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by Kadhir Rajagopal
Table of Contents
The student population at the heart of this book is composed of urban youth from impoverished neighborhoods, many of whom are African American or Latino. As a physical setting, these neighborhoods are usually characterized by poverty, liquor stores, gun shops, drug and alcohol use, and abandoned buildings that convey a sense of despair and hopelessness. In urban areas such as Oakland's Sobrante Park and Sacramento's Del Paso Heights, drug dealers, prostitutes, and gangs are an unfortunate part of daily life for far too many students. In this cesspool of negativity, however, many young people grow up among diligent working-class individuals and benefit from a strong sense of community and close ties with friends and family. Often, this environment provides a tight-knit community for kids because they know everyone from the local barber to the reverend in their church to the security guards at the ubiquitous liquor stores. This physical setting presents urban students with challenges and obstacles, while it also provides a sense of family and community.
Inner-city youth have to combat many negative influences such as pervasive substance abuse and gang rivalries, but the greatest obstacle that challenges urban students is often the "street mentality." This state of mind fosters much diverse behavior, but, most positively, it contributes to many kids learning how to be self-supportive—the so-called "survival instinct." Many of my students have been forced into the breadwinner role at home because their parents were in jail or simply absent. "Survival" for inner-city youth may mean working at the local store, selling drugs, or being physically or verbally intimidating so they don't appear soft or weak to their peers. Survival by any means necessary is a state of mind and a skill acquired by many young people growing up in these inner-city neighborhoods.
Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.
—President Barack Obama
Unfortunately, growing up "on the street" often means growing up in an environment that leads young people, especially African American and Latino youth, to internalize the notion that they are not destined to succeed in school. Inner-city youth of color are often confronted by mixed messages. School administrators and teachers tell students that the path to success is paved with good grades. At the same time, various other influences in the neighborhood reinforce a mentality that glorifies individuals who acquire material wealth, lots of money, and respect through any means necessary—most notably sports, music, or drug dealing. This mentality (and, interestingly, the media) consistently reinforces the misguided belief that young, inner-city students of color should find nonacademic paths to success. As a result, many of these kids grow up to believe that doing well in school is "acting white," and an aversion to school subconsciously sets in and low expectations become internalized. Helping these students succeed in and enjoy school was the challenge that the CREATE model was designed to meet.
Grant Union High School is a comprehensive urban high school. This means there is no selectivity during the student admission process. Inner-city high schools such as Grant tend to have a considerable number of English language learners (ELLs) or students with mild, moderate, or severe disabilities (including students labeled as "emotionally disturbed"). Indeed, almost 50 percent of Grant students receive special education or ELL services. Urban high schools also have many students who are far below grade level in one, more, or every subject.
At Grant, as at other comprehensive schools, we enroll any student who lives within certain defined boundaries. The students may enjoy school, or they may hate school. They may abhor and express their disapproval of every school rule. They may have supportive parents or role models, or they may have no one to support them. They may have a history of coming to school once a month or a history of getting into fights. It doesn't matter. By law, we have to accept all of these students, and they become our responsibility.
"My 'hood don't respect squares."
"I don't get it. If I stay quiet, she won't pick on me."
"I'm so bored! Why can't this be like sports!"
"I'm black. School ain't for me!"
"Speak my language!"
"I don't understand you, teacher!"
"How does this relate to me?"
"I hate x, y, and z!"
Poor attitude, gang involvement, and a lack of motivation are serious problems that especially plague urban high schools. Comprehensive schools cannot easily expel students who break rules or miss weeks of class. If a student is younger than 16, it is very difficult to transfer him or her out, even if he or she has been the subject of interventions and continues to violate every truancy and behavioral rule. As a case in point, I have had students who show up to school once a month but are still left on the attendance sheet. Ultimately, their test scores (or lack thereof) will factor into and affect the teacher's and the school's overall performance.
There are many urban schools that produce amazing results, including 100 percent proficiency in math and science. These may be elementary schools where students do not come with the array of discipline problems that are characteristic of many urban high school students. However, it is more likely that these schools are charter schools or academies. Many successful schools, especially charter schools, can regulate who enters and leaves the school. The students may all come from low-income families, but those students chose that particular school and agreed to buy into its culture and expectations. They voluntarily do their homework, study for standardized tests, and comply with strict accountability measures. Students who choose to apply for charter schools are, generally speaking, more motivated.
