I don’t remember January 8th, 2002 – like many of my childhood memories, they are hard to remember for a reason. From what I can recall of my formative days, I was fortunate to have spent most of it with my nose in book, which provided me with some semblance of protection. After all, if not reading, I had to face the very real monsters that lived inside my own head. I knew that for those looking in, the only monster they could see was me, and I guess that books helped ease that pain too. Eventually my teachers, who were ill equipped to meet my needs, utilized my love of reading as behavior management tool: Hand me a book and my ability to completely derail your lesson, disappeared. Thus, I spent most of time in school reading; in the back of the classroom, in the hall, in the opportunity room, on the couch outside of the principal’s office…I was doing socially distant, youth led learning before it was it cool. I read instead of going to math class, playing at recess, or engaging in class discussions. I didn’t make friends easy, but I didn’t need them when I had books.
I do remember, however, when the consequences of January 8th, 2002, first showed up. It was the end of high school, and I had to take my summative state assessments. I had never taken state sanctioned tests seriously -- I was the first generation of NCLB; our teachers often framed exams as low-stakes trial runs and I framed it as an opportunity hurry up and read. It wasn’t until that year, where the girl who had a perfect recall of nearly any book she had ever read, was placed into remedial reading based on test scores. It took a while for the teacher to catch on, make a case to the school that I did, in fact, know how to read; eventually I reassessed and scored out, like it was no big deal.
It wasn’t until college that I made the connection between No Child Left Behind, and my experience; at that time, it appeared to me that many children, and their families, were left behind as a result of state sanctioned tests. After all, what happened to kids who didn’t have advocacy skills or didn’t have an academic resume I did to tip off the school system that something was off? Why was I removed from a subject I clearly struggled in, mathematics, to focus on something that anyone could have told you was the least of my worries? Is this what happens to kids? Do we prioritize the subjects they get to engage in based on test scores, without their voice or choice in the matter? And why did my mother learn about this from me, months after it had happened? Why was her voice not in the room to begin with?
So many questions…but by then we had a new initiative to worry about: The Common Core. I first saw the implications of these standards during my first service experience, only two years after my visit to a remedial reading class, in a Title I Kindergarten Classroom. In this classroom, were two groups of students; one was listening to audio tapes and another was in front of a teacher, learning letter sounds. When I asked if I could assist the station rotation, I learned the students weren’t on rotation – one group was English speaking, and the others Spanish. As the Common Core was “more rigorous” and pressure had “increased tenfold”, teachers had made a collective decision to focus on those that had the greatest chance at meeting the standards by the end of the year – and thus left an entire group of students behind to learn on their own.
Year over year, teaching kinder/first grade broke my soul – it was hard to be a voice in how children were filtered into tracks of learning, labelled as scholars or remedial, based on these scores. It felt disorienting to hear parents feel completely alienated by school systems and to watch brilliant, gifted children, be crushed by standardized education, at the tender age of six/seven. Given these experiences, I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up as a leader in “alternative education” (whatever that means). I am someone who believes that low expectations foster low achievement and low self-efficacy. I desire to see our education system foster high achievement and learning for all students, and yet within our school systems, it felt like I was often partaking in systematically doing the opposite.
I have come to observe that we often use “high expectations” to excuse ourselves from serving all students; not to facilitate more equitable learning in our classrooms. It’s been almost two decades since NCLB was passed, and yet, there are hundreds of thousands of children that have been left behind. Despite what we’ve been told, the achievement gap is not any closer to being closed than it was in 2002 and the harm this system has perpetuated is measurable, beyond standardized test scores. Our schools have adapted to survive in an era of standardized education and tying funding to student test scores – but not in the way we had hoped. Instead of redesigning a system that doesn’t leave children behind, we’ve fostered a “push-out” culture, where predominately Black and Brown brilliance is slowly phased out of our classrooms, often so strategically that communities haven’t even realized it’s happening. As educators, we have to start talking about how the children most deeply harmed by our education system, are no longer in our classrooms, and the practices we perpetuate that push them away from us to begin with.
These practices exist within every school system, even the districts that claim to focus on high achievement for all, actively and measurably demonstrate how they are “closing the achievement gap”, and whom boast brilliant equity initiatives. It starts with day-to-day classroom interactions that ostracize certain students, either in instructional moves that relegate certain groups to audio tapes while others get the privilege of working with a teacher, or through disciplinary practices disguised as learning that exclude our must vulnerable students from meaningful educational engagement. These day to day practices, some intentional and some not, lay the groundwork for school-based practices that then further cement inequity by failing to facilitate inclusionary family and community engagement.
