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Kentucky’s Classification of Students of Color as ‘Gap Students’ Must End Now

Since at least 2012, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has classified students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students; a classification which has filtered down to school districts and schools, so that teachers and administrators across the state commonly refer to students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students. KDE’s rationale for the classification of students in this way is that the academic achievement of these groups of students is typically significantly lower than that of White students, leaving significant achievement gaps. What KDE misses, however, is that gaps refers to the distances between the achievement scores of subgroups of students; gaps do not (or should not) refer to any specific groups of students. Referring to any group of students as gap students is at the very least extremely unprofessional and inappropriate. I argue that such labeling is additionally incredibly insulting, hurtful, and even harmful to children.

It is beyond my understanding why anyone would think such a labeling convention would be a good thing. Achievement gaps are ugly. They represent failures on the part of adults to get learning right for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. What achievement gaps do not represent is wrongdoing or shortcomings on the part of children. The academic achievement scores of children of color at levels significantly below those of White children is not a function of children of color having any less capacity to learn than White children. Why, then, would KDE attach such a derogatory label to children?

If we’re honest about it, the gap label would be more appropriately applied to teachers, schools, and school districts than to children. There are teachers and schools that we know for certain do more to exacerbate achievement gaps than to eliminate them. There are teachers and schools in Kentucky that are either unwilling or unable to meet the specific learning needs of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse learners. Perhaps KDE should consider labeling those teachers and schools as gap teachers and gap schools. But to attach such a disparaging label to children is inaccurate and inexcusable.

I do not believe there was malicious intent with the creation of the gap category of students. In fact, I believe KDE officials’ intentions were probably noble, but even with the best of intentions, the classification of students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students is highly problematic and must be changed immediately.

Confederate Flag

Rebel Flag Over South Carolina Statehouse is Coming Down

The Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Statehouse is coming down. At 4:00 pm today, healing South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) is scheduled to ceremonially sign the bill  that will remove the flag. This symbol of Confederate resistance was raised over the South Carolina State Capitol during the 1960′s as a symbol of the state’s resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. To be more specific, the state raised this Confederate symbol in 1961 as a symbolic gesture expressing the state’s disdain for the American movement which desegregated schools and other public and private accommodations, and ended legalized discrimination against African Americans in areas including housing, lending, and employment. That symbol has flown over South Carolina’s Statehouse for over 50 years now, as a finger in the eye of not only African American’s in South Carolina, but Americans of all colors and persuasions who believe in equality. But today the flag comes down.

I’ve heard more than a few Americans, Black and White, question the significance of removing that hateful symbol from the Capitol’s grounds. Some thoughtful people have mounted the argument that energies dedicated to removing that flag would be better directed at causes that would have more immediate tangible impact on the condition of people of color in South Carolina. But I believe South Carolina Governor Haley put it best in saying of the flag’s placement at the state capitol, “it should have never been there …These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”

Taking that flag down at the South Carolina capitol means parents and teachers in South Carolina will no longer have to try to explain to children why such a hurtful symbol flies over their Statehouse in the year 2015. So I for one am ecstatic that the flag, raised to symbolize South Carolina’s resistance to protecting the rights of African Americans, is now coming down. Unfortunately, it took the recent tragedy at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to bring us to this point, but it’s coming down today. It’s about time.

Diversity Shout-Out: University of Kentucky’s Dean David Blackwell

19-university-of-kentuckyA few weeks ago I attended campus community forums to hear from the two finalists for the University of Kentucky Provost vacancy. The finalists were Dr. Timothy Tracy, ask Dean of the UK College of Pharmacy, and Dr. David Blackwell, Dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at UK. Both candidates were clearly very capable leaders, but ultimately, Dr. Tracy was selected as the next Provost at the University of Kentucky. I send my congratulations to Dr. Tracy and I look forward to working with him as we continue to move UK forward.

But the purpose for my post is to highlight an incredibly forward-thinking comment made by Dr. Blackwell during the campus forums. In response to a question posed by an audience member about moving the University of Kentucky forward in the area of diversity, Dr. Blackwell commented that the University should not limit itself to merely mirroring the diversity of the state. As you might know, compared to most other US states, Kentucky’s racial and ethnic diversity is pretty low. As of the 2010 US Census, Kentucky’s population was about 88% White, about 8% Black, and only about 3% Hispanic or Latino of any race. With that demographic profile, Kentucky ranks as one of the least diverse states in America. In fact, some analysts have placed Kentucky as being one of the top five least diverse states in America.

