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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy?

The growing popularity of culturally responsive instruction is slowly causing traditional trends to be reversed, with the onus to adapt to the demands of the multicultural classroom being increasingly placed on the teacher.   Given the wealth of diversity in our nation’s public schools, it is no wonder that instructional theory is advocating a shift toward a pedagogy that emphasizes a comfortable and academically enriching environment for students of all ethnicities, races, beliefs, and creeds.
Culturally responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students’ unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote student achievement and a sense of well-being about the student’s cultural place in the world.  Culturally responsive pedagogy is divided into three functional dimensions: the institutional dimension, the personal dimension, and the instructional dimension. 
The institutional dimension of culturally responsive pedagogy emphasizes the need for reform of the cultural factors affecting the organization of schools, school policies and procedures (including allocation of funds and resources), and community involvement.  The personal dimension refers to the process by which teachers learn to become culturally responsive.  The instructional dimension refers to practices and challenges associated with implementing cultural responsiveness in the classroom. 
Given that a majority of teachers hail from a middle class European-American background, the biggest obstacle to successful culturally responsive instruction for most educators is disposing of their own cultural biases and learning about the backgrounds of the students that they will be teaching.  The processes necessary for preparing to teach in a culturally responsive classroom can be broken down into three general categories: exploring one’s own culture, learning about other cultures, and learning about students’ cultures.

Before seeking out knowledge about the cultures of the diverse students that they will be teaching, educators must first investigate their own heritage, upbringing, and potential cultural and racial biases.  A common side effect of being raised in the dominant European-American culture is the self-perception that “I’m an American; I don’t have a culture.”
Of course this is view is thoroughly inaccurate; European-American culture simply dominates social and behavioral norms and policies to such an extent that those who grow up immersed in it can be entirely unaware of the realities of other cultures.  A related misconception that many teachers labor under is that they act in a race-blind fashion; however, most teachers greatly overestimate their knowledge about other cultures, which manifests itself in a lack of cultural sensitivity in classroom management and pedagogical techniques. 
Fortunately, initial cultural biases can be overcome via hard work and reflection.  The necessary element for discarding pre-existing biases is a willingness to go through a process of rigorous self-appraisal in order to learn what needs to be changed to teach in a culturally responsive fashion.  A good way to start this process is by writing down reflections about family history, upbringing, and interpersonal relationship styles and how one’s experience may differ from the experience of a person raised in a different culture.
Eventually the focus of this reflection must turn toward one’s ideas about and racism and bias.  The culturally responsive educator should reflect on the fears, stereotypes, and biases that they have about individuals that are different from them. Once the educator can recognize that their own personal tastes are not objectively better than those favored by other cultures, they can begin to investigate and appreciate the traditions and values of those cultures.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Using Year-Round Schools to Close the Achievement Gap

