Sunday, November 3, 2019

Paul Gorski on Education and Inequity

For the first time in 28 years of teaching, I approve of the new guru being brought to the masses from on high. Immediately, from just the first few seconds of the  video we were compelled to watch for some force-fed professional development, I knew this guy was different. The sound was poor quality, and it was clearly homemade using a laptop camera and mic; there was nothing slick or polished about it in the least. That is high praise coming from me.

Paul Gorski is Associate Professor at New Century College. Beyond being an author of several books and magazine articles, he is the primary author of many articles published in journals (albeit low ranking or unranked - at least they're his own studies). And he, like me, rails against many of the ideas teachers have been told to embrace over the years, like the whole the Grit Movement. I think growth mindset fits the same "deficit" criticisms as is outlined further here, and in this tweet:

Elsewhere he adds in Emotional Intelligence and Cultural Competence. They all run into the same problem: Telling people they just need a different mindset or more grit to do better in school denies, in the most condescending way, the reality that people who are marginalized are often models of resilience and grit. They've overcome more obstacles before breakfast than the rest of us have to manage all day. He explains further in this paper,

"A majority of [Ruby Payne's] claims about the mindsets of people experiencing poverty have been debunked: her core book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, exposed for containing innumerable factual errors meant to paint the cultures of people experiencing poverty as the determining factor in educational outcome disparities. People experiencing poverty, as it turns out, are just as diverse as any other group defined around a single identity. Unfortunately, reality is of little mitigating consequence against ideology. Payne, like other deficit ideologues, speaks to the existing misperceptions and biases of her primarily classroom-teacher audience. People in poverty are broken. Here’s how to fix them. This is the power of deficit ideology and why it poses the most danger in sociopolitical contexts in which people are socialised to believe equal opportunity exists. . . . The natural inclination of the educator who ascribes to deficit ideology is to believe that parents experiencing poverty do not show up because they do not care. . . . What they too often fail to see are the barriers that make opportunities for family involvement less accessible to families experiencing poverty."
His discussion around the problems with the grit ideology make it clear how well the "spoon" metaphor, used by people with disabilities and then adopted by people with depression and other mental illnesses, works with poverty as well. It's another way to look at the concepts of ego depletion or the hierarchy of needs. People without adequate resources use up most of their energy trying to get those basic needs met and then they have less energy for school. We all have students who are hungry at school, and often we have students who are caring for younger siblings or who seem to be perpetually in the middle of changing where they're living or who they're living with. They're exhausted.

We've gotten much better at working with students suffering from mental health issues. We've come to recognize that delaying timelines for assignments isn't the answer when things are difficult because it just piles up the work until it's overwhelming, but that some students need to be allowed to take fewer courses at a time. We need the greater system at large (at the board and provincial levels) to stop putting any pressure on or in any way glorifying the idea of finishing high school in four years. As I said a couple years back, "If we stop suggesting that there's something wrong with taking five years to finish, then students might stop getting discouraged if they need another year." It's about time that this type of thinking and accommodating is applied to people whose education is affected by low socio-economic status.

Gorski is American, however, and we don't have quite the same level of poverty issues as they do next door, in part because of how our schools are funded to ensure similar resources at each school and how our healthcare is funded so everyone has access to a doctor. When he speaks of inequity in detail, he lists things like schools with inoperative or filthy bathrooms, lower teacher salaries, unfilled teacher vacancies, and less access to preventive healthcare. So, our problems aren't like their's (until you get north of Thunder Bay). But we certainly have kids experiencing food insecurity and a lack of the types of technological resources in the home that have become an expectation of the school system.

One teacher conversation centred around how often students are given chromebooks which are lost or destroyed within a year, particularly in the Fast Forward stream, which is often the stream with the highest percentage of parents in the lowest SES. Some argued that not having a laptop clearly isn't a direct effect of poverty, since they were each given one. I argued that perhaps it's an indirect effect of missing the skill of caring for property, a skill that's developed through ownership of expensive objects. However, it also IS affected directly by poverty. When my youngest was in grade nine last year, she tried to put her chromebook in her knapsack while walking down a flight of stairs. She stumbled, and, flailing for balance, inadvertently smashed her chromebook against the handrail. I paid $50 for a replacement screen the next day, and the incident had a negligible effect on her schooling. For some people, that $50 is already allocated for groceries. They have to wait for extra money to come from somewhere to get that chromebook fixed.

Sphere of Influence - What does it look like??