Students who attend most charter schools also usually have parents who have made an extra effort to apply and attend certain meetings. By contrast, comprehensive school students don't have to be accompanied by a parent or make an extra effort in order to qualify for or stay in school. In fact, a student could enter and leave the school whenever he or she chooses. I have taken new students into my class as late as April without any basic algebra skills. Perhaps a student's family was homeless and just found transitional housing in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood; therefore, he or she is enrolled in Grant Union High School.
In addition, comprehensive schools cannot hire and fire teachers at will. There may be many great teachers, but there may also be several horrible teachers. When students have to suffer at the hands of bad teachers, it affects their overall performance in and attitude toward school. As a result of collective bargaining agreements, it is very difficult to get rid of a horrible teacher who is tenured. Meanwhile, a charter school usually has more power over the hiring and firing process. For all these reasons, the task of uplifting urban students in a comprehensive inner-city high school is very difficult.
Education is not all about testing and scores, of course. We are here to serve the students, even if it is difficult to really make a difference in their scores. We are here to affect and even save lives. We need to focus on the bigger picture and get most of our students to care about learning. Most kids will feel pride in their personal achievements and demonstrate their abilities on standardized tests once we instill them with the confidence and drive necessary to showcase their learning. Realistically, most students—even those in the "worst" inner-city schools—are savable with a great teaching force.
We must redefine success as more than just test scores. We must recognize and celebrate success when a student rises to grade level from far below basic. We must realize success when a student who was in a gang chooses to find a new sense of belonging in the marching band or community service club. I choose to be in a comprehensive school even though I know I would have an easier time improving student achievement and test scores in a low-income charter school. If we are not there for students in inner-city comprehensive schools, then who will be?
In 2008, the special education students in my algebra class at Grant Union High School outperformed all students in the district. In 2009, my general education students outperformed the state average and went on to champion the notion that it is possible for poor students of any color—even though they may be far below grade level—to close the achievement gap in terms of race and income. The students were excited, and the district was shocked by the results.
The million-dollar question was why were these students outperforming their peers and succeeding in my class? To explain my students' success, I give credit to the CREATE model, which developed as the result of extensive interviews, student testimonials, personal reflections on my own teaching practices, and speaking engagements at the district, state, and national levels.
Several underlying themes are significant to this model. These themes, or fundamental principles, reach beyond the traditional teaching models used to address the needs of marginalized students who are typically left behind—too often our African American and Latino students. The model takes the traditional instructional strategies that are often taught in teaching-credential programs and asks the teacher to go the extra mile to reach marginalized populations. It also calls for the teacher to adapt the traditional teaching style to the needs of all urban students.
The CREATE model is grounded in three fundamental principles. The first is the belief that classroom teachers command the single greatest impact on student achievement (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Quality instruction, therefore, is the most valuable weapon in the teacher's arsenal and the most significant factor that influences achievement gains—an influence many times greater than poverty or per-pupil expenditures (Sanders & Horn, 1994; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997).
The second principle is the conviction that a teacher's race or gender has no bearing on his or her ability to foster success with urban students of color. In other words, a black teacher is not required for black students to succeed in school, and Latino students can learn from teachers who are not also Latino. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the CREATE model is easily replicated—it can be used by any teacher in any classroom.
The final essential principle is the belief that all students should be held accountable for their success and that most students can be expected to succeed or show significant progress on standardized exams. Students can certainly demonstrate their knowledge and mastery of skills in numerous ways, including oral discussions, projects, and portfolios, but the reality is that students still need to be tested. Although standardized tests are often culturally biased, all students need to achieve success and pass those tests if they are to be competitive in society. Even though the accountability measures inherent in federal policies such as No Child Left Behind have their shortcomings, I believe they did force schools, teachers, and students to evaluate their successes based on student learning data.
We have given up on [students in urban communities]. We haven't given them access to quality education. ... When we don't educate young people, we make them dangerous individuals.
For most of my life, I have had an extreme dislike for standardized tests. When I was a student, I was easily confused by the wording of questions, and I experienced test anxiety. However, I would not be able to teach algebra or write this book if I hadn't learned to successfully take the SAT, the GRE, and the CSET for math teachers. Similarly, lawyers and doctors could not achieve their respective positions in society if they couldn't pass the LSAT or MCAT. The CREATE model, then, holds that teachers must expect urban students to remain accountable and meet a standard level of excellence—including standardized tests.
