Last year, eighth-grade teachers at McClure Middle School did something radical. They mixed honors students with students who hadn't been...
Last year, eighth-grade teachers at McClure Middle School did something radical. They mixed honors students with students who hadn’t been in the advanced programs — and they found that most of the kids rose to the challenge.
Math-and-science teacher Michael Sparks says that in the four years before the experiment he had recommended only one African-American student for high-school honors math. Last year, he recommended five.
You already know that the demographics of the honors programs is different from that of the rest of the school. That’s a given when a school has a mix of races and incomes. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
McClure, like a lot of schools, has been discussing ways to diversify its advanced programs classes. Sparks and some of his colleagues thought it was time to stop talking and try something.
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Sparks has been teaching for only five years and didn’t come to it straight out of college. He has graduate degrees in cultural psychology, and developed a reading program before he decided to try teaching math.
“I was always terrible in math,” he says, but he thinks that helps him understand students who struggle with it.
Sparks teaches in both the Spectrum/Achieve and regular programs. Spectrum students test into the program. There is also a MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement) program at McClure for minority students who show promise in math and science.
The MESA teacher would sometimes tell Sparks her students could match his Spectrum kids. Someone asked him once whether there might be African-American students from the MESA or regular programs who deserved to be in honors math and he said no.
He hadn’t thought much about the process that sorted students into various levels. He just assumed it worked, until he placed two students from his regular class into his honors class.
They hadn’t been filtered into the program, but they showed promise. They finished the year one and two in the class, so Sparks thought again about the process.
The next time the MESA teacher said her kids were just as capable as his, he was ready for the challenge.
A group of teachers got approval to merge MESA and Spectrum eighth-grade classes and add a few students from the regular program too.
Kids were wary of each other until they began having real conversations. That started one day when a black girl burst into tears because Sparks changed the due date on an assignment her mother had made her stay up until 4 a.m. to finish.
He said he’d talk to her mother, but the student said her mother wouldn’t understand. The class got into a discussion of unreasonable moms and found they had something in common.
Then they started talking about differences. Each group had stereotypes about the other, and they talked openly about them. The MESA kids didn’t like people thinking they were dumb. The Spectrum kids didn’t like being seen as rich and pampered.
One white girl described MESA as where they put the black kids to keep them away from white kids.
It got interesting and stayed interesting. The kids had better discussions over the year than grown-ups do, Sparks said.
When Sparks first started teaching, most of what he knew about race came from books. He wasn’t prepared for the attitudes and behaviors of black kids he encountered in school.
Teachers are confronted with students they are not prepared for and come to their own conclusions about them, often thinking that they can’t or don’t want to learn.
“Both teachers and students bring ideas and behaviors grounded in personal and cultural experience into the classroom,” he says.
He says the district’s race programs concentrate on teacher attitudes, but don’t discuss student attitudes and behavior. White teachers like Sparks know something is missing from the district’s program, he said, but they don’t want to say anything for fear of being labeled racist.
Sparks is not politically polished. Though it can rub people the wrong way, frankness is necessary if we’re going to make progress. Racism is real, but so is behavior that holds kids back from their best efforts and gets them labeled in negative ways. People have to be free to talk about all of that so they can learn how to make things better.
After one semester, students from the two groups were performing at virtually the same level. In both of the two blocks, 11 of the top 20 students had been in honors the previous year and nine had not.
Sparks says people noticed the hallways were friendlier. In class, students worked together and as one group. “More than any class in my memory, we had become a family,” he wrote in a report on the year.
It’s not time for the sappy music yet. That was a one-year experiment. This year things are back to normal and Sparks says he’s not as challenged. “It was a difficult year, but it was so interesting and rewarding. This year is kind of too easy.”
He calls the kids who are usually in honors classes teacher-proof. They get much of what they need from home. “If I succeed with this group, well ho-hum.
“After you’ve done that program, how can you go back to the way it was?”
Principal Kathy Bledsoe is on health leave, but she told me she got lots of information from Sparks about how the kids were getting along, but not enough formal data to prove this was or was not the way to go.
“There were some very good outcomes,” she said, but not enough to disrupt the system in place without more data. They are continuing their search for ways to give each student what he needs.
Sparks is impatient, and we should be too.
“This is just one school,” he says. “Just think. What if every school in the district did that? Multiply the numbers and you practically have the end of disproportionality.”
At the core, what he discovered is that if you understand the kids and have high expectations you’ll get better results. Everybody knows that, but sometimes you have to be a little different to act on it.