Make your own free website on

Doug Mann LPN, LNC

How public schools are designed to fail most low-income & nonwhite students

Home | Consumer Information | Resume | Education advocacy | Writings | Links | Nursing | Nursing Homes | French & Spanish | Modern Greek | Mann for School Board in 2008

How public schools are designed to fail most low-income & nonwhite students
A discussion re: curriculum, instruction, testing, and discrimination
by Nancy Sayed and Doug Mann (edited by Doug Mann)
A Missouri school teacher, Nancy Sayed discusses the dynamics of institutionalized racism in the public schools, and explains how testing is being used to promote an agenda of decentralizing and privatizing the public school system in urban areas, not as a tool to close the academic achievement gap.
Nancy Sayed has over 30 years experience as a classroom teacher in Missouri public schools.

[Nancy Sayed] Let me explain what I mean when I say a school with a very strict curriculum. In this case, it would be a school where children are graded strictly on what they learn, and the school makes it very clear what they are to learn. For example, the school will hand out a checklist or syllabus at the beginning of the year saying that the children will learn (say in third grade): cursive writing, multiplication of three digits by four digits, etc. And each one will be broken down by say: stem letters (I, J, K, L capital letters--I'm guessing, because I don't really remember, but it gets as specific as that); multiplication from 0-12 by 0-12, multiplication of two-digit times one digit, multiplication of two digits times two digits, etc.). In other words, the overall list of what they'll learn, and exactly what are the sub-components of each objective tested, is specifically lined out. In a good curriculum, each specific objective, and the testing format used, is carefully specified at the beginning of the year. Thus, the only question is whether or not the student is learning the curriculum, not whether or not the student is pleasing the teacher (while being mindful of the fact that it's also entirely within the realm of possibility that the curriculum itself may be heavily weighted in favor of certain students!)...
I first became aware that the "curriculum" is THE major problem for students, however, my second year of teaching. I think I told you that I found that the achievement test content didn't match the curriculum of our district. In other words, we were teaching apples and they were testing oranges. So I went to our curriculum expert for the district and told her that each student needed an mini-individualized education plan. We would know what we wanted the students to learn by the time they graduated, and then check each step along the way, whether they were learning it or not, making modifications if needed. A sort of educational blue-print, so to speak, or a road map. Do you know what she said? She said, "You're right. That's a great idea. You do that." Well, wonderful. In order to do that, I'd have to develop diagnostic procedures, content and format for each subject (Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, Art, Music and P.E.--for elementary school alone, seven subjects; and God knows how many for junior and high school!) for thirteen years worth of school...
What I'm trying to say, Mr. Mann, is that I've been teaching for more than three decades now, and I know why our schools aren't working. Sure, you're partly right in that the huge teacher-turnover rate could wreck a school system, all by itself, just like the blowing out of a tire could wreck a car. But the main problem with education isn't the turnover rate. It's the fact that schools are designed to perpetuate the current socioeconic status of the people who design them--the higher socio-economic status holders. This would be found illegal, if anyone really stopped to take a look at it! And the current curriculum, instruction and testing system is based on the fact that for fifty percent to compete and succeed, at least fifty percent of its participants must fail (using the bell curve model), or an even higher (up to) sixty-nine percent must fall beneath the acceptable norm (if using the traditional letter grade model). As Dr. Fenwick English says in his book Total Quality Education (p. 5), "The cause of student failure (poor grades) is that the system requires it. But failure is treated by the system as a special cause and purports it to be due to lack of initiative and diligence on the part of the student"; he then goes on to say on p. 13 that "to design a school wherein children are 'winners' will require a complete transformation," and that schools, as they exist at present are basically "culling machines" (p. 20).
[Doug Mann] Re: curriculum. In the early 1990s the Minneapolis School District radically modified the curriculum for most students in high-poverty schools along the lines prescribed by the inventors of Outcome Based Education. A traditional academic curriculum was reserved for the talented tenth of black students and the talented half of white students. For lower tiers of the student population the curriculum was not only dumbed downed but radically transformed. For the lowest tier of students, the prison-bound, the curriculum, assessments, and report cards are focused on behavior and attitude modification. OBE was initially done in schools that served predominantly black neighborhoods, then introduced district wide (not without some resistence from teachers). The State of MN tried to mandate OBE in all MN school districts via new standards for high school students called "profiles of learning," but backed off, initially making adoption of the Profiles