This does not mean that teachers should exclusively teach to the test and tell students when to circle A and when to circle D, for example. It does mean that teachers should be creative and incorporate real-life issues into the classroom, even if those issues are not explicitly discussed in the standards. It also means that teachers should teach standards-based content to mastery and prepare students to demonstrate their knowledge on a test accurately. In short, teachers should maintain accountability but not lose their ability to be creative.
CREATE is an instructional model designed to close the achievement gap in urban classrooms. The acronym represents the six components of the model:
C—Culturally Responsive Instruction
R—Rigorous Expectations and Rewards
A—Assessing for Mastery During Class
E—Extra One-on-One Tutoring for Struggling Students
The chapters that follow explain and explore each of these components in turn. When all six components are in place and working together, the CREATE model produces the desired results—it enables teachers in urban schools to close the achievement gap between their students and students from more advantaged backgrounds.
Although the CREATE model helps teachers reach all students, its primary mission is to empower teachers to reach those kids who are typically left out of or underserved in urban classrooms. These students form the base of CREATE's target population. In the United States, this population is disproportionately African American and Latino. Therefore, the CREATE model is meant to help educators specifically reach urban students of color.
[A majority of low-achieving students] attend … academically diverse classes in large, urban public schools attended predominantly by students in poverty.
Within the target population, there are two types of students at risk for poor classroom performance. The first type is the student who struggles and acts out loudly. As a result of disengagement or a lack of understanding, these students talk when they are not supposed to, act out by throwing things, or repeatedly break class rules. The second type is the quiet or "under-the-radar" student who doesn't understand the material. These students won't tell you they are lost—they will quietly nod their heads and act as if they have mastered the content. They won't admit or tell anyone they don't get it. Unfortunately, their lack of learning will not be revealed until a test or major assessment.
Students who …
The CREATE model can be used by any teacher in any subject. My own success using the model has been in mathematics. In California, the achievement gap is glaring in the area of mathematics. The failure in foundational math classes for urban students of color is evident in the fact that only between 8 and 10 percent of African American and Latino students are proficient in algebra, based on the 2008 California Standards Test (CST) of algebra. Overall, 65 percent of African American students and roughly 60 percent of Latino students who took algebra scored below the basic level on the CST in algebra. By contrast, 65 percent of white students and 80 percent of Asian students who took algebra scored at the basic level or above. This achievement gap is also seen in relation to income. In California, nearly 60 percent of students in low-income families scored below the basic level in algebra. By contrast, 62 percent of economically advantaged students scored above basic (Education Trust, 2008).
This statewide epidemic of urban math failure also adversely affects students in my own school. Grant Union High School in Sacramento has a 98 percent free-or-reduced lunch rate. It is a Program Improvement school (the formal designation for Title I–funded schools in California) with large numbers of underachieving African American, Latino, and Asian students. In 2009, the number of Fs given in mathematics classes outnumbered all other grades. In the midst of consistent algebra failure, though, I have been able to achieve remarkably different results with urban students from low-income families. I have used specific strategies that helped most of my low-performing students succeed in algebra and perform at a basic or higher level of mastery. My students have consistently outperformed thousands of their peers throughout the district and state.
The success that Grant students have experienced with the CREATE model has been documented from 2007–2009, during which time I taught algebra to the Special Day Class and general population. The "special ed" population I taught in 2007 consisted of students with learning disabilities and behavioral challenges. A majority of the students were African American and Latino, and many came from single-parent or parentless households. Disabilities ranged from attention deficit disorder to mild cerebral palsy, and their math skills were generally at the 3rd grade level (according to traditional tests of basic skills and intelligence such as the Woodcock-Johnson test). Because of this, these students were not expected to do the same algebra or perform at the same level as the general population. However, I challenged them, and they defied all expectations by learning the same curriculum and taking the same standardized tests as their peers in general education classes.
In October 2007, the CREATE students in the Special Day Class took the districtwide midterm assessment and outperformed the entire district. My "special ed" kids had an average of 56 percent, and the district had an average of 46 percent. In December 2007, the Special Day Class took the first semester districtwide final exam. Their average score was 62 percent, while the district averaged 42 percent and Grant Union High School averaged 39 percent on that same exam. Furthermore, the Special Day Class outperformed the district—with an average score of 57 percent compared to 43 percent—on the third- and fourth-quarter algebra exams. It is important to recognize that the Special Day Class was required to show their work on each problem and not simply bubble in answers on the multiple-choice standardized exam. This effectively dispelled the notion that the students didn't understand the math or cut corners to arrive at their solutions.
