Education Opinion

Breaking the Class Ceiling: Teaching for Mastery and Enrichment

By Josh Parker — April 11, 2018 6 min read
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“Part of teaching is helping students learn how to tolerate ambiguity, consider possibilities, and ask questions that are unanswerable.” -Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

We see through our beliefs. Those beliefs are built by experiences. Those experiences are mostly benign and/or a part of the culture that we were born into. Grew up in.

I recently celebrated a birthday. As a part of the celebration, my wife and I went to a spectacular brunch that was more expensive for us than usual. Both of us come from modest means, so these times are a treat for us. As I looked around the restaurant, I was struck by seeing infants and toddlers. Everywhere. At almost every table there sat a family, engaging lovingly with children.

“Look at those babies and children, coming to a breakfast at 6 months old that I have just come to in my mid-thirties,” I said to my wife. “This is the culture that they will grow up in and see as normal.”

These children will grow up in an environment where this level of quality and service will be as normal to them as my weekly (sometimes more often) trips to Chick-Fil-A. So, what they will come to understand as normal will be very far removed from what most children see as a normal breakfast. Besides promising to take our children there soon, I started to think about how this idea is repeated elsewhere.

In housing. In community programs. In malls. In entertainment and recreation opportunities. And especially in classrooms.

Based on the most recent NAEP reports, which show the stable and significant achievement gap remaining strong (once again), I wonder if the culture of instruction black and brown students ‘grow up in’ is significantly different than their peers. Different according to socioeconomic class. Different according to gender. Different according to skin color. Or all three. Dr. Sandra Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, has referred to it as the ‘red-lining of instruction’. This is a type of instruction that may be well intentioned, but is executed from the seat of our beliefs (and our expertise) and puts a ceiling as to what black and brown students should be able to do in a classroom. Or a class period. This type of instruction can usually be heard in statements like “they will need a lot of prep for this,” or “they don’t read, they don’t do homework and they just can’t understand the concepts,” or the most common “at least they completed.... (insert a low level product).”

I have witnessed this instruction and throughout my career, implemented and presided over this type of instruction more often than I am proud of. That is why this matter is so urgent - it is easy to put this ceiling on some of our most instructionally-dependent students. Let me explain.

First, you come in wide-eyed and enthusiastic about what all students can do. Then, if you teach black and brown students, your expectations become color-coded at the first sign of academic deficit or distress. Next, you level down your instruction in an attempt to level up your students - because ‘this is the support they need.’ When these same black and brown students do not show success with this type of instruction (or even when they do), it confirms your pre-existing bias as to the capacity of certain students. The lesson plans that were packed, imaginative and creative in August are suddenly simple and filled with long teacher-directed activities. By the winter break, you and your students become used to the artificial ceiling that has been set. And you both proceed in this unstated agreement for the next six months.

Then comes graduation.

Notice that there is no malice, no hate and no evil intention on the part of the teacher. In fact, this is seen mostly as an act of love and support. And this is how scores, achievements and communities where black and brown students are concerned almost never improve. By the way, this type of instruction is not limited to students at the low-end scale, but also our high-achieving black and brown princes and princesses. And after a while; this is just what the students grow up in and get used to. The only way they fully realize that instruction can and should be different is when an incredible teacher teaches them or when they visit another school with a culture of engagement and academic excellence. And so, our classes become classes of students as it relates to academics.

One part of our class contains struggling students; another part is labeled ‘troublemakers’ and the last collection of students is classified as exceptional. Different classes of students within a class, but all getting used to the same type of low-ceiling instruction. In such a class, all of the work is geared toward helping students achieve up to a certain point. And any other success comes either by accident or by the dogged determination of our students. I believe we can and must do better. Teachers have the power to change the instructional culture of the classroom so that students get used to a quality learning experience that they do not have to pay for, benefit from and recommend to other people. For better or worse, students (and children sitting at an awesome Saturday morning brunch) can get used to anything. Let’s get to work.

Classroom Instruction Principle

Use the grade-level standard of work as the starting point for a learning experience that is scaffolded, dynamic and limitless.

Three Actions to Implement by Your Next Lesson

1. Get the process right and practice it relentlessly. Study and master the grade level standards of your curriculum. Create exemplars with texts/content you are familiar with based on the standards. Debrief from these products with other colleagues and experts so that you can determine what the supporting processes and skills are that help students move towards producing the grade-level work. Pull out these processes and make anchor charts out of them. Then, have students practice these processes when they are learning how to master a standard. Do it every single time until the process(es) becomes rote.

2. Establish mastery AND enrichment goals for each class. Set a mastery goal (the standard to be mastered by the end of the learning experience) and a stretch goal (the above grade level standard, or combination of standards expectations expected to be mastered by gifted students) for each lesson. You can set alternative learning experiences in the independent practice portion of the learning experience so that you aren’t tracking students when it comes to direct instruction, but rather giving them different pathways to engage in independently to demonstrate understanding.

3. Build in time for extra practice. It is nearly impossible to break the ceiling of academic potential for students who may have been underserved for years in only a 90-minute class period. So, make time for extra practice for students who need it. This time is most likely best spent in developing their capacity to revise their earlier work to match grade-level expectations or move them into the enrichment degree of difficulty outlined in the prior step.

Two Resources for Further Study

Going Deep: Empowering Students to Take Risks, Make Mistakes and Master Difficult Material by the 2013 Fishman Prize Winners: https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP_FishmanPrizeSeries_2013.pdf

Literacy Assignment Analysis Guide by The Education Trust: https://1k9gl1yevnfp2lpq1dhrqe17-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/LiteracyAssignmentAnalysisGuide_Final_082216.pdf

One Inspirational Quote/Video

Dr. Santelises speech at the Winter 2018 Standards Institute by Unbound Ed entitled ‘Leadership and Equity’ - https://youtu.be/dcGfFNoy5tI

“For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become.” -James Baldwin

The opinions expressed in Everyday Equity in the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.