The LEEAP Team institutes, designed by the Tar River Writing Project, are based on highly successful Teacher Inquiries Communities Network programming supported by the National Writing Project and uses an action research framework to guide reflection on practice and align instructional delivery with research-based, best practice in literacy acquisition to address literacy skill parity in Black, Hispanic and Economically Disadvantaged student subgroups. LEEAP Programming incorporates reflective and analytical practices addressing all of the standards in the NC Teacher Evaluation Instrument (Mid-continent Research). Additionally it invites all teachers, especially non-core teachers, to investigate and understand best practices in literacy across the curriculum, offering high quality, content specific professional development to teacher groups who traditionally have had very limited choices when it comes to professional development. LEEAP programming provides a professional inquiry framework which allows teachers to research their current practice rather than merely giving them a panoply of new classroom activities; the focus is on responsiveness to instruction and appropriate interventions based on an analysis of student data and student diversity. Ultimately, through reflective practice, the teacher participants will be leaders in their schools in the areas of culturally responsive instruction and student retention.
Exploring North Carolina’s Educational Debt
North Carolina is burdened with a fundamental disparity in educational outcomes for economically disadvantaged, Black and Latino students. Perhaps, as some suggest, the term and conceptual understanding of “achievement gap” is itself detrimental to our understanding of and response to persistent inequities in student achievement (Ladson-Billings, 2007). Ladson-Billings suggests the term “educational debt” instead as it defies the “at-risk” labeling of student groups and mitigates the negative emotional responses that accompany such stigmas. “Achievement gap,” she argues, places the onus for systematic inequities on the student and teacher, whereas an “educational debt” framework acknowledges the cumulative effects of inequity in our society at large and promotes shared responsibility for increasing educational outcomes of all students, not just some groups. In addition, Ladson-Billings notes that to close a “gap,” slower performance is required at the top of the class while higher performance is necessary at the bottom.
We know that in today’s classrooms, high, middle, and low-achieving students all must make great strides to meet the literacy demands of the 21st century as outlined in new Common Core standards. Data show that while all student test scores are improving, Black and Latino high school students, as a group, continue to fall behind their peers in core reading and writing proficiencies, signaling a clear need for teachers to address equity issues and literacy needs in their classrooms, implementing strategies that realize achievement gains and demand excellence for all students.
Highly Qualified Teachers Make a Difference
While the disparity in Black-White student achievement was lessened prior to1980, research indicates that we are no longer closing the achievement gap for Black students (Barton and Coley, 2006), and projections foretell that equitable outcomes among Black and White students will not be realized in the first half of the 21st century (Neal 2005). Dating back to the controversial Moynihan report of the 1960s that stigmatized Black student underperformance as representative of some innate problem rather than a host of cultural factors, researchers have long been working to draw conclusions about why minority students, particularly African Americans, continually lag behind their white counterparts in standardized assessments. Most theorists now acknowledge that both structural inequities and cultural influences, including language barriers for both English Language Learners (ELL) and Standard English Learners (SEL) (Freeman & Freeman, 2009), have impacted student achievement for minority groups (Wilson, 2009; Gates, 1999; Sharkey, 2009; Ogbu, 1981; Ferguson, 2007; Tatem, 2005). And while we know that there is no one factor that has contributed to this phenomenon and no one solution that will fix the persistent educational inequities that plague students from marginalized ethnic and socio-economic groups, we also know that teacher effectiveness remains the single most important factor determining student achievement in the classroom (Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997).
Highly qualified teachers are defined by the No Child Left Behind Act as teachers who hold bachelor degrees, have attained appropriate licensure, and have demonstrated mastery on standardized measures that assess content-area knowledge (NCLB). And while discipline-specific knowledge is a necessary component of high-quality teaching, content knowledge must be complemented with effective pedagogy, which is derived from knowing students and understanding their needs (Tatum, 2005).
In What Content Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy, the National Institute for Literacy (2007) reports that students from “diverse family backgrounds, with learning disabilities, or with diverse cultural, linguistic, or socioeconomic backgrounds and who have also fallen behind in their literacy development” will require “additional support in learning both content and literacy.” The authors go on to write that “it is important for teachers to understand differences in students’ prior knowledge, skills, and experiences; differences in language or dialect; and differences in cognitive ability” (38).
This means that effective teachers must develop multiple literacies – academic, social, cultural and emotional literacies – along with their students. These literacies are fundamental for teachers as they increase their content knowledge and construct culturally-responsive pedagogies that have proven effective for teaching toward diversity and increasing literacy skills parity (Tatem, 2005).
In addition, McAllister & Irvin (2002) argue that empathy is a key characteristic of teachers who are successful in diverse classrooms. The authors define empathy as taking the perspective of others and interacting with individuals in ways that are open, non-judgmental, and culturally-responsive; therefore, empathetic teachers are attentive to cultural differences in their classrooms and modify their practices and their curricula to fit their students’ needs. The authors do note that a superficial understanding of culture can be detrimental if teachers falsely assume they understand the experience of others and also warn that empathy is one leg of the three-legged teacher-effectiveness stool. The other legs include deep subject-matter knowledge and effective pedagogy. Likewise, the cultivation of empathy in professional development communities shows promise for improving the outcomes of diverse students. LEEAP programming involves teachers in reading, reflection, and shared discussion that helps teachers recognize bias and consider their own power, position, and privilege in relation to that of their students, also meeting Standard 2b of the new NC Teacher Evaluation Instrument (Public Schools, “Raising Achievement,” 2010).
Recognizing and Activating Students Knowledge Funds
While LEEAP teachers work to define the racial, cultural and linguistic biases and assumptions that impact their teaching, they also work to discover and implement pedagogies that draw on students’ rich repositories of knowledge in literacy practice that are developed in students’ homes and the communities. Working against a deficit model that stigmatizes students because of achievement gaps, a “funds of knowledge” approach seeks to make plain and activate “historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). To tap into these funds and activate this prior knowledge as a bridge toward building academic and content area literacy, LEEAP programming challenges teachers to understand their students’ backgrounds, history, family situations, reading, writing, and speaking practices to make their classrooms inclusive spaces where all students’ experiences and ways of knowing and constructing knowledge are valued and used to develop academic literacies.
LEEAP Programming works to increase minority literacy outcomes and improve literacy skill parity by developing teacher empathy for working with diverse populations and guiding teachers to discover and use student funds of knowledge to increase literacy in the content area. Friedrich, Malarkey, Simons, & Williams (2006) advises that teacher equity leaders explore with their communities the identity matrix that they teach, learn, and research in, acknowledging that teachers teach to students with whom they identify. This means that teachers must carve out space in their classrooms, their schools, and their professional lives for examining risky issues of race, class, and justice, confronting bias and prejudice headlong in spaces that are safe and productive. LEEAP teacher-participants are guided in exploring both teacher and student identities, developing lessons grounded in relevant research for increasing literacy for diverse learners, reflecting on current practices to improve literacy instruction, implementing new best practices for increasing literacy, collaborating with colleagues to assess implementation, and analyzing available data to determine what instruction is working to lead to student mastery of curricular goals and literacy attainment. These practices directly align with Standard 5a of new NC Teacher Evaluation Instrument (Mid-continent Research, 2010). This model of data-driven instruction employs student data to design effective literacy acquisition interventions and preferences student learning over “checking for NCLB compliance” (Marshall, 2009).
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