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Viewing every black student as at-risk: Are we pathologizing children rather than helping them?

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Viewing every black student as at-risk: Are we pathologizing children rather than helping them?

Locking students into labels

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Here is an interesting piece by University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky on the over application of "at-risk" labels in school data collections.

Smagorinsky says data collection is an example of the expected bureaucratic time-wasting built into organizational life. But he says the new wave of data gathering required of teachers is more than simply irritating and frustrating. It requires teachers judge which students are at risk for school failure based on broad demographic data that essentially leave only one large group label free -- white middle-class kids.

As Smagorinsky notes: "Every student who is not a native-English speaking white kid from a relatively affluent family must be categorized as at-risk; and relatively affluent, native-English speaking white students are treated in this system as free of risk factors."

As a former teacher, Smagorinsky points out some of his least successful students were suburban children of wealth, saying, "They were at-risk for living lives without consequences, which is not among the markers of at-riskness in the bureaucratic world of education."

By Peter Smagorinsky

I talked recently with a high school English teacher in rural South Carolina about her most recent year in the classroom — the second year of what I hope is a long and distinguished career.

Foremost in her mind was a never-ending change in curriculum and assessment. In 2014-2015 her school will implement yet another curriculum. The tests for assessing her students’ learning in relation to this new curriculum have not yet been established, which means that she and her colleagues will be teaching for a large part of the year without knowing the high-stakes test that will serve as the basis of her evaluation for teaching effectiveness. Welcome to the world of school reform.

Related to her job evaluation was her demanding role as collector of student data. Each student, she said, must be classified if any at-risk markers are present: type of Individualized Education Program (IEP), immigrant and home ESL status, minority racial status, socioeconomic status, disability classification of any kind, and so on.

Time that could be spent calling parents, taking extra time to help kids before and after school, grading student work, planning lessons, doing professional reading, collaborating with colleagues, articulating her curriculum with middle school teachers, engaging with community members, and spending her time in other worthwhile professional ways is instead spent collecting student data and entering it into reports.

 The South Carolina teacher was concerned about several issues. First, the data are submitted to a faceless bureaucrat, never to be heard from again. There’s no loop whereby the data are processed, made sense of, and returned to the faculty to inform individual teaching or promote discussions among faculty and administrators. Rather, the data are sent into the void, never to be heard from again, leading to just the latest frustration of being a good citizen by following administrative directives and being left in the dark regarding the disposition of her efforts.

The first concern is simply that essential time is being wasted by the entire faculty on a process of mysterious purpose and product. The teacher I spoke with referred to the data she collects as “nonsense data” of no value that is apparent to those who collect and submit it.

This teacher is not lazy or burned out or against accountability or reform. Rather, she is a very promising early career teacher who loves literature, writing, and teenaged kids, and who wants to teach well for a full career, but whose efforts to do so are compromised when she is required to spend her time on nonsense.

The second concern is related to how teachers are required to construct at-riskness in their students. Every student who is not a native-English speaking white kid from a relatively affluent family must be categorized as at-risk; and relatively affluent, native-English speaking white students are treated in this system as free of risk factors.

The teacher acknowledged that she inevitably adopts these views when working with students, because on a nearly daily basis, she is required to classify kids in this fashion. She falls into this pattern against her best intentions and with awareness that it might be happening, because doing so is built into the observations required of her.

 And yet, she noted, many students who are labeled at-risk are among her best students, and many who are not are among her least engaged students. Although I taught in three very different types of communities in the Chicago suburbs, I can attest to the truth of her observations. Some of my wealthiest students were so full of entitlement, and had so many safety nets to catch them when they fell, that they breezed through school doing the absolute minimum.

They relied on their financial assets to make friends and protect them against trouble, including having parents with lawyers who always hovered in the background to threaten administrators into pressuring teachers into awarding passing grades. They were at-risk for living lives without consequences, which is not among the markers of at-riskness in the bureaucratic world of education.

The South Carolina teacher teaches in a primarily white, rural, working class community. She is more concerned with the many at-risk factors that she must attach to kids and the consequences across the faculty for treating them as deficient, aberrant, and likely to underperform.

When every black student requires an at-risk label, it’s hard eventually to not assume that a black student is a candidate for failure rather than a young person with great potential.

The data collection regime not only requires teachers to report presumed at-risk traits for no apparent purpose, it constructs students as at-risk because of how they look, or where they live, or other demographic features that become data points. There often follows a certain destiny as an at-risk student, because in all likelihood they will not change from Black to White, poor to rich, etc., over the course of their schooling. Data collection thus becomes a form of pathologizing students and creating risk.

Data is central to the new accountability that is more attentive to numbers than people. I think it’s pretty risky to view people so reductively, both for them as individuals and for us as a society.

And yet, data collection is a fundamental process of reform in the vision of Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and others who have never taught, yet who aspire to remake schools in their market-driven conception of consumerist education, with accountability measures that fill charts and tables but offer little of value, and often much that is counterproductive, in the education of students.