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The Real Growth v Proficiency Debate

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.

On Point

Congresswoman Maxine Waters is having none of thisCalifornia’s Maxine Waters is a legendarily expressive woman, and her responses to the press and her colleagues post-Trump election have been particularly salty. But writer R. Eric Thomas has done a masterful job covering the politics of her unique shade-throwing exasperation, while sounding like your favorite cousin. He turns Waters into the representative for the rest of us who wish we could take everyone down a peg. “She’s treating the press like they’re a bunch of vacuum cleaner salespeople who barged into her living room in the middle of Days of Our Lives,” he writes. I die.Elle

Debate: Does empathy help or hamper your ability to make moral decisions?
This is the question the New York Times has posed in its most recent debate series, and it’s worth your time, particularly since “empathy” is brought up so much these days that it’s almost a conversational tic. What do we really know about empathy? “[B]oth laboratory studies and anecdotal experiences show that empathy flows most for those who look like us, who are attractive, and who are non-threatening and familiar,” cautions Yale’s Paul Bloom. True that, says Stanford’s Jamil Ziki, “But you also overstate its problems and undersell its importance.”
New York Times

The Slants take their controversial name to SCOTUS
They know the name is offensive, and that’s the point, say The Slants, a rock band from Portland, Ore. The Asian-American musicians wanted to appropriate the phrase, and turn it from a racial slur into an affirmation of sorts. But what they really want is to trademark their band’s name. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has denied their request under a federal law that bars registration of trademarks that “disparage” or “bring into contempt or disrepute” persons, institutions or beliefs. They’re not kidding around: The Patent Office canceled the Washington Redskins trademark in 2014. The Supremes are reviewing the case.

Today’s “hidden figures” are still struggling in physics
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a fascinating presence on Twitter, a theoretical physicist who has elevated conversations around race and science into an art form. She’s also the 63rd Black American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics. In this interview with Gizmodo, she explains why the movie Hidden Figures is still relevant for today’s women of color in science. “There were times when I was treated differently in overt ways because of my race and my gender,” she begins. “If you grow up in American society, by the time you’re an adult, you basically have a PhD in identifying racism.”

The Woke Leader

When art makes you free
Morgan Jerkins, a Harlem-based writer and editor has written a beautiful essay that explores the deep need for escape that many black people feel in America, a longing for emotional safety and freedom from systemic violence that has fueled personal choices for generations. A Rochester man seeks Canadian asylum in 2015. An enslaved man disguises himself as a Free black sailor to escape to New York in 1838. A Rhodes Scholar today crosses the globe from the U.S to Brazil and back, looking for a place called home. “Our perpetual lack of belonging fuels our desire to flee, but where do you turn when there seems to be nowhere to seek refuge?” Her answer is an affirmation of art you didn’t know you needed.

On being a responsible storyteller
As a documentary filmmaker, Saeed Taji Farouky has filmed the war in Afghanistan and the refugee crisis and stays close to the themes—human rights, colonialism, and occupation—that informed his life as a child of Palestinian refugees. “One of the challenges I have to face in all of the stories I tell are not only the issues themselves, but how those issues are portrayed,”  he says in this moving TEDx talk. At issue with the media today, he says, is the imbalance between who the stories are about and who controls the creation and distribution of them. “What happens when we don’t have a role to play in the telling of our own stories?” In the best case scenario, the stories are simply terrible. In the worst case, they do real harm.
TEDx Hyderabad

Mobilizing communities to end violence against women
Dr. Shruti Kapoor is an economist and social entrepreneur who started Sayfty, an organization that works to end gender-based violence, in reaction to a horrific gang rape in Delhi in 2012. In this interview, she shares three important learnings that speak to how the global problem of violence against women can and should be addressed. Click through for the specifics, but here’s something we can all do now: “Be a better bystander. We all need to reprogram ourselves and stop being silent,” she says.


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