According to Gorski, structural ideology - as opposed to deficit or grit ideology - recognizes that groups are more similar than different and that some people still have greater barriers that are no fault of their own that come from having too many challenges to cope with outside of school. My first reaction to the video is to want to call my MPP because this isn't a problem I can solve. But Gorski insists that there is much educators can do within their sphere of influence. From the article linked above,
"What makes this reality difficult to manage in a teacher education context is that all of these outside-of-school inequities appear to most current and future educators far outside their spheres of influence. In fact, neither teachers nor schools are equipped with the knowledge, resources, or time to resolve these conditions – especially not in the immediate term. This is, in part, what makes deficit and grit ideology so alluring: they allow educators to define problems in ways that call for straightforward and practical solutions. Teach families the value of education. Cultivate resilience in students. With a structural ideology educators see big structural conditions they cannot rectify so easily or practically. The hope of structural ideology is that, even if schools and educators cannot fully rectify those conditions, equity policy and practice should be responsive to those conditions and not punish economically marginalised students for their implications."
I also think we ascribe blame as a way of distancing ourselves from these issues. I'll never be poor because I won't be stupid enough to do x, y, or z. That gives us the illusion of safety from these experiences. Once we open ourselves up to the possibility that chance plays a part in other people's difficulties, then we are more vulnerable to the frightening awareness that these things could happen to us or our loved ones. But, only then can we become more understanding of this type of problem in our classroom and more actively engaging in changing the underlying structures rather than fixing the children.

We were prompted to consider Parent-Teacher night in which we typically only see the people we don't really need to see - those striving to maintain marks over 95. We're told to call home if students are not attending or getting work done, and many dread making those calls because sometimes parents yell at us for not doing a better job to engage their kid, and other times they cry because they don't know what went wrong. They're at a loss of what to do, too. Adolescence is a tough age.

At our table, in little time, we brainstormed how we could make changes in our parent-teacher events, like with flexible locations and timing and with interpreters on site, in order to attract a more diverse population of parents. But I think that scheduling is not the only reason that parents of weaker students typically don't make it:

It's sometimes the case that parents avoid schools because they were a place to be put down. My oldest loved school in kindergarten, ran all the way there each day, but they struggled in grade 1. Yup, struggled in grade 1. At parent-teacher night, the teacher told me that my beautiful child was an absolute disaster. An undiagnosed learning disability made for some challenges addressed only after they were identified, and only because I had the knowledge and resources to make that happen. Now they're winning awards in their final year of grad school. I was able to brush off the teacher's comments as rude because I know the system, and I saw her as an anomaly. But to a parent who wasn't ever comfortable in a school, a terse comment like that could make them avoid all teacher contact forevermore, and that could have an effect on their attitude towards their children's schooling.

Gorski suggests that families in low SES homes want kids to do as well in school as high SES parents do, but that they're not always able to be home at night due to shift work, or able to leave little ones to attend meetings. It is a real issue that some parents don't have the energy to help their kids, or the resources, or the educational background to know how to help despite their desire for their children to succeed. When my kids were in French immersion classes, I felt helpless to work with them at night. Imagine parents with literacy and numeracy difficulties; parental success in school clearly affect the kind of help they can provide for their children. It might make the difference between telling them repeatedly to do homework and actually drilling them with flashcards for a content test that's coming up. The gap widens as the well-educated learn skills of learning at home that aren't clearly shared with the families with a less-educated background.

BUT I also imagine that it's the case that there are some parents who really don't care about school. It may be rare, but it shouldn't be ignored: There can be a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality of some parents who don't want their children to do better in school than they did. "I dropped out and did just fine." It's not just a movie trope, and it doesn't hurt to acknowledge that some of our students are working against an anti-education family culture.

Later on with other colleagues, we were quick to hone in on the need to address the hunger issue in our classrooms. Kids are tired and listless because they aren't eating. I think I may have accidentally joined a committee to help expand our breakfast and lunch programs despite a lack of funding and volunteers.

Equity Literacy:

Gorski has a series of questions he asks himself to help him stay within a structural ideology: Are we using inclusive language, like referring to people as being 'pushed out' of school instead of 'dropouts' or discussing 'generational injustice' instead of 'generational poverty'. Does this policy focus on fixing inequitable conditions rather than changing mindsets?

As a promoter of stoicism and CBT for better well-being in general, there is a notable benefit of changing our attitudes towards things, and resilience is a thing that can be somewhat improved, so we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. I've compiled an overview of studies on resilience, that I teach from, and in which it's made very clear that to have resilience, we need a sense of control over our own lives, but that, similar to Gorski's message,
"Poverty has a significantly negative effect on one's sense of control over the environment. . . . It's a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around. . . . The biggest predictor of resilience has nothing to do with relationships or attitudes, but everything to do with access to services." 

Teen years can be tough to get through for everybody. I dropped out of high school because my boyfriend was more interesting than calculus - and I loved calculus! I wasn't pushed out; people did everything they could to keep me there. But I needed a few more years to grow up and recognize how limited my options would be without an education. Sometimes these things can be addressed by encouraging kids to take their time at school in a way that gives them time to mature. What's the rush?


Owen Gray said...

Having lived long enough, Marie, to see many of the students I taught grow into adulthood, I've always been struck by how well so many of them did -- despite the predictions made by some of their teachers.

Larry Hamelin said...

I agree completely. I think a lot of what you complain about is not from ignorance but more or less by design. We have exactly the kind of school system that effectively reproduces capitalism.

(BTW, I'm starting my second year as a college teacher; my best friend is starting her fourth year in middle-school special ed.)