student population. The two contrasting approaches highlighted are worth considering and discussing. Here is an excerpt:
Subscribing to the philosophy that Indian students are best served by a focus on core academics was Ben Chavis, a former principal of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., who gave a keynote address on the first day of the conference.

Mr. Chavis told how over five years at the school he helped change the academic performance of students by paring down the curriculum to focus on language arts and mathematics. The school went from having one of the worst academic records in Oakland to having one of the best, he said. It also grew far more diverse, from having 27 students, most of whom were Native American, to 230 students, 12 percent of whom are Native American.

Mr. Chavis said that when he started as the principal in 2000, students were spending an hour each morning in a practice derived from Native American culture called a “talking circle,” in which they were “sitting around in the circle passing the feather.”

Though he grew up attending segregated schools for Native Americans in North Carolina, he saw that practice as a waste of time and eliminated it. He also moved cultural electives such as music to after-school programs, so the school day could be spent on core academics.

But in a breakout session that followed Mr. Chavis’ address, Sandra J. Fox, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and a consultant on Indian education, said she encourages schools to take a very different tack—in one school, she quipped, “we instituted a talking circle.”

In general, Ms. Fox stressed the importance of incorporating Native American culture and history into lessons and teaching in ways that are compatible with that culture. She said, for example, that many Indian parents teach their children by doing or showing, rather than telling, and that such a method works well also in school with such children.

“Indian children watch and watch and watch, and don’t want to try it until they think they can do it,” she said.

Ms. Fox also recommended that teachers use “instructional conversation,” in which they sit in a circle with students, informally introduce a subject they are about to teach, and ask for student input. She said that Native American children also respond well to hearing lessons in a storytelling form.
I must admit that even though the first method described has raised scores, it is the same approach we are seeing in our urban schools here and one that concerns me greatly. Yes, core academics are important, but if we choose to diminish the importance of science, social studies, the arts and other experiential parts of the curriculum, we run the risk of creating children who narrowly focused, unable to see connections among disciplines and how we use these skills and ideas in the real world, and poised to see little value in their schooling. We must do more than teach/prepare students to pass a test.

That said, I'm all for Ms. Fox's method of reaching students, and think it holds promise for students who may come from different cultural backgrounds. We must learn to value who students are and what they bring to the classroom if we expect them to value what we do and can offer them in return.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox now. Fire away.


  1. good questions. good conversation starter. While I think the second approach has some value, particularly in its inclusion in the curriculum of American Indian history and stories, I also feel strongly that it *can* become an excuse for not having high academic expectations for all students. It can become a way to say "these kids learn different so it's okay if they don't master grade level skills..." Not okay. No way. All kids deserve schools and teachers that give them the skills and knowledge to compete academically, if that's what they choose to do.

    I'm all for using whatever methods work, for all different types of learners, but at the end of the year I expect my students, regardless of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds, to be strong readers and proficient in grade level math skills. All students. I'm not an NCLB fan, on any day of the week, but I am a huge believer in high academic expectations for all kids. All the time.

  2. Hi Amy,
    I do agree and absolutely believe in setting high standards for all kids. The problem, as I see it, is that state standards have become for many kids, the ceiling and not the floor. We should be working from these baseic standards, not toward them. I do, however, have huge problems with saying that little beyond reading and math are important. I know these are core, but we must do more. We can teach social studies and science through reading and writing, and math can easily be incorporated into these areas as well.

    To teach kids well, we must, at some point, take into consideration how they learn best, and this means a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction won't work.