Ain’t Nothing Wrong With the Kids

Apples, Oranges, and Bananas

This blog title represents the response of teachers regarding their achievement of what some believe is a seemingly insurmountable feat—closing the achievement gap. During their recognition at the White House, President Obama asked them what they thought was the one thing teachers and the public should know about their achievement. They responded that you have to enter your classroom with the underlying belief that “ain’t nothing wrong with the kids.” I think they used the word “ain’t” because it has a higher degree of resonance and impact. I have been a principal for 20 years and a Title I supervisor for 10. I have had the good fortune of seeing students who were not expected to learn at high levels do just that. Our school was later selected as a model professional learning community.

PLCs have three big ideas and four critical questions. My experience has been implementing them alone, void of collective self-efficacy or the belief that the most at-risk students have the ability to learn, will not result in the sustainability of high levels of learning. I call it the “glue” in our school’s pyramid response to intervention. When responding to poor student performance, some of today’s teachers still say, “I didn’t get a good group this year.” Principals respond with an understanding tone saying, “Do the best you can!” Contrast this with the words of a third-grader assigned to escort me to their high-energy School of Excellence celebration at Occoquan Elementary: “Welcome, Mrs. Jessie! I hope you are ready for what you are going to see (dancing, cheering, etc).” He added rather nonchalantly, “We all go for the 100%, but we are encouraged to squeeeeeeeze (balling his fists up tight) for 110%.” This represents collective self-efficacy at its best.

Acceptance of poor performance for some is analogous to a physician walking into a room believing that a patient cannot be saved because he was born with too many at-risk health factors. He begins the process of “keeping him comfortable” and insulating him and his family from hopeless expectation for a cure. The recent findings of Carol Dweck indicate intelligence is not fixed, but malleable. Yet some educators still live in the world of Martin Deutsch’s work in the ’70s and “deprivation” approach to learning. Educators still say students have “no background knowledge.” Few children live in a vacuum. They are not a “deficit”—in fact, some are bilingual! What they lack is what John Hattie calls the language of school—a condition that schools have the ability and responsibility to solve.

Tracking students into low and often permanent groups continues to exist, but often under a different names, like advanced or accelerated courses. Children know when they are being tracked. One of my relocated military friends asked her second-grader about his first day at school. He said, “There are three reading groups, the apples, oranges, and bananas. The apples are the smart kids; the oranges are the so-so kids—I am an orange; but ‘Lawd’ help those poor bananas!” Usually this banana group slides back instead of up. Before you know it, they slide out of our school system without graduating. They slide on the very banana peel that was supposed to protect them. The peel was not insulated with systematic monitoring of learning combined with the gift of high expectations.

We must become what I call talent whisperers. We have to constantly whisper words of belief and high expectations into our students’ ears. Carol Dweck says that instead of telling a child that he failed you say, “You did not get it right—yet.” Students have to be what I call “yet-ed” on a daily basis. Dr. Jeff Howard of the Efficacy Institute says when we are asked, “Whose children are these?” In a PLC, the response should be ours! You would never give up on your own child if you were told he was terminal.

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