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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Updraft/Downdraft

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Updraft/Downdraft

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Underprivileged students experience low-level expectations accompanied by low-level courses.

Every day, high schools engage in a process of selecting and sorting students that results in some receiving the education and supports that will lead them toward college, while others receive a very different education, one that trades off behavior for a diploma. The latter students experience on a daily basis low-level expectations accompanied by low-level courses and assignments. They learn that if they show up for school and do the minimal work, they will graduate. And then, unlike their counterparts looking ahead to a rigorous postsecondary education, their vision of an education ends.

One way to describe these contrasting experiences is by analogy—as a system caught in an "updraft" and a "downdraft." As inexorably as wind currents, the old norms have swept students along through the system: Those who enter kindergarten with social privilege tend to leave high school poised for privilege in the future. Those who enter school underprivileged tend to leave underprivileged. The updraft-downdraft description takes its cue from a broader societal experience about social class and how we shape the lives of children and adolescents through a process called "social reproduction," the re-creation of existing class strata from one generation to the next.

The standards and accountability movement sets new expectations, working in opposition to the updraft-downdraft pressure of social reproduction. Now schools, under new norms, are pressured to teach all students to achieve high standards. Under this system, all are expected to exit high school armed with the necessary skills to succeed in postsecondary education and in a demanding workplace. This imperative is a powerful force that presses daily on high schools and the people inside them, especially teachers.

Yet society sends a dual message. Educators continue to be expected also to sort students into categories of success and failure.

Those who enter kindergarten with social privilege tend to leave high school poised for privilege in the future. Those who enter school underprivileged tend to leave underprivileged.

The high school journey remains fundamentally competitive, as students jostle one another for excellence as measured by class rank, grade point average, and SAT scores—the weaponry that lets top-ranking students gain entry to coveted postsecondary slots and access to a brighter future. In high schools, grades and class rank become the foundations for a cash economy, as pathways leading to scholarships and highly respected universities.

Teachers obviously are torn in attempting to meet the demands of both systems. Because of the national need for an educated workforce, strong public forces are pushing hard on social reproduction, and we have supports in place through policy and practice for taking on history. At the same time, however, the institutionalized processes grounded in competition also have powerful support, particularly from those who have been advantaged under that system.

At the secondary level, this dual context is a factor strongly influencing both the teacher's ability to hold high expectations for all and the student's ability to achieve. All too often, however, its impact is fundamentally ignored. We tend to pay most of our attention to the expectations for achievement that staff members hold, and to ignore how the context within which they teach assists or inhibits there ability to accomplish those expectations. In doing so, we overlook very real opportunities to create more effective high schools.

If we are to successfully change our high schools, we must make what's invisible, visible.

If we are to successfully change our high schools, we must make what's invisible, visible. Decades of research on high schools can help us in this process. But one way to see with immediacy the updraft-downdraft phenomenon in action is by careful scrutiny of what we call a school's "artifacts." Secondary schools can use these artifacts—calendars, master schedules, student schedules, course syllabi, and other sources of data—to bring the updraft-downdraft forces to light and monitor how they are affecting teaching and learning.

This work is important. Since high school represents a critical juncture in students' lives, it is vital that educators know the factors that support or detract from student achievement. Such an examination also can allow schools to view their culture from a fresh perspective, as teachers and staff members adopt the researcher's eye to look within. They can learn to see the context in which high school teaching and learning occur, and determine whether or not that context sufficiently supports teachers and students in their work. Uncovering the meanings hidden inside school artifacts can be a journey of discovery. Just as archeologists and anthropologists unearth the past, school communities can uncover the past practice within their buildings.


Here are four of the many ways that such artifacts can help a school staff create the base of data needed to determine whether or not its high school expects all students to achieve:

  • Artifacts that tell about time. Using student schedules, calculate the number of minutes students in different tracks have for instruction. What proportion of the day is spent in tough academic courses? What percentage of school time is spent in study hall, or other nonacademic assignments? To add fresh perspective, get a copy of the school calendar and calculate the relative instructional time for the year for different students. For example, calculate the number of minutes and hours per school year spent on the subjects in which students are assessed by the state, such as English and mathematics.

Several high schools that have performed this analysis found approximately 12 to 14 eight-hour days per year for each subject. Put another way, teachers and students may be using much less than half their time on areas where they are held accountable and where students need to score well to gain admission to college. And students in different tracks may have greatly differing amounts of time in rigorous courses.

  • Artifacts that tell about teacher quality. Using a master schedule, student transcripts, and teacher qualifications, analyze who is teaching whom and who is learning what. Which students, for example, have the highest- qualified teachers? Which have long-term substitutes? Who has out-of-field teachers? Who has teachers with long absentee records? Which students have new teachers vs. experienced teachers? Which have teachers who consistently move student achievement upward?

National data show that if you are poor or a member or a minority group, you are more likely to have less-experienced, out- of-field, or substitute teachers than "updraft" students.

  • Artifacts that tell about rigor and academic expectations. Using course syllabi, everyday assignments, and samples of student work, examine the variance in the match between standards, assessments, curriculum, and instruction across the school. Are students learning important foundational skills and concepts? Do they do a lot of reading and writing, mathematical thinking, and problem-solving? Do tasks align with appropriate grade-level standards and assessments? Are there common end-of-course exams? Do grades match state assessment scores?

Monitoring instructional quality can reveal the most egregious differences. It's not unusual for students taking different Algebra 1 classes, for example, to have vastly different course experiences: no more than simple equations and ditto sheets for one, while the other receives the full course. Coursework differs in large part not by the description in the curriculum guide, but by the rigor and demands of everyday instruction. Student transcripts can also reveal student coursework patterns and their relevance to postsecondary education admissions.

  • Artifacts that tell about supports. Though some of this information is harder to obtain, a school can uncover support patterns through analysis of communications with parents, students, and certified and uncertified staff members. Who, for example, is told that going to college is a real possibility and advised how to pursue that path? Who has access to academic tools, such as computers and other technologies? Who has support at home for homework? Who participates in extracurricular activities that benefit academic performance? Who has access to additional tutoring?

Why are such artifacts credible sources of data? Because they emerge from each school's unique set of choices. They serve as indicators of that school's core values and help us understand what, in fact, the school is actually doing to create the best educational experience it can for all of its students.

Educators are adept at "talking the talk," but it is a far different thing to "walk the talk."

In the current educational arena, there are those who adamantly hold to old sorting norms, while others protest those norms' impact on opportunity and access. What makes it hard sometimes to tell the old from the new, however, is jargon that simply repackages the old as the new. Educators are adept at "talking the talk," but it is a far different thing to "walk the talk." Schools may talk grandly in their school improvement plans, for example, about meeting standards, yet offer little to compare student work in all classes to the standards and to the level of performance demanded on state assessments.

By using the research base as one lens through which to assess their practices, and their own artifacts as another, high schools can more effectively make the shift from being institutions that work well for some students to ones that work for all. The process will take careful thought and a willingness to uncover and talk about the forces that have created uneven educational worlds within the school.

But high schools that do this will be prepared to make informed choices as they create new conditions that allow teachers to deliver equity and excellence for all.

Marilyn Crawford is the author of The Productive High School(Corwin Press, 2001) and a consultant with schools and districts in Lancaster, Pa. Eleanor Dougherty is a senior associate at the Education Trust in Washington and the author of Shifting Gears: Standards, Assessments, Curriculum, and Instruction (Fulcrum Publishing, November 2001). Both are former teachers and school administrators.

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Pages 36,39

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Web Resources
  • Visit the Education Trust, where Ms. Dougherty is a senior associate. One of its tenets is that "All children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels."
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