What Does It Mean to “Win”?

I’m on the launchpad of the school year, which is weirdly yet incredibly exciting. I thought I would be sad and, while I am bummed to lose my free time, it feels good to get back into the classroom.

With the school year coming up, it makes me think a lot about what I want for my students. Where will we go? What do I want them to do by the end of the year? What skills do these students need so they succeed out in the world? What will “success” look like in room 206?


I know that I’m lucky to have that freedom as a teacher– I haven’t always. “Success” used to be pretty strictly defined for me: 80% of my students making “Proficiency” on a test created by the organization running my school.

Of course, the charter school I was at did this because… everyone does this. Everyone tests their kids. Now. To this day. Students across the nation began taking Common Core State Standards (CCSS) tests last year, after years of taking the STAR or CST or HSA or whatever acronym the state used for it’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) test requirements.

I’m a lifelong product of these. Ever since early elementary school, I can remember having to sit and take day-long tests. A few months later, my parents would happily show me a piece of paper, and while I didn’t know what anything on it meant, I was happy they were happy. The scores on that paper opened doors for me: I was given awards based on the score, I was allowed to test for the Gifted and Talented program at my school (which I’ve written about here). My ability to do well on a long test directly impacted where I am in life.

Now that I’m in the classroom, knowing just how much that ability to test well gave me opportunity, I ache with knowing what so many teachers do: the ability to take a test does not come close to measuring the brilliance of my students. 


I won’t spend too long on this– plenty of folks have written tomes about how testing hurts students.

While testing isn’t a thorough measure of ability for any student, it is especially harmful for students of color (SoC). More and more, studies are finding that there is a racial bias favoring white students in standardized testing.

Knowing this, I had some mixed feelings when I listened to Nikole Hannah-Jones‘s report on This American Life (also below).


[FWIW: This is part 1, with the second part airing in two days. If that drastically alters my response, you can guess I’ll write about it. 🙂 ]

Of course, the reporting is great, and highlights some very necessary things we need to talk about in education: white fragility, biased beliefs about Black studentslack of teaching talent for SoC. These are all important and must be discussed.

My issue, overall, is that the piece still sees “success” and “the achievement gap” using the measuring stick much of the country uses: tests scores. Tests that only look at one small bit of our students’ capabilities.Tests that are inherently racist. Tests that reinforce the hegemony‘s idea of what it means to be successful in American education.

Even if school integration would drastically increase scores for Black students… I have to follow that up with “but at what cost?” Students would not only have to bare the emotional brunt of negative stereotypes (as noted in the piece), but I can’t help but wonder if their “success” is built around their ability to assimilate to White dominant culture’s ideas of “successful.” We can ask kids to do that, but we also know that comes at tremendous emotional and cultural cost.

So, a part of me says… I want more for students. If success built on integration is one rooted in assimilation, I’m not so interested. I’m not interested in perpetuating a world where my kids can’t be all of their amazing selves and not get called “ghetto” or “moke” or “unprofessional” or “angry” or any other coded, racist term we might use.

Beyond that, assimilation didn’t save Sandra Bland from unfair policing. Good test scores will matter less when unfair housing practices still make it hard to find a place to liveWill arming SoC with skills to do well on tests really be what ends inequality in our country?

Still, I also feel Ms. Hannah-Jones’s overall point, made at around 51:30 in the piece:

…What you’re saying is small, incremental progress. But meanwhile, there’s kids in those classrooms. There are kids who are going through these schools and not getting the education that they deserve while everyone’s trying to fix it. It’s not like those kids are removed somewhere and getting a good education while you guys figure it out. 

And therein lies the crux of the issue. We can call for takedowns of power and privilege but… there are kids in seats who need to be taught, who need to be given the tools to succeed in today’s society. How much longer can we ask students to wait while we dismantle centuries of racist educational practices?

Some argue that getting students into these traditionally “white” schools will be the wedge that starts breaking down some of the larger issues mentioned above. I’m not so sure, but I understand why, for many of us, it’s a place to start. I can’t protect my students from bad policing or unfair housing. All I can hope is that I can give them the strength I hope we all uncover within ourselves: the ability to stand up and say, “This is wrong. We need to fix this. Now.”

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