In the Special Day Class, I personally experienced significant success with the CREATE instructional model. I also had similar experiences with the general population, which I taught during the 2008–2009 school year. Those students also performed at a higher proficiency level on every districtwide quarter exam than did their peers throughout the district. In April 2009, my CREATE students took the CST statewide algebra exam, and 71 percent of them scored at or above basic on the test, including 37 percent who scored proficient. In terms of percentage of students scoring above basic on the algebra CST, my students outperformed the rest of the school, the Twin Rivers Unified School District, and all of California (which had only 51 percent scoring at a basic level or above and 25 percent at a proficient level) (Gutierrez, 2010).
It is beneficial to note some revealing statistics that point to the power and success of the CREATE model. Specifically, 71 percent of African American students in my CREATE classes were at or above basic level, and 42 percent were proficient. For the state, 35 percent of African American students reached basic, and only 13 percent were proficient. Furthermore, 68 percent of CREATE Latino students reached basic or above, and 29 percent were proficient. This was higher than the state average for Latinos, which was 41 percent basic or above and 16 percent proficient. Interestingly, the state average for Caucasian students was 65 percent at or above basic level and 36 percent proficient. Therefore, both Latino and African American CREATE students outperformed white students statewide and effectively closed the achievement gap in terms of ethnicity.
Finally, CREATE students also closed the achievement gap in terms of income level. For low-income students in California, the average performance on the algebra CST was 42 percent basic or above, and only 17 percent met the proficient level. For economically advantaged students in the state, the average was 62 percent basic or above and 35 percent proficient. CREATE students at Grant Union High School had an average of 71 percent basic or above and 37 percent proficient. Therefore, the CREATE students exceeded the performance of similar low-income populations and economically advantaged students throughout the state.
Comparisons within Grant Union High School were just as striking. Of the 87 students using the CREATE model in my four algebra classes, 33 students scored at the proficient level on the algebra CST and had an average score of 330. By contrast, of the 272 students in the remaining 13 algebra classes (that didn't employ the CREATE model), only 18 students scored at the proficient level and had an average score of 280.
In other words, my four algebra classes produced more proficient students than all other classes combined. When they first came to me, 80 percent of my students had scored below basic on the previous year's algebra CST. Not one of my students had scored at the proficient level, and most had received a D or F in their previous math class. Yet when they left my class, 71 percent of them had scored basic or above on the algebra CST, and 37 percent of them had scored at the proficient level. How was this possible?
By the end of the school year, the results that were coming out of my classes with the CREATE model had shocked the entire community and even aroused the interest of educators throughout the district. How could the Special Day Class, in particular, have done so well and outperformed thousands of other students in the district on every exam—exams they were not even supposed to take? How could the general population at Grant exceed the state average and close the achievement gap in terms of both ethnicity and income? Moreover, could the success seen in my classes with CREATE be replicable in other classrooms?
In the following chapters, I will explain how the CREATE model allowed me to achieve this startling success—and how it can help other teachers in urban school districts see similar results.
You may discover that you already use many of the CREATE strategies in your classes. You might find that you can improve on your existing practices with specific elements from the model. Furthermore, the CREATE model may inspire you to think of new approaches that will help your students learn. Keep in mind that the most important purpose of this model is to help you remain innovative and find what works best for your students.
A passionate teacher teaches as though his or her life depends on the student's outcome.
The underlying principle of CREATE is that high-quality instruction is the most significant factor for student success. Although this book attempts to present realistic, evidence-based instructional strategies, those strategies can never be a substitute for the will and energy of a determined teacher responsible for inner-city youth who have already failed and are not always motivated to learn. Educators who are not willing to take responsibility—and hold themselves accountable—for the learning that takes place within the four walls of their classrooms will not be able to take full advantage of this book or the CREATE model.
Truly effective teachers must be able to push disengaged or defiant students beyond their perceived limitations and fight until they realize success. They recognize that they must reach and influence their students' hearts before their heads. As a teacher at my school once said, "A passionate teacher teaches as though his or her life depends on the student's outcome." If you feel a stubborn determination to help your students, despite the resistance and obstacles you will encounter along the way, the CREATE model will help you to unlock the potential that exists within your students.
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