Sunday, April 18, 2010

An Interview with Dr. Elaine Witty

The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our TimeLast month I reviewed The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time.  The publicist offered the opportunity to interview the authors and I decided to go for it.  If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm not big on author interviews--I guess I'm usually more interested in the books than in the authors, and since most of what I read is fiction, author interviews don't add much to my enjoyment of the book.  In this case, after I read the book, I had some questions about it, so I decided to do the interview.  Dr. Elaine Witty was the one kind enough to answer my questions.

Like you, I went to college in Mississippi.  With the current state of the economy, Mississippi is looking for ways to cut it higher education budget.  Closing or merging Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State and/or  Mississippi University for Women (my alma mater) is often mentioned.  Do you believe HBUs are currently part of the problem or part of the solution to the problem of the Black White achievement gap?  
Even in the face of extreme underfunding, historically black colleges and universities have enrolled thousands of underprepared students and transformed them into major contributors to society. Graduates of these institutions can be seen in all areas of life.
What we are suggesting in the book it that these colleges must do more. They have enormous access to the African American community and can provide tremendous leadership in helping to promote stronger community support for academic achievement. They can prepare their college students, many of whom will be parents, to understand the achievement gap and to promote community actions that help to reduce it.
Historically black colleges and universities are a part of the solution and hold great potential for even greater roles in closing the achievement gap.
Does the voluntary segregation they allow today give young African-Americans the chance to grow in a supportive environment, giving them chances for leadership and class participation they might not have at historically White schools, or does it just leave another generation unprepared for real life?
Historically black colleges and universities not only provide supportive environments and chances for leadership, etc., these colleges also provide opportunities for students to close the gaps in academic skills and knowledge that developed over the course of their education careers. Historically black colleges and universities aim to produce graduates who are competitive in the job market and who have a commitment to service to community.
I live in suburban New Orleans.  The public schools in New Orleans before Katrina were overwhelmingly African-American and overwhelmingly terrible.  Since Katrina, many of them have become charter schools or have come under the control of the state.  Many are hiring Teach for America teachers; young enthusiastic people who are not education majors, and who, for the most part, do not plan careers in teaching.  Have you had any experience dealing the Teach for America?  What is your opinion about putting these people in teaching positions?

Rod's experiences with Teach for America have been very positive. As a superintendent, he observed the work of Teach for America graduates and noted that their pupils performed as well as, or better than, pupils taught by graduates of traditional teacher preparation programs.

My own experience with Teacher for America has been through review of research reports that study the impact and effectiveness of the program and participants. Most recently, I have been impressed by the report of North Carolina’s K-12 teachers that concluded that those who come to the classroom from Teach for America consistently outperform the rest of the state’s newer educators. 

When I was in college, "everyone" knew the elementary education was one of the easiest majors on campus.  I was an elementary education major and even had people say they couldn't figure out why I was since I "have a brain" in my head.  Despite this, MUW's education program had (and I guess still has) a good reputation and I'm sure it turned out many fine teachers (and for the record, I was not one of them--I made A's in all my education classes but one, but was a miserable failure as a teacher).  My question for you is to what extent you believe colleges of education are responsible for the Black White achievement gap, and how you would revise the curriculum for prospective teachers, if given the chance.
Of the various factors involved in the achievement gap, teacher quality is surely a major one. Since most teachers are products of teacher education programs, it is reasonable to call on these programs to evaluate their programs so that they can be assured that they prepare teachers to (1) use assessment data more effectively, (2) use more culturally inspired curriculum activities and materials, (3) show a greater understanding of the values in the children’s communities, and (4) teach from a perspective of higher expectations for the children.
Often when I hear educators talking about standardized testing, they complain that the emphasis on the tests has taken the joy out of teaching.  They complain that our fixation on standardized testing has limited time for the arts, science, history--basically anything but reading and math.  Being able to properly respond to standardized tests, they claim, has little to do with real life; and they say they would like to spend more time teaching a love of learning and other such things.  Your book mentions the school in Houston that used (with success) a carefully scripted program of direct instruction.  I've read others say that middle class Whites could not allow their children to be taught in such a way; why should low-income African Americans?
There are many factors involved in student learning. The method of instruction is one of those factors. The methods should be selected based on the individual learning styles and needs of the students.
The point of direct instruction is to control the curriculum design and method of instruction used by the teacher in order to accelerate the students’ learning. Direct instruction is most useful in cases where the students’ knowledge and skill gaps must be alleviated at the same time their grade level curriculum is being taught. Efficiency of time is critical. This is a major value of direct instruction in those cases where it matches the needs presented by the students.
It should, however, be the goal of all teachers to expand students’ knowledge while at the same time helping them to master the needed skills.
 Do you believe standardized tests are a good measure of the learning that is supposed to be taking place, and do you see any downsides to today's emphasis on them?
Standardized testing can help teachers see the specific skill and knowledge needs of each student. Tests should be a part of a comprehensive system of educational assessment and instruction. The major value of tests is in the way the results are used by the teachers to focus on individual skill needs of students. A secondary value of test data is for administrators and school board members to make resource allocations.
If tests are poorly constructed, fail to measure what has been taught, or provide data that is not used properly by teachers and administrators, then these would be the downsides of testing.
Have you looked at whether, given two schools of roughly equivalent overall test scores, African American students do better in schools that are majority African-American or in schools where they are in the minority?
  African American students do less well than their peers when they are in schools that are in high-poverty areas. In these schools the students have less access to highly qualified teachers who are prepared or certified to teach in the subject they teach. Further, the teachers in these schools have less favorable working conditions, and less community and parental support. While there are many outstanding exceptions, on the whole, the academic performance in such schools is lower.
You served as superintendent of a large school system. What did you do while in that position to close the Black-White Achievement gap? How successful were you.
When he was a superintendent, Rod worked to involve the community in decisions and resources related to educating the students. Accountability, high expectations for students, and community involvement were goals. Reports on the changes in the Houston Independent School District under Rod’s leadership are well documented.
I realize that being superintendent is a tough job in which you are forced to work the different constituencies, which often have competing interests and which can block reform attempts. Hypothetically of course, I have just appointed you dictator of a large urban school system with a high African-American population, a school system characterized, as many such systems are, by a large number of failing schools. As dictator, you have pretty much the same job as the superintendent; however, unlike the superintendent, you can spend as much money as you want, fire or hire whomever you want, whenever you want and hire replacements (and pay them what you want) and change any rule you want to change. What you cannot change (except to the extent that a good manager can do so, or by firing them) the teachers or the pupils. The kids are still going to be typical of such a system and you can't turn a switch and make all your teachers terrific overnight. What would you do as dictator that you were not able to do as superintendent?

I am not sure that I can accept the premise of your question. It is my thinking that better decisions about educating all of our children are made when you have school boards, parents, teachers, and administrators working together.

The position we are focusing on in the book is that in addition to the reforms being made by schools, the achievement gap can be closed if there is stronger leadership by the African American community at this time.
I'd like to than Dr. Witty for taking the time to visit with me.  Until all of our children are able to reach their potential, I believe we as a society are poorer than we have to be.

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