Antonio and Annie, meet Alfie

Hansel and Gretel

Antonio and Annie, meet Alfie

Welcoming students as they enter the classroom is a great joy of teaching. So many present and past colleagues and I enjoy this ritual. The welcome is a small, sacred beginning to the daily process of learning.

To my way of thinking, light humor and warmth prevail; to my students’ ways of perceiving, the humor persists, maybe. As they enter, playful, curious, or reflective forms of “How is your day?” re-connect us since our last meeting, helping me to gather each student’s cognitivesocial, and emotional readiness for the day. Once in a while, a student will ask me. Such is adolescence.

One Monday a few years ago, Antonio rushed down the hallway, giving me a huge hug.

“Mr. McRaith, I’m dating a former student of yours! She says to give you a big hug.”

Antonio is tall, relaxed, and cat-smart. But, not the hugging type. In the classroom dynamic, his intelligence listens with patience and a hint of stealth, ready to stake large positions, like how Toni Morrison’s great ghost, Beloved, could possibly incarnate a history of middle passage Africans. Or, like Shakespeare’s Lear, the ways in which a father’s suspicion and rage are easier than unfettered love. Often, Antonio’s thoughts evoke from his peers fierce questions and responses, something they, and I, love about him. His intelligence catalyzes a classroom around all the right stuff, even while he is able to maintain his swag, his “too cool for school.” Antonio has a sophisticated understanding of himself in this world.

Our college prep high school sits in the heart of one of Chicago’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods. Antonio, his classmates, and I have an AP English Language class together. Our school’s standardized test scores, society tells us, are too low; confounding those who place all their stock in that, our graduates’ on-track-to-graduate-from-college rate is among the highest in a city of more than one hundred high schools.

Unless destructive evidence demands otherwise, a student’s romantic life is for him or her, not for me or the school. But, his enthusiasm to tell me and, frankly, my own curiosity compel me. “Really, Antonio…who?”

“Annie Gibbard.” He smiles a quick, deep smile. He knows I am surprised.*

“We met a month ago through Mikva Challenge and just hit it off. Last weekend two busloads of us went to Indiana to register voters. We talked the whole ride, nonstop. Annie is the best. I don’t know what it is, but we really ‘get’ each other.” As he walks into the room, no reminder to tuck in his school-logoed Oxford shirt or adjust his tie is necessary.

Annie and Antonio are both seniors in high school. Annie is white and Antonio is black. Three years earlier Annie had been a marvelously quick-witted freshman in an honors English class at my previous school, half of our city away and consistently the number one testing high school in the state of Illinois.

Annie represents one of the many reasons I loved my seven years at the school: bright, engaging students whose creativity around the challenges of learning sprung from irrepressible spirits. Having tested exceptionally well enough to gain access into the school, this school’s students were phenomenal by most any measure, certainly by any I value.

In 1999 Chicago opened this $55 million educational investment**, a selective enrollment high school***, to be the flagship of the nine in the city. To my way of thinking, like the investment in Chicago’s eight other selective enrollment high schools, that was and remains a great investment, a rich return reaped every year as the school’s graduates disperse into the wider realms of our society.

The architecture of this school truly inspires. Generous sunlight pours through floor to ceiling windows in the bi-level library, lunchroom, atria, and hallways – as well as in lots of classrooms. Technology quietly regulates the temperature and humidity in each room. The theater boasts the size and production quality of a small college’s. The well apportioned gym and pool ensure that the physical development of the learner will not lag behind the cognitive and social/emotional. Throughout, polished terrazzo floors reflect the solid promise upon which society builds the future of these young people.

The elementary school building in which Antonio has hugged me exudes lots of century-old character, like wainscoting painted a school color red and classrooms with high ceilings and beautiful built-in bookcases. To me, the building is quaint: when I first arrived almost six years ago, I would smile at having to reach down to the knee-level chalk tray; the students had no context for my hip-level expectation. If one either doesn’t understand or — worse yet — accepts how our society privileges the learning environments of those who test higher, how can one understand the seemingly trivial irony of chalk tray differences? The students at Antonio’s and my school did have context for a few things, though: they understood that we had a tiny, elementary school gym with no bleachers and no library or pool, that our roof often leaked, and that a century-old heating system could make some science classrooms so hot that the students seemed like the experiment. And, the mice, well, lets just say we use lots of steel wool to plug holes in classrooms.

Surely, in a bus ride to increase voter turnout that happened to spark a romance, Antonio and Annie did not discuss Alfie Kohn’s “Standardized Testing and Its Victims” (2000), which was incisive when published and has proven remarkably prescient. Had they met Alfie, I imagine he would tell them that all Antonios and Annies deserve school buildings like Annie’s, not buildings within the same school district, much less the country, whose vast resource disparities are based on something as skewed as standardized testing. In Chicago and across the nation, lots of other things help cause this resource disparity, but maybe not anything quite so deviously as the power to misappropriate human value our society gives standardize test results.

Had they asked why America had arrived at a point where the bright Antonio and bright Annie would attend such differently resourced schools, Alfie might have told them that “the focus among policymakers has been on standards of outcome rather than standards of opportunity.”

On the romantic bus ride that is the America ideal, where “all men [and women] are created equal” — not to be altered later by standardized test scores, America must demand greater accountability in the relationship between its politicians and their educational positions. Our politicians must come to understand that true educational accountability will require two things: (1) schools whose success is based and measured on forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves education (i.e., critical and creative thinking creates context for the discrete skills) and (2) that all schools be funded equitably, not based on such skewed things as the results of leaf-based testing.

* The alliterative names of the two students, Antonio and Annie, are inauthentic.

