My 'four weeks' view of the U.S. achievement gap

An abridged version of this story was originally posted on MIT News: February 14, 2011
Story by Anna Ho '13

Put yourself in the shoes of an Algebra II teacher. At the end of the year, the juniors in your class must take an exam called the NMSBA: the New Mexico Standards-Based Assessment, which covers material through Algebra II. If they pass, they can graduate. If they fail, they cannot graduate, and therefore cannot go onto college. Fifteen students sit before you, some of whom have gone through their entire academic careers without understanding the difference between addition and division, or how to manipulate positive and negative numbers.

How do you teach students to solve a system of equations if they do not know the difference between addition and division? Take the time to review the basics, and you have no time to teach them what they need to know for the NMSBA. Don’t take the time to do it, and they struggle to learn new material, and lack the tools to problem-solve. Combine that with opportunity lost to snow days, professional development days, national holidays, days that students simply skip – and you face a daunting challenge.

I spent Independent Activities Period becoming painfully aware of these challenges, and working with brave, tireless teachers to tackle them. This was part of the Four Weeks For America challenge, run by the Public Service Center, which paired students with Teach For America teachers around the country. The school I was placed at is 100% Navajo, and has a graduation rate of about 28%. We were isolated; the school and the twelve houses that the teachers live in make up an island of civilization, in miles and miles of barren New Mexico desert.

Out there, I coexisted as educator and learner.

On the educator side: I left school every day smeared with whiteboard marker. My before-school, lunch, and after-school time was the kids’ time to ask me for help. I put so much of myself into tutoring and mentoring that when one of my kids (they were “my kids” after only a couple of days) failed a test, I felt that it was my failure. When one of them showed significant improvement, I celebrated as though it were my own. Chatter and giggling during class drove me crazy, when just eight months ago I was highly entertained by the chattering and giggling of my high school peers.

I have come to believe that teaching is an art form: preparation followed by performance, with the energy and creativity to improvise if – when – something doesn’t go according to plan. I found myself frantically devising new ways to explain the same concept, and spent hours creating visual aids. Teaching is a subtle art. Human beings are sensitive. Make a face when a student gives a wrong answer, and he or she may shy away from participating for the rest of the semester. Fail to acknowledge improvement, and a student may stop daring to improve. Most dangerous of all, fail to make it absolutely clear that you believe in every individual’s ability to succeed – and students are unable to believe in themselves.

Achieving a baseline understanding of students’ abilities

I was not sent to be a teacher, however. I helped out in the classroom for most of the time, but also worked on sustainable projects of my own. I created trackers for my host’s classes, which would enable the students to put stickers by their name for every objective mastered. These charts give a clear indication of which students are struggling the most, and which objectives have been met with the least success. I created interactive stations to help develop an intuitive understanding of Algebra I concepts.

Ideas for projects came out of observation. During my stay, I was frustrated by the lack of knowledge the students seemed to have about college. I found it unacceptable when a senior told me he was planning to go to college, but stared blankly when I asked when his applications were due. I noticed that my host teacher’s room-mate, who taught English, had set up a “College Corner” in his classroom, with various university brochures scattered on a table. I imagined a “College Corner” in every classroom, with not only brochures but also sheets on how to apply for Financial Aid, how to look for scholarships, how to navigate the application process, and what to expect from an interview. I saw a school-changing project as an opportunity to show the students what it means to make change: to lead them through the process of identifying a problem, coming up with a solution, and then executing that solution. When I left, my project was not complete, but I am happy to follow up from the opposite side of the country, and let the students be the leaders in improving their school.

I learned to value every minute of class as precious learning time that cannot be wasted. I learned that what is a simple explanation for one person might be the most complicated thing in the world for another. I learn that out on reservations, kids are growing up without electricity or running water, and that their role models are often alcoholics or siblings who dropped out of high school. I met a boy who butchered an animal for the first time when he was four, and a girl whose mom was murdered last summer. I learned to frame and reframe questions, and identified a weakness in myself: that I jump to correct once I see a mistake when I should instead let it run its course and become a problem-solving experience. I learned about a beautiful culture that’s isolated from the rest of the world, and wonder what will happen to it if its children depart for universities around the country and around the world.

Think about your favorite teachers. The ones who spent time with you during lunch and after school – who inspire you, who will always believe in you – and realize how much of themselves they throw into teaching: how much they give to their students. Appreciate how lucky you were to have them as mentors, since not every student has that chance – and thank them.

Read more about students and their public service projects...