Peeling Back the Wallpaper - ASCD
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November 1, 2016

Peeling Back the Wallpaper

When a high-achieving school district looked beneath the summary data, it uncovered systemic inequities that were holding some students back.

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Laura was superintendent of an award-winning school district. Education agencies, community organizations, and even a national foundation had honored her large district for being diverse and high achieving. But Laura was just not satisfied. Although few people around her discussed it, she knew that her district's Latino and African American students were not having the same success as their Asian and white counterparts. She was particularly uneasy about the low numbers of Latino and African American students who went on to four-year universities.

Laura knew that many of these students faced economic and linguistic challenges—but she also knew that the Asian community in her district faced similar conditions, and that Asian students were faring much better. Something deep inside her refused to accept the explanation that was widely held in her district—that lesser outcomes were inevitable for some groups of students.

Layer One: What Are We Worried About?

Were these achievement gaps truly inevitable? Or could the district do more to promote improved outcomes for all of its students? Laura asked a trusted critical friend to help her engage in an achievement appraisal to understand the differential achievement patterns in her district.

The critical friend suspected that the district was experiencing a phenomenon we've termed the wallpaper effect. In the era of data-driven school reform, educators sometimes rely exclusively on summary data for their decision making. Summary data show outcomes in one light, but they may obscure layers and layers of systemic practices and policies that affect the conditions under which students learn. When we peel back the layers, we uncover those systemic practices and policies and thus gain more accurate, more complex explanations for outcome disparities.

The district established a study team to engage in an inquiry process, led by the critical friend and composed of central-office and school administrators, teacher leaders, and counselors. The team focused on examining data for the district's five high schools, reasoning that achievement disparities at this level can have the most life-changing consequences. The exploration began with a review of all available data.

When the study team looked at their reports, they were proud of the overall long-term, sustained improvements across the district marked by increased proficiency levels, English language mastery, graduation rates, and college eligibility. The team members wondered, "What was Superintendent Laura worried about?"

The team then peeled back a layer of wallpaper. They conducted focus groups and interviewed a variety of people whose voices could contribute to deeper understanding, including

  • Students from each demographic group.

  • Students who completed their university prerequisite sequence and those who did not.

  • Teachers of advanced, regular, and remedial courses.

  • Counselors.

  • District and school administrators.

The team asked initial questions that led to second-level and third-level questions. Team members were fascinated as they peeled back the layers and began to gain clarity on the impact of the district's past and present practices.

Layer Two: Why Don't Some Students Participate in Student Government?

In one compelling example, the team decided to study the profile of the most successful students in their schools. Rather than focusing on struggling students, they wanted to learn about what the schools were doing well by looking at students who were succeeding.

They intuitively felt that students who were most involved in school were most successful—and the data confirmed this. Students who participated in student government, for instance, were among the highest-achieving at every high school. The team members knew that white and Asian students held most student government posts. The question was, why?

Some team members suggested that Latino and African American students were simply not as interested in participating in student government because they favored sports or needed to have after-school jobs. Others suggested that the grade requirements to run for office explained the lack of equal participation, imagining that many Latino and African American students were probably disqualified from running because of poor grades. Others believed that cultural norms influenced Latino and African American students—these students, they guessed, probably preferred to spend their free time with students of their own ethnicity and culture. A final suggestion was that Asian and white students may harbor biases against Latino and African American students, creating a climate where Latino and African American students felt that activities like student government were simply not meant for them.

The focus group data, especially the student voices, supported this last suggestion and also unearthed a specific explanation that no one on the study team had predicted. At each high school, students were encouraged to run for office at a lunchtime recruitment fair held the final month of school. Existing student government officers sat at a booth to entice students to get information and to recruit them to run. Most often, students visited the booth because they were friends with one of the officers sitting there. And students make friends by being in the same classes.

Layer Three: Why Are Advanced Placement Classes So White and Asian?

Looking at these interviews, the study team now suspected that differences in student government participation were related more to class placement practices than to other systemic issues. They followed this new hunch by peeling back the layers further, gathering other data, including

  • Counselor-student contact rosters.

  • Schedules of counselor visits by class levels.

  • Written course placement criteria compared to student transcripts.

  • Demographic distribution of classes by level.

  • School site maps showing the location of advanced classes and other classes in relation to the placements of college information, student bulletins, and counseling activities.

Adding these other data into the mix resulted in some sobering and disturbing findings. Most revealing was that some policies and practices the schools had assumed were good and fair were actually stifling many students' academic achievement.

The team first noted that placement in advanced classes was not proportional to the student body. Eighty-five percent of students in advanced classes were Asian or white, although those groups combined accounted for only 30 percent of the school population. Lower-level classes were primarily populated with Latino and African American students. The team members asked, "Why does this pattern exist?" This is what they found.