** $55M includes the original 1999 building and subsequent improvements to the building, grounds, and parking.

5 thoughts on “Antonio and Annie, meet Alfie

  1. I used to be inspired, but now I’m angry. Working at the same college prep school as the writer of this blog, I used to pass track practice as I walked down the stairs to go home for the day. Yes, that’s right…as I walked down the stairs. The track members would run up and down the stairs designed for little legs and elementary-sized hallways in preparation for their meets where they would compete against students who probably had indoor tracks and the most state of the art athletic training facilities. When I passed them, I would be inspired. I would think to myself: Our students do not have a track, yet they win championships. I saw it as a metaphor for how our students overcame the educational disparities in our nation. When it comes to the classroom, as described above, we don’t have a “track”; and I used to think: Yet our students still go off to college and “win championships”. That would inspire me to keep going, keep toiling, keep fighting, keep working myself into an exhaustion.

    For years it has been my passion to provide a quality education to the students of our country who suffer the disparities that our current system not only allows, but promotes. For years, I have been driven by the same mission as Alfie: EVERY child deserves a quality education…EVERY child. I am shocked that this idea is…counter cultural; and that educators that believe it, live it, and argue for it are considered naive. For years this has been about other people’s children…but now it has become personal. Now it is about my child. I realize now that this test score driven climate of education, which Kohn refers to as “educational ethnic cleansing” seems to be designed, not only to limit opportunities for the students I pour my heart and mind into everyday, but it seems to be designed to limit the opportunities for MY child as well.

    My husband and I had a conversation last night about our twelve-year-old son’s education. Mainly, “What are we going to do about high school?” We live in Little Village, a largely Latino immigrant community. Though our neighborhood is rich in Latino culture, it is infested with gangs that prey on young Latino males like our son. We strongly believe in staying in the community and giving to the community, rather than fleeing, but we worry about him. We know that, in addition to the loving and supportive home environment we create, his experience in school and the opportunities that school provides, will have a strong impact on his ability to make the best choices for his life. Thus, we struggle: where should he go to high school?

    We began to discuss it. We want him to go to a school where he is able to focus on his education, not his survival. We want him to go to a school that is culturally and racially diverse. We want him to go to a school that is well funded, that takes care of its teachers, so that they can take care of him. We want him to go to a safe place that will foster his growth as a critical thinker and human being.

    Then we started trying to think of the schools that fit this description. There were very few. Those that we agreed did fit this description were selective enrollment schools. So, if we want our son to have an opportunity at a quality education, he has to do well on standardized tests. A quality education for my son, a citizen of the United States of America, is not guaranteed. Why? Because, for the past twelve years he has resided in a community that does not get appropriate funding to provide an education that would more than prepare him to do well on a test because those schools…did poorly on tests. Hmmm… Thus, I am angry.

    I am disappointed in myself that it had to, literally, hit close to home to change my mindset from inspired to angry. But isn’t that the point? When our policy is focused on, “standards of outcome rather than standards of opportunity” its easy to forget that we are not talking about numbers, nor are we talking about “other people’s children”. We are talking about our own children.

    1. Heidi… I so relate to you comments!… my family story is similar. We need a huge American mind-shift movement with the silver spoon folks, per Jennifer’s following comment… sigh.

  2. The people who make these “standards of outcome” are those born with silver spoons in their mouths who have never had to experience any disparity or barrier to education, hence are out of touch with the policy’s negative consequence on today’s youth, future and society! It disgusts me how the schools who score poorly are the ones who ironically don’t get the funding they desparately need! How backwards is that?! It just propagates the cycle of separation in social class….the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, hence propagation of the educational disparity! It appauls me that the government continues to make funding cuts to such a valuable, yet vulnerable system….the educational system! Don’t they see that the children are our future and if we don’t invest in them, it will lead to future negative consequences to our society as a whole?! I admire your committment to tackling this disparity head on in your daily interactions with your students and applaud your efforts! Don’t give up! Change has got to come, however won’t without a voice and you standing behind the vulnerable as their advocate! God purposefully placed you in this field and in your current situation for a reason! Just like MLK who was committed to his calling to erradicate racial injustice, so are you called to advocate against educational disparity! Hold steadfast and continue to speak your mind, be their voice and fight for what’s right! Kudos to you and the author of this blog for being committed to make a much needed change!

  3. The post recalled for me the work of Jean Anyon from several decades back. In “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” (http://cuip.uchicago.edu/~cac/nlu/fnd504/anyon.htm) Anyon provides insight into how teaching and learning expectations are closely linked to the socio-economic status of the community served (not served?) by the school. The rote and uninspired teaching prevalent in most low SES schools communicates an expectation that the function of these schools is to prepare a compliant workforce.

  4. Somewhat ironically, selective enrollment high schools in Chicago Public Schools (and almost certainly elsewhere)–for which admission is based on test scores–are largely freed up from the relentless pursuit and pressures of standardized test scores. The students in these schools are afforded many more opportunities for creative and expansive educational experiences.

    Meanwhile, the experiences of students in non-selective high schools are dominated by ineffectual preparation aimed at increasing scores on district and state assessments and college entrance exams.

    The Chicago Consortium for School Research published a report on this in 2008: From High School to the Future: ACT Preparation–Too Much, Too Late. The following summary is taken from the CCSR web page http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/content/publications.php?pub_id=124 :

    “The majority of Chicago Public Schools students are not attaining the ACT scores they are aiming for, which they need to qualify for scholarships and college acceptance. In this report, CCSR researchers look at the reasons behind students’ low performance and what matters for doing well on this test. CPS students are highly motivated to do well on the ACT, and they are spending extraordinary amounts of time preparing for it. However, the predominant ways in which students are preparing for the ACT are unlikely to help them do well on the test or to be ready for college-level work. Students are training for the ACT in a last-minute sprint focused on test practice, when the ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.”

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