In comparison to children from low-income and minority groups, children belonging to middle-class families enjoy more learning opportunities even during school breaks. Thus, extended school days may help low income and minority students achieve more learning throughout the year, and lose less of this new knowledge.
Year-round schools offer a variety of specific advantages in addition to increased learning. Some of the significant advantages include better student performance, reduced absenteeism among students and teachers, better discipline, diminished stress on teachers, and better learning opportunities for students. Schools following multi-track programs also enjoy easing of problems due to overcrowding, proper utilization of resources, and cost savings. The following sections discuss some of these specific advantages in more detail.
Teachers and students experience a closer relationship in year-round schools than they do in traditional, shorter-calendar-year schools. In the absence of any long-term break from school, students do not feel detached from the school environment. Furthermore, the additional time allows teachers to offer students time to achieve better results, creating a sense of excitement and interest in students, and a sense of unified effort between student and teacher. This is likely due to an increased sense of belonging and accomplishment.
Some people have expressed concern that teachers will have problems attending to their own family life if year-round schools are instituted. However, year-round school systems allow shorter but more frequent school breaks, allowing teachers more regular time during which they may concentrate on personal and family needs. As a result, many teachers in year-round schools actually feel less work stress.
Research suggests there is less teacher absenteeism in year-round schools. Teachers feel less of a need to take “mental health” days at year-round schools because they enjoy frequent breaks that gives them a chance to recharge regularly throughout the year. In addition, teachers are able to schedule professional development opportunities during the intersession periods, in order to compensate for missed classes during the summer. Research focused on teacher attitudes in year-round schools revealed that teachers found more satisfaction in the year-round school schedule.
Low income students have opportunities to garner habits for improved learning skills while attending year round schools, which in turn helps to close the achievement gap. The experience of immersion in learning offered by year round schools, with more time spent in classrooms, proves to be beneficial to many students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, including those for whom English is a second language. Many second language learners who have difficulty mastering English are advantaged by the opportunity to be immersed in English during intersession classes. They also develop better relationships with other students, and begin to feel more of a part of the school culture.
In addition to improving their academic standing, students at year-round schools may also have opportunities to develop creative talents they might not otherwise have explored, such as music and art. These classes work as a catalyst to improve personal growth.  Results from research studies conducted on student behavior in year-round schools as compared to traditional schools suggest that there is a significant difference between the two in terms of self-confidence and self-concept. Other studies have found that year-round students have fewer inhibitions, and feel positive about their schooling experience.
Various research studies reveal that students attending year-round schools often perform better than students in traditional, shorter-school-year schools. Differences in performance among traditional and year round calendar students from similar home environments are particularly important to note. Much has been written about the achievement gap between students from middle class backgrounds and those from low income backgrounds. However, low income and middle income students appear to make comparable achievement gains during the school year.
When low income students spend time away from school, the achievement gap widens. In fact, the rate at which the achievement gap widens between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds actually accelerates, when low income students are not in school.  Research shows that performance among students from low income backgrounds improves when they attend schools with modified calendars. It appears, then that modified school calendars should be considered as one of the viable options for reducing the achievement gap. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Time to Learn: Revisiting the School Calendar Debate

The nine-month school calendar that emerged over a century and a half ago has proven resistant to change. It remains the predominant organizational structure within which learning takes place today, despite significant social, economic, and cultural changes over the past century that could have resulted in alternate ways to structure time for learning. Still, most school districts continue to organize learning around a 180-day, 6-hour school calendar, with summers as a period of limited or no district-sponsored learning activities. 

One explanation for the present school year is that it follows the 19th-century agrarian calendar, freeing up youth to work on farms during the summer months. Other explanations include the notion that children should not be exposed to the discomfort of early 20th-century, factory-like, non-air-conditioned school buildings in the summer.

Missing from these explanations for a nine-month calendar, however, are discussions that focus directly on student learning and achievement, which should be at the forefront of conversations focused on schooling. The propensity to naysay an alternate or modified school calendar routinely includes an array of non-achievement-based concerns. Issues such as family vacations, costs, use of facilities, extracurricular activities, teacher and administrator stress, and even the summer-recreation industry too often enjoy parallel positions of importance.

Students in the U.S. spend fewer days in school than their counterparts in many industrialized countries. In Japan, for example, students attend school 243 days a year, and academic learning does end not once the school day is over. The school day is extended, as many students attend Juku, which are privately run afterschool services that primarily focus on academic subjects, although some provide tutoring in the arts and sports.

Public schools involved in extended learning time efforts provide a U.S. version of a Juku; albeit one that is public and available to all students. They recognize that the amount and quality of time does influence learning, and their efforts result in improved learning and achievement for a number of children. Even though extended learning programs may primarily focus on low-performing, high-poverty schools, given the international achievement gap, all schools should keep a close eye on the success of these schools.

Extension to the school day is important, but extension to the school year is important as well. Research suggests that not only do achievement gaps develop when children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are away from school, but the rate of these gaps accelerates during the summer months. Comparable achievement occurs during the school year for children from both backgrounds.

During periods away from school, however, skills for children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds continue to grow, while no such advances occur for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Evidence suggests that modified calendars have a positive impact on achievement for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus should remain a viable option for schools seeking to improve achievement for students living in low socioeconomic environments.