Asian and white students who met placement criteria for advanced classes were automatically assigned to those classes. The criteria included three factors: grades of A or B in the previous course, standardized test scores demonstrating content proficiency, and teacher recommendation. In addition, some Asian and white students who did not meet the strict placement criteria were regularly enrolled in advanced classes through a back-door "other" process as a result of parent demand, student persistence, or teacher nomination. As a result, the automated master schedule program enrolled every white and Asian student who met all three criteria, plus many others who did not meet the strict academic cut points but who had an advocate. Interestingly, when any of these students tried to opt out of the more rigorous courses, adults overrode their objections.

In contrast, only one-half of the Latino and African American students who were qualified for placement were assigned to advanced classes. These qualified students were not assigned to advanced classes if adults did not recommend them or if the students opted out. The Latino and African American students who were interviewed by the study team reported that sometimes teachers, administrators, or parents did not believe they had the necessary "study habits" to be successful. Further, qualified students who opted out of the advanced classes shared that they felt uneasy about taking those courses for two major reasons: (1) Teachers and/or counselors had not encouraged them to take advanced courses, but rather had warned them about the difficulty of these courses, which made the students fear that they would fail; and (2) The students worried that they would feel isolated because so few of their friends were in those classes. In general, Latino and African American students got the sense that they simply did not belong in advanced courses. Sadly, this was a common occurrence in all the high schools.

The study team also wanted to find out more about the few Latino and African American students who were placed in advanced classes. The team examined the data and found that these students were most often in the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. AVID is a research-tested program with a long, successful track record of supporting underrepresented students through a college-going academic path. AVID students are assigned a rigorous course-taking schedule, receive focused academic attention, and have strong advocacy from their AVID counselor and teachers.

The bottom line was that school and district practices had more to do with the differential placement of students than anyone realized. The study team vowed to address this finding by making changes to the placement criteria. In addition to placing students from all races and backgrounds who met all three criteria, they modified the software program so that any student who met the two academic criteria was automatically placed—regardless of adult recommendation. In addition, any student who met only one of the two academic criteria was flagged for possible placement. The AVID counselors met with all these students to encourage them to take advanced courses. These counselors offered to take underrepresented students onto their counseling caseload, presented them with a "tutorial" elective, and invited them to events where college-student role models shared their success stories. Although the first year was a heavy lift, it became easier and easier to recruit underrepresented students each subsequent year.

Layer Four: Why Don't More Latino and African American Students Go to College?

The study team believed that counseling played a pivotal role in providing students with college-going guidance, so they interviewed counselors to see whether they had information that would help explain the different outcomes by student group. Counselors reported that they provided college information frequently—and equally to all students. Some counselors shared their perception that certain student groups were just naturally more interested than others in going to college.

The team asked counselors to peel back another layer, reviewing their counseling logs to check for anything that might help explain the outcome gaps. This inquiry led to findings that surprised even the counselors themselves! The logs indicated that counselors were correct to report that they visited classes to provide information about university preparation with great frequency—advanced classes, that is. Counselors visited lower-level English classes once each year, and provided information only about high school graduation. This was not a formal, written policy of exclusion, but rather an informal practice that had evolved over time on the basis of unexamined and inaccurate perceptions about what different groups of students wanted, needed, and were capable of achieving.

Another revealing finding was related to how the schools shared written communication about college attendance. The adults believed that placing college information on the main public bulletin board provided equal access to all students. They assumed that Asian and white students took more interest in reading the posted weekly notices than the Latino and African American students did. However, a walk to that bulletin board helped the team see that students in lower-level classes would likely never even see it. The board was located right outside the advanced placement classrooms and near the honors classrooms, providing an excellent information source—for advanced students. This was a common practice at all five high schools.

The team was shocked at this finding and realized that underlying perceptions and expectations influenced what messages students received and how they received those messages. The team decided that every student should receive the same college-going information, and that written information should be shared through multiple avenues. Rather than provide more information to students in advanced classes, they would over-communicate college-going messages to students in other classes. They also established systems to continuously analyze, monitor, and make recommendations to sustain equitable district practices.

The Answers in the Data

When Superintendent Laura and her team peeled back the data layers, they discovered that although economic and social conditions were undeniable, these conditions did not entirely explain outcomes. Systemic inequities perpetuated gaps, and in fact exacerbated them.

The study group uncovered many false assumptions about the reasons for the achievement gaps among different groups. Peeling back the wallpaper produced clarity about some policies and practices that the district needed to change as well as other policies and practices that it needed to institutionalize so all students would have equitable outcomes. The study team members felt empowered because they were able to uncover data the district could use to guide it to higher outcomes for all students.

By exposing the wallpaper effect, Laura led her district to again earn public acknowledgement—this time, for achieving remarkable outcomes for historically underserved students, sending more of these students to four-year universities than any other district in the state. Soon after, this inspiring equity warrior retired, leaving as her legacy the mantra, "Beware the wallpaper effect!"

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