This road to high school completion often forks at some point, with one road dead ending with frustrated, unsupported children, who don’t understand at which point in their journey, it all went wrong. NCLB gave schools nothing more than opportunities to systematically collect data, and the ability to strategically use that data to weave together one narrative about what is happening in our schools. This narrative is carefully curated by those who were given the opportunity to take the other road and gives our schools the power to fabricate solutions to inequity without having to acknowledge the contextual counternarratives at play. As a result, this data we use to inform our equity work is filled with blind spots and incomplete stories, and the children who have been pushed out, are not a part of our systemic discussions about who is being left behind.
For example, when we do talk the about students who have left our school systems, we don’t typically count the students who left prior to enrolling in high school, and for the ones we do count, we are strategic in shifting the blame away from ourselves. In our collective narrative, students leave our schools due to circumstances beyond our control; it is the students who choose to disengage, the families who choose not to prioritize education, and the communities who are too poor to afford completing it. Relegating brilliant students to remedial classrooms, because they scored to low on an assessment, is not listed as a reason for disengagement. Inequitable community access to our education system through language, literacy, voice, choice, and timing, are not listed as reasons why families choose to throw up their hands and say, “F*ck it.” Inflexible school schedules and attendance-based grading practices are not listed as reasons why students who need to earn an income, cannot simultaneously earn their diplomas. We label these children as “drop-outs”, when in reality, it is our school system who has pushed them away; because of how we have told our story, we remain largely unaccountable for the harm our actions have inflicted.
When it comes to data, very few organizations study and collect the data around youth disengagement; in our community, there is only one prominent voice in this field: The Road Map Project. The King County Re-Engagement Network is a coalition of programs and education systems who work to collectively support and understand why youth are disconnected from schools. Through their work, they have uncovered a myriad of reasons for why students choose to disengage from school, all of which are reported on The Road Map Project website. Some of the primary reason’s youth have provided for their decision to leave schools, are centered on schools not feeling like a welcoming place for them, notably the clear racial disparities in discipline and instructional access. However, this is not the data that our local schools will post on their websites or collectively address within their strategic plans, equity statements, or school improvement processes.
In turn, it is the community who picks up the bill for school failures, with alternative education and community-based programs struggling to keep their doors open, despite serving hundreds of students every year whom our school system, funded through those same communities, have systematically failed to support; for example, there are community education programs who can barely afford to keep 40 seats open, despite having over 200 applicants/referrals of school push-outs each year. To help ease financial strain, some programs work accelerated pathways to completion, but these programs are not well suited to serve youth who dropped out before high school. In an effort to create better recruitment pathways, such programs often serve dual enrolled students with formal districts who have been labelled as “likely to disengage” in their final year; often referred to the partner program because the partner has better wrap-a-round support and more flexible learning structures. Such programs, however, often independently foot the bill for a student’s tuition dollars while receiving little to no support from the districts themselves; despite state money going to the district, not the program. This set up further robs community partners who are doing the work that our districts take credit for, and ultimately results in more resource scarcity for students who were pushed out of school districts long before 9th grade. And thus, the inequities continue, with the students our schools left behind continually experiencing harm at the hands of our school system, even after they have tried to flee from the grips of its oppression.
Despite the clear injustice of our current context, the last few months have fostered a glimmer of hope in my broken soul…perhaps we are truly on the brink of systemic change. In the last few months, I have seen measurable movement towards equitable allocation of resources and true social intention set around repairing the harm that various systems have perpetuated within our Black and Brown communities. These efforts have been reflected in our collective action and advocacy for Black Lives Matter, Defund SPD, and school re-imagining in the midst of COVID-19, and for the first time in my life, I am starting to see white liberalism finally center Black voices and collectively sponsor Black solutions to continuous change efforts.
I remain hopeful that we will continue to lean into community led solutions, but often find myself inserting into the conversation that we make an intentional effort to keep community-based partners who serve the students our school system left behind as primary beneficiaries of any newly reallocated community resources. There is plenty of research that supports the link between higher education backgrounds and access to family sustaining wages/continued, gainful employment; investing in our communities without investing in these programs, effectively limits the benefits of social liberation to only a select few.
While our education systems should also be included in fund and resource redistribution, let us not forget that schools have not always utilized their resources in the service of their most marginalized students – true reform must also be a critical component of re-investment in our education system. As we redesign our re-envisioned education system towards social liberation, we cannot turn a blind eye to the organizations that support the students who were pushed out of that system long ago, specifically alternative education and community-based education and workforce development programs that remain disconnected from state, county, and city funding, in nearly every way. This multi-pronged approach to reinvesting in education and our community, is just a start to effectively dismantling the oppression our education system has perpetuated and undo the harm that NCLB and the CC have left behind.