There are very few teachers who would argue with the current focus in Scottish education on closing the poverty related attainment gap. How could you? However, I’m pretty sure that if I were still in the classroom I would have been wondering what I could do more or differently to help achieve this. As a teacher, I felt that I was doing as a much as I could to help all students achieve as much as possible, so what more could I do?
When I saw the tweet above I got an inkling as to what I could be doing differently as a teacher and with my colleagues if I were still in school. I don’t remember ever looking at the attainment disparity in my students based on SIMD data and exploring the reasons for any differences and considering what I could do about them. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
This thought has been further fuelled by some discussions I was part of at the recent #TLconference in Miami. I have a stereotype in my head of assessment in the US whereby teachers have the autonomy to issue grades to their students based on relatively personal and behavioural judgements and that these grades were important to the life chances of students. I was surprised to discover that whilst not universally the case, this isn’t unheard of. There are moves to progress towards standards based assessment afoot, but the practice described above is still prevalent according to some of the teachers I was speaking to.
What I wasn’t aware of however was how tightly this practice is interwound with issues of race. I was informed that many schools there have tracking, whereby students are recommended for different levels of courses based on their grades. Only those who have received the best grades can take the higher level ‘honors’ classes, which in turn are needed for the best college courses. A number of teachers explained to me that as a result of issues throughout the system, “black and brown” (their words – this was the terminology used throughout the conference) students were substantially underrepresented in honors classes. I was quite shocked by the power teachers seemed to yield, which when combined with issues of race appeared potentially very problematic indeed. I heard of efforts to address this through ‘detracking’ and rethinking grading, but these appear to be very contentious initiatives amongst many.
However, since the conference finished I’ve been left wondering, is it that much different in Scotland? If I think back in particular to my National 4 and National 5 classes, or my Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 classes before that, I wonder now how represented students from different SIMD backgrounds were in each class? I fear I know the answer. What’s less clear to me are the reasons for these differences and how they might’ve been addressed. Whereas the differences in the US can be powerfully, and shockingly, visible as described by some of the teachers I spoke to – in that you can physically see the disparity as two classes of different levels line up outside their respective classrooms – in my experience the disparity isn’t always as apparent in Scotland.
So what should we do about it? If I was in school I think I would do three things next week:
- Gather and analyse the data as described in the tweet above.
- Propose and lead a collaborative enquiry to explore the reasons behind any disparities and develop approaches to practice which would impact upon these disparities.
- Use a form of Lyn Sharratt & Beate Planche’s data walls in departmental meetings to collaborate on ensuring everything possible was being done for students who were causing concern in terms of attainment. You can find out more about this at SCEL’s May conference.
No doubt there are already teachers and schools taking approaches such as these in their practice, but probably not all. I do think however that it’s important for us all to continually consider if we’re doing all that we can to ensure the best possible outcomes for all of the learners in our care.