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Closing the Curriculum Gap Is a Social Justice Issue

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By Michelle Morrissey

This month in my twelfth grade Civics class, my students and I studied the intersection of race, poverty, and social policy. We read books by two sociologists who study public housing and analyzed them in daily seminars. We studied various theorists of poverty from Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Murray to William Julius Wilson, and the history of welfare and welfare reform.

This sounds pretty intense for a twelfth grade class, and it is. But my class isn't unique at my school, the academy of the Pacific Rim (APR) in Boston, where all students take intensive seminars in English and History.

What we do at APR mirrors the education I received at a private high school in Boston and then as an undergraduate at Columbia, where students read challenging texts, discuss them in seminars, and write papers on the material.

Unlike my private high school, though, 76 percent of APR students are black or Hispanic. Over half are low income. 85 percent are first generation college-bound.

Most urban high schools -- charter or district -- do not share APR's pedagogy. When I began teaching at a high-poverty school in New York City, for example, I was expected to deliver a mini-lesson on a topic or skill of the day, give students a daily learning activity -- a worksheet or some group work, designed to accommodate different "learning styles" -- and then circulate through the room while they completed it. In the last five minutes, we would "summarize" the day's learning.

To challenge the orthodoxy of what we called in New York the Standard Developmental Lesson -- "I Do, We Do, You Do" -- was to be accused of profound naivety at best or educational malpractice at worst.

There was no discussion of the profound gap between what my students were doing in class and what students were doing uptown at private schools like Dalton, or at Columbia. There was no discussion about the types of learning in which students would need to succeed at even the local community colleges, let alone state and private universities.

Like most urban schools, we were too narrowly focused on a flat definition of "proficient" and not challenged to take our students to a higher level.

My school in New York was a good one, one with almost universal extreme poverty but where the hallways were calm and students were in class and on task. Although most of my students entered high school reading significantly behind their grade levels, with both low vocabulary and little academic knowledge, we had impressive results on our Regents exams, with the vast majority of our students passing their state mandated exams (unlike many other New York City high schools, unfortunately).

But today only a tiny fraction of those students have graduated from any college at all.

Maybe proficiency wasn't such a great success after all.

At APR, we are proving that it's possible for proficiency to be only the starting point, not the end goal. What we do at APR is certainly not perfect. Our curriculum is a work in progress. We are constantly working on how to effectively scaffold a demanding curriculum for a group of students with extremely varied skills, or how to best prepare our students for all of the APs that they take.

But I would argue that the school reform movement has not given enough attention to the questions of rigor and curriculum. Proficiency and compliance are too often substituted as our goals, especially with poor students of color.

In the debate over how to improve public education, we should not lose sight of what we as teachers and schools are actually doing, of how are we educating our students and to what end. Strong performance on standardized tests should be a byproduct of the education our students receive; the goal should be to produce strong readers and thinkers.

Schools like APR show that it's possible to close the gap between the rigorous curriculum that gets provided to students in the most elite classrooms in the country and what gets provided to the least advantaged. In education, that's the social justice issue of our time.

Michelle Morrissey teaches history and special education at the Academy of the Pacific Rim High School in Boston. Prior to this, she taught in the New York City Public Schools and served as a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. She is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

This blog post was originally published by Impatient Optimists.