Even as one of the least diverse states in the country, the demographic profile of the faculty at the University of Kentucky falls short or mirroring the state. Most notably, the University’s percentage of Black faculty members is disproportionately low. During the 2012-2013 academic year, only about 3.5% of full time faculty members at UK were Black. Much more work must be done to increase the racial/ethnic diversity of faculty at UK; particularly with increasing the number of Black full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

The University of Kentucky’s student demographic profile is pretty similar to that of the state of Kentucky. During the 2012-2013 academic year, total Black/African American enrollment at UK was just under 7% and Hispanic or Latino enrollment was just under 3%. So if a diversity goal for the University is for the student body to mirror the demographic profile of the state, UK is close and just a tad more work would put it right at the goal line.

But Dean Blackwell’s comment causes us to rethink such goals. He suggested that even if the faculty and student body at UK mirrored the demographics of Kentucky, more could and should be done to increase diversity at the University. Dean Blackwell asserted that if the goal of the University of Kentucky is to be a highly competitive national university, then the diversity of UK will have to surpass that of the diversity of Kentucky, because the most successful organizations are diverse organizations.

Dean Blackwell’s comments were both insightful and challenging, and I hope leaders at all levels of the University will take on that challenge to continue to move the needle on diversity at UK. I have no doubt that a more diverse UK will be a stronger UK.

african american college student

Might Mark Cuban’s Comments Move Forward the Conversation on Race in America?

In the aftermath of the Donald Sterling debacle that led to the Clippers’ owner being banned from NBA games for life, ailment Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made comments in an interview that have landed him at the center of racial controversy. If you didn’t happen to hear what Cuban had to say, click here to link to the video from the interview. But rather than indict Cuban for revealing his own prejudices, I want to thank him for his honesty and for helping to move the conversation on race in America forward.

The crux of Cuban’s comments was that he believes we all have prejudices. He then went on to talk about some of his own. Most notably, Cuban said that if it’s late at night and he comes up on a Black kid in a hoodie, he is going to the other side of the street. As you might imagine, that’s the comment that has caused the biggest stir. But Cuban was just being honest. He was brave enough to say publicly what lots of Whites and truthfully, some Blacks would say to their close friends and in the comfort of their homes. In fact, Cuban is more the norm than the exception in being fearful of a young Black man walking down the street wearing a hoodie. Cuban does go on in the interview to say that he would also move to the other side of the street if at night he walked up on a White guy with a shaved head and tatoos. But for the Black kid, all that was needed to strike fear in Cuban’s heart was the hoodie.

Cuban should not be publicly castigated for being honest. I applaud his honesty, for I believe it is Cuban’s brand of honesty that’s needed to move the conversation on race forward in America. And I make that statement as a Black man who wears a hoodie at night four to five days a week. And trust me, from the reactions I get from some people I come across when I am dressed this way, I knew a long time before Mark Cuban’s comments that I make people uncomfortable at night in my hoodie. A White man wearing a hoodie is usually assumed to be on his way to or leaving the gym. A Black man in a hoodie might be assumed to be working out, but it’s more likely that he is assumed to be prowling the streets looking for trouble.

Could I dress differently, maybe in a way that might make Mark Cuban feel more comfortable when he passes me on the street? Sure I could. But I don’t, and I likely won’t. Why? First, because I like my hoodie. Second, because I’m going to dress the way I want to dress when I go the gym. I have no desire to change my gym attire simply to make those whose path I cross feel more comfortable with me. I understand what comes with making the decision to dress that way. I understand that Mark is going to be fearful of me, and I’m okay with that. I understand that I’ll get extra attention when I stop at the grocery store or gas station on my way home; and while I don’t like that, it is what it is, at least for now. But most important for me, I understand that for my own protection, I shouldn’t go for a late night stroll in my hoodie, not even in my neighborhood. And no matter where I am, I need to make sure that I keep my drivers license and a business card showing my affiliation with the University of Kentucky in my pocket.

What I have described is my reality, nightly. Race relations in America isn’t just something I learned about in college and read about in my spare time. I have lived ‘race relations in America’ every day of my life, and regardless of your race and whether you want to admit it or not, you have lived it every day of your life too. But we can’t move forward as a nation with race relations as long as Americans pretend that we live in a post-racial society. The truth that all of us know but many of us are unwilling to acknowledge is that race still matters; in fact, race still matters a lot. Cuban simply acknowledged in the interview that race matters to him when he’s walking up on someone at night. White kid in a hoodie=I’m probably safe. Black kid in a hoodie=let me not take any chances. To his credit, Cuban acknowledged in the interview that such prejudices are not ideal, but that they are real nonetheless.

Until people feel comfortable with acknowledging their prejudices about race without fear of being labeled a racist for the rest of their life, we’ll never be able to get to the place we ought to be in America with race relations. I may be in the minority on this one, but I appreciate what Mark Cuban had to say. He was honest and respectful in his comments, and I hope others will be as brave as he has been and dare to have tough but meaningful conversations on race with their families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Those kinds of conversations are necessarily uncomfortable, but there’s no other way to get to the other side of racial prejudice and bigotry.

