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January 18, 2017

Yesterday was a tough day for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for education secretary. There were many notable moments during her contentious Senate confirmation hearing, but one exchange was particularly shocking. When asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) how she preferred to measure student progress—by using either proficiency or growth standards—she had no answer. It’s one of the most basic issues related to education policy and she clearly didn’t understand the question.

Kelly Wickham Hurst does. She’s the executive director of Being Black At School, an advocacy organization that uses demographic data, cultural competency training, and other evidence-based approaches to fight racism in education. But before that, she worked for 23 years in various teaching and administrative capacities in public and private schools. Her stories tend to be raw and on point.

Today, she posted a blog that does a remarkable job of illuminating what it means to navigate the growth-versus-proficiency divide on the ground.

Here’s the setup: A recent widower had come into her public middle school to register four of his sixteen children. Without their mother, some of the children had been living with a relative. All had been “home-schooled,” a term she used lightly. From her story:

I was the Literacy Coach and we used several measures to determine their reading levels. The dad, when dropping them off, said he thought two of them were in 8th grade and the other two were in 6th and 7th. ‘I think that’s the levels,’ he told us.

While using a standard reading test I learned that of the four children, three boys and one girl, only two of them could read words. The youngest boy (in age) couldn’t identify the 26 letters of the alphabet. The only one who read the 4th grade level text I showed them was the girl and I asked her why that was. ‘Because I have to cook so I read recipes,’ she told me.

The arrival of the kids put the school into an immediate quandary, which shifted the focus from the needs of the kids to the resources of the school.

“When the state assessment was given our school would be considered FAILING because they couldn’t read at grade level PROFICIENCY,” she wrote, through no fault of their own. (Remember, one of the pre-teens didn’t even recognize the letters of the alphabet.) Curriculum would need to be revised to accommodate them; even with extraordinary measures, their test scores would be humiliating for them, and disastrous for the school. “We wanted to be able to measure them for GROWTH… not the arbitrary proficiency levels we were given,” she says. “You need someone in charge who at least understands this basic debate.”

It gets basic quickly. Kids, particularly low-income kids of color, walk into public schools every day carrying a variety of burdens that have hobbled them before class even starts—they’re hungry, tired, grieving, self-conscious, lost, neglected, depressed, or some combination. I suppose it’s possible that one of kids Wickham Hurst describes, through luck and extraordinary resilience, could have been nurtured by an educator with a heart of gold, or been saved by a well-designed remedial or corporate-funded development program. And I expect, if they did, they will one day tell this story as proof that anything is possible.

But celebrating outliers of success lets us all temporarily off the hook. By not doing the difficult work of understanding the complex systems that prevent kids from getting access to education and support, we enjoy the rare achiever at the expense of families whose names we’ll never know.

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content from PwC
We must all act inclusively
Mike Dillon, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at PwC, reflects on the legacy and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King.
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Quote

It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education; that schooling has been their first care and enduring charge…Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.
—John Dewey
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