Teach­ers can learn, too — sim­ply by vis­it­ing the homes of their stu­dents

The Washington Post - - EDUCATION - jay.mathews@wash­post.com Jay Mathews

When I was writ­ing in the 1980s about the star­tling suc­cess of low-in­come stu­dents in Ad­vanced Place­ment cal­cu­lus at Garfield High School in East Los An­ge­les, many oth­er­wise smart and well-ed­u­cated peo­ple tried to con­vince me that the deep learn­ing I was see­ing with my own eyes couldn’t be real.

They said Garfield must have let only stu­dents with col­legee­d­u­cated par­ents into those dif­fi­cult classes. Nope. Only 35 of the 109 cal­cu­lus stu­dents I sur­veyed had even one par­ent with a high school diploma.

They sug­gested the stu­dents mem­o­rized a few for­mu­las to score high on the AP ex­ams but could not at­tain the con­cep­tual un­der­stand­ing of sub­ur­ban cal­cu­lus stu­dents. Engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors I con­sulted who knew what the Garfield grads were do­ing in col­lege laughed at that.

That was my in­tro­duc­tion to the wide­spread be­lief that im­pov­er­ished chil­dren can’t do well in school. A new study by the non­profit re­search firm RTI In­ter­na­tional shows that such as­sump­tions still be­devil our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, but also iden­ti­fies a unique way to weaken their grip.

The re­searchers in­ter­viewed 175 teach­ers and par­ents par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Par­ent Teacher Home Vis­its pro­gram, a net­work of more than 450 com­mu­ni­ties in 20 states. The study was funded by the D.C.and Puerto Rico-based Flam­boyan Foun­da­tion, which pro­motes great teach­ing and fam­ily en­gage­ment in schools.

The Sacra­mento-based pro­gram has shown that the vis­its give par­ents a clearer idea of how to sup­port their chil­dren’s stud­ies, and they help teach­ers learn more about stu­dents’ in­ter­ests and how to mo­ti­vate them in class.

But the RTI study also dis­cov­ered that ed­u­ca­tors of­ten have “im­plicit bi­ases” that lower their ex­pec­ta­tions for stu­dents. Many told the re­searchers that their un­der­stand­ing of the fam­i­lies they vis­ited changed when they saw that low-in­come par­ents could be just as sup­port­ive of learn­ing as af­flu­ent par­ents.

It took me many years to learn that les­son. Most teach­ers are won­der­ful peo­ple who would do any­thing for their kids. But when vis­it­ing schools, I found their ba­sic hu­man­ity of­ten pre­vented them from help­ing their stu­dents reach higher lev­els. Many told me they feared that putting a stu­dent in an AP course would be too stress­ful and harm rather than help their aca­demic de­vel­op­ment.

I re­al­ized then how im­por­tant the un­usual back­ground of Jaime Es­calante, the lead­ing cal­cu­lus teacher at Garfield, had been to his suc­cess as a mo­ti­va­tor. He be­gan teach­ing in his na­tive Bo­livia. When he ar­rived at Garfield at age 44, he was con­vinced that the im­pov­er­ished His­panic kids at that school were just like the ones he had in La Paz. They were not in­ca­pable of learn­ing higher math. He thought they were just lazy and undis­ci­plined, like teenagers around the world.

He and his col­league Ben Jimenez gave stu­dents more time for their stud­ies by keep­ing them after school and bring­ing them in on week­ends and dur­ing the sum­mer. The re­sults were spec­tac­u­lar. In 1987, Garfield pro­duced 26 per­cent of all Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans in the coun­try who passed an AP Cal­cu­lus exam.

The RTI re­port, “Mind­set Shifts and Par­ent Teacher Home Vis­its,” said “decades of re­search shows that stu­dents of color and those from low-in­come house­holds are of­ten treated dif­fer­ently from white and mid­dle- and up­per-class stu­dents.”

Many ed­u­ca­tors told the re­searchers that as a re­sult of the twice-a-year vis­its to homes that vol­un­teer for the pro­gram, they “rec­og­nized that pre­vi­ous deficit as­sump­tions about fam­i­lies and stu­dents were un­founded.” They said they were wrong to as­sume many par­ents did not care about ed­u­ca­tion. The teach­ers’ at­ti­tude moved “from think­ing stu­dents lack mo­ti­va­tion or in­ter­est in school to rec­og­niz­ing stu­dents’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” the re­port said.

“Fo­cus­ing on hopes and dreams for the first visit, rather than on aca­demics and/or stu­dent per­for­mance, is a par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful prac­tice for de­creas­ing im­plicit bi­ases as it builds un­der­stand­ing and trust [and] re­duces anx­i­ety and stress,” the re­port said.

The re­searchers ad­mit­ted, how­ever, that some ed­u­ca­tors still held on to wrong as­sump­tions that low­ered their ex­pec­ta­tions. It will take more time for the many teach­ers who now teach like Es­calante to show it is the worst form of kind­ness to hold stu­dents back be­cause they just don’t seem strong enough to suc­ceed.

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