Happy teacher holding page showing students

Charter Non-Renewal in North Carolina: This is How the System is Supposed to Work

The North Carolina State Board of Education voted unanimously last week to not renew the charters for two schools based on non-performance. The North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board recommended last month that neither charter should be renewed.

The purpose of this post is not to debate the merits of the decisions of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board or the North Carolina State Board of Education. Instead, stuff my purpose here is to point out that this is how charter school accountability is supposed to work. When charter schools don’t perform up to the academic standards agreed to in their charters, after going through due-process, charters are  supposed to be revoked or not renewed. That process is fundamental to the charter school movement. And truthfully, the closing revoking the charters of schools that do not perform is fundamental to the success of the charter school movement.

Those of us who are advocates for high quality charter schools do not fight for the passage of charter school legislation to set up schools that do not serve children well. Sure, what it means to serve children well continues to be and should be debated. That conversation is an important one, not just for charter schools but for public education writ large. But performance contracts for charter schools should be very clear about how schools agree to be held accountable for academic performance. Failure to shut down charter schools that do not live up to the standards they have agreed to does a disservice to children and damages the credibility of the charter school movement.

So again, I do not have enough details to make a judgement about these particular schools; and it is my understanding that one of the schools has the opportunity to appeal the decision within the next 60 days, which I believe the board should do if it has in fact met the standards it agreed to and it has been treated unfairly in this process. The right to appeal is a part of the system. But I applaud North Carolina for staying true to the charter school accountability system that is in place and holding charter schools accountable for academic performance. Accountability for academic performance is what makes charter schools different. That means sometimes making difficult decisions about charter revocation and non-renewal, but so be it. Children’s lives are at stake.

Labour movement, workers union strike

New Jefferson County (Louisville) Collective Bargaining Agreement Makes Small Advances but Leaves Much to be Desired

Last week the Jefferson County Teachers Association’s (JCTA) voting members approved a new contract with the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). Centerpieces of the new agreement include a) no annual raise for JCPS teachers, cialis and b) slight changes to flexibility in hiring for JCPS principals.

According to JCTA president Brent McKim, buy cialis teachers are willing to forgo the annual raise because they understand the difficult budget situation for the district. JCPS will, however, provide an additional $5 million to compensate teachers for working ‘extra hours’ and for participating in professional development. Other changes include providing early childhood and elementary school teachers with an additional 10 minutes for their planning periods, and permitting teachers to take a personal day to attend their child’s graduation—rules currently prevent teachers from taking personal days during the last five school days. I applaud the district for providing additional planning time early childhood and elementary teachers. Generally, teachers are not provided with an optimal amount of time for planning. Providing teachers with additional time during the school day for planning and collaboration must be a part of school reforms. The time is not a luxury for teachers; rather it is absolutely necessary for high quality instructional planning. Without high quality instructional planning there can be no high quality instruction.

There are changes in the new contract to regulations around hiring flexibility for principals, but the changes are slight and leave much to be desired for giving principals the flexibility they need to hire the best possible candidates for teaching positions. Under the previous contract, principals were prohibited from hiring a teacher candidate from outside the school district if a JCPS teacher requests a transfer to the school for the opening. The three most senior transfer applicants were given preference for the position. Under the new contract, the pool of transfer candidates for positions will be expanded to eight. If fewer than four teachers request transfers for the position, principals will be permitted to interview candidates from outside of the district to reach a total of four candidates for the position. The change provides principals slightly more flexibility in hiring, but not much. Even with the new contract, the hiring restrictions on principals in JCPS are unnecessarily burdensome and do nothing to ensure that the best candidates are chosen for teaching positions. The interests of children would be served by allowing principals the flexibility to hire the best candidate for a teaching position, regardless of whether the candidate comes from inside or outside of JCPS and without regard to how many years of experience a candidate has. Principals factor in teachers’ years of experience when making decisions about the best candidate for filling a vacancy. Giving a teacher preference for a position simply because he or she has been doing the job longer, not because he or she is a more effective teacher, is ridiculous and it is part of the adult-centered, traditional teachers union ideology that we must break free from in public education. That ideology puts the desires and security of adults before the needs of children.

Although not nearly as big a problem as hiring flexibility for principals, I believe it is time we engage in conversations around the idea of paying teachers to attend and participate in professional development. Asking teachers to attend professional development that takes place ‘after-hours’ is not sufficient justification for needing to pay them to attend. The ‘after-hours’ concept itself is problematic for non-hourly, salaried employees like teachers. Further, the idea that teachers must be paid to attend professional development which is both required for continued certification and/or equips them with the tools to do their jobs well just doesn’t sit well with me. Regulations pertaining to the maximum number of hours per month that teachers may be asked to stay ‘after-hours’ for professional development and the fiscal reality of having to pay for both trainers and attendees puts unneeded burdens on principals and school budgets. I am a supporter of paying teachers a salary commensurate with their abilities. Effective teachers should be paid well. Highly effective teachers should be paid very well—at a salary that differentiates them from average teachers. But with that salary the expectation should be that teachers will meet all professional obligations, including attending meetings and participating in professional development after school. These are not foreign concepts. In fact, for teachers in Kentucky school districts without collective bargaining agreements this is how professional life works. It is time to revisit these ideas in Jefferson County as well.