Clearly, a structure for learning is needed that restores our stature as a well-educated nation and contributes to our ability to be a major player on the global economic playing field. Just as important, we need to provide enough time for learning so that young people have an education that allows them to grow into competent and confident adults able to choose how to live their lives. Holding on to a rigid traditional school calendar seems imprudent when viewed in light of such goals. Historically, supplemental schooling experiences to the nine-month calendar have existed. The time is ripe to flip the arrangement, so that the traditional calendar becomes supplemental to more effective arrangements of time for learning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Crucial Role of the Parental Involvement

It is beyond any doubt that low-performing schools would benefit from developing strong parent-school partnerships. However, it is not always easy to promote such a culture of shared responsibility. Schools may face difficulty in attaining an efficient collaborative framework among stakeholders, which include teachers, parents, students, the community, and the administration.

Generally, education and school leaders try to generate a social framework that will help teachers, administrators, and parents resolve differences in a peaceful and supportive manner. Overall improvement of student performance can be the outcome of improved relationships between teachers and parents.

Education leaders can encourage parental involvement by improving the structural environment of schools that directly affects teachers, administrators, students, and parents. Historically, American culture has tried to promote a locally inspired, community-based school structure; however, most of the calls for decentralization of schools and school district systems have failed to remove the bureaucratic nature of schools. This includes a structural division of responsibilities, a strict set of laws and regulations, and hierarchical control over the functionality and operation of schools.

Bureaucratic systems often create barriers that prevent teachers from developing effective student-teacher relationships and discourage parents from taking part in helping students develop their learning skills. Centralized schooling systems under the burden of stern bureaucracies can also cause alienation of teachers and obstruct student development.
On the other hand, bureaucratic systems help teachers control and use their expertise to guide students effectively. A reduction in bureaucracy would increase administrative tasks among teachers, which would then have a negative impact on their performance.

The bureaucratic system should be based on flexible formulae that will guide the teachers, administrators, and parents in promoting the learning skills of students and help them achieve better results. The centralized or hierarchical authority of schools can be used to implement these supportive regulations and policies to enhance parental involvement. On the other hand, the wrong set of policies or the lack of flexibility may harm the process of teaching and learning.

Schools must be prepared for the fact that one outcome of effective parental involvement programs will be the desire of parents to become partners in the decision-making process existing in schools. Thus, school personnel must possess a genuine belief that shared responsibility for multiple aspects of the educational enterprise will result in improved learning environments for children and youth.

Understanding the deep-rooted importance of family and parental involvement in education and its effect on the academic performance of a child requires recognizing the fact that parents are children’s first teachers. Home is the first school, and as such, it is the place where children learn an abundance of skills, knowledge, and attitudes, some of which supports what is taught in schools.

When parents get involved with their children’s education, they tend to succeed academically, and tend to perform better on exams. They miss fewer school days and tend to be more conscientious about completing school-related work outside of school. Conversely, children whose families are not as involved in their school experiences are often unable to compete academically with peers, their attendance is less regular, and they are less likely to graduate from high school.

Because of the positive impact that parent and family involvement in education has on the performance of children, schools often try to encourage parents and family members to increase their participation in the educational process. In order to increase partnership of parents with schools, schools must create an environment that offers enough incentives and support for parents.

Schools cannot expect that all parents and family members will increase their level of parental involvement on their own. School staff, to include teachers, other school personnel, maintenance staff, and administrators, must work together to develop an environment that encourages parents to ask questions and share their feedback with school personnel. Some parents will need to be invited to schools, and learn to view schools as places where they may seek advice, receive suggestions on any number of school/student related issues, and as well places where their input and thoughts are welcomed.

Some parents may be dissuaded to from getting involved with what they perceive as a group of close-knit educational professionals who engage in language and practices meant to exclude parents from the work of educational systems. School districts must make sure parents understand state standards and assessments, so that parents can be more involved in monitoring the progress of their children. Schools are required to make sure that communications with parents are in language and formats that are understandable to parents. In order for America’s children to succeed academically, the crucial role of parental involvement must be embraced wholeheartedly.