My Visit to Carter G. Woodson Academy (Lexington, KY)

Early this morning I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking with a very special  group of young men, viagra the first group of students at the Carter G. Woodson Academy in Lexington, viagra KY. Seeing this group of young Black men in their ties and blazers reminded me so much of my own experience at St. Augustine in New Orleans, stuff LA. In their sleepy eyes I saw promise, amazing potential, and determination to realize that potential and become the leaders we need them to be in their homes, in their communities, and in their professions. In the eyes of their teachers and school leaders I saw a fierce commitment to doing everything they can to help their students achieve success.

My prayer is that the Lexington community will rally in support of this effort. Right here in Lexington, we are losing our young Black men. Carter G. Woodson Academy and other efforts like it make the clear statement to gangs and violence that we are not going to lose our young men without a fight. That is why this academy is so important. This is a fight we have to win.

Male Elementary Pupil In Computer Class

Why I Left the K-12 Classroom

Pretty often someone asks me why I left the K-12 classroom. Since I am someone who works pretty hard to recruit talented young people into the teaching profession I think that’s a fair question. It is no secret that there is a critical shortage of teachers of color, particularly male teachers of color. So why have I chosen to spend my career in the academy instead of in schools where I can have a more direct impact on students?

Let me start by saying that I in no way profess to have been God’s gift to the profession; but I do think I was a pretty effective teacher by the time I left K-12 teaching. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started. I owe my growth in teaching to fabulous mentors who spent a lot of time with me during my first few years; four very special ladies in particular: Tina Baptiste (New Orleans Public Schools), and  Rhonda Voiselle, Tanya Bourgeois, and Erin Raiford (St. Charles Parish Public Schools). With their help, I can comfortably say that I was consistently having a positive impact on student learning by the time I moved on.

But what I also learned beginning in my very first year of teaching, was how broken systems and failed education and social policy can create conditions in schools that even the most talented teachers cannot overcome. A teachers is unequivocally the most influential school-level determinant in a child’s academic success, and teachers impact the lives of their students in extraordinary ways; but it is very hard to fix broken system and influence policy from the classroom. Most effective teachers that I have known spend well over 40 hours a week on their planning, instruction, and assessment. So while I loved my job as a middle school and high school teacher, I realized pretty early on that I wanted to work to change systems and influence policy. That’s why I returned to graduate school to earn a PhD, and why I took a faculty position at a research university.

I see my job now as preparing high quality teachers and leaders for schools, and working to change policy to create conditions where teachers in our most challenging schools and districts have a much better shot at impacting student learning in significant ways. That’s what I try to do everyday at the University of Kentucky, and I want all of you to hold me accountable to that.


Lending Young People Our Confidence in Them

We spend a great deal of time discussing children’s skills and abilities, drugstore and rightfully so; but we often neglect another necessary prerequisite for achieving academic and professional success. I am talking about a child/student having the necessary confidence in his/her intellect, skills, and abilities to work toward achieving success. Many of our children, and truth be told even some of us, suffer from what I term a crisis of self-confidence; simply stated, not believing that they have the intellect, skills, and abilities to achieve success. This crisis of self-confidence is a serious matter. Even for children who have very clearly identifiable gifts and talents, a crisis of self-confidence can be a debilitating condition, preventing them from achieving the success that they are fully capable of achieving.

In response to such a crisis, one of the things that I have learned over the years is that my confidence in a student can sometimes be enough to get them on the way to believing in his/her own abilities. In essence, what I am talking about is loaning a student my confidence in them; allowing them to use my confidence in their abilities as a foundation for them to move forward. In other words, while we work on building Susan’s confidence in her ability to get algebra, she uses my confidence in her abilities to get started. Why does this work? Because while Susan does not yet have confidence in her abilities, she trusts me and believes that my confidence in her must be based on something.

This shouldn’t sound like an altogether foreign concept. Many of us have had the experience of being motivated or lifted by someone else believing in us. That parent, friend, or teacher’s confidence had the effect for many of us, of helping to get us to the point  where we could see what it was that they saw in us. It was not a complete replacement of the self-confidence necessary for achieving, but it was just enough to get us started. That is exactly what we have to do for some of our children/students; lend them our confidence in their abilities. It could be just enough to help unleash the amazing potential that lies within them.

Be empowered my friends and remember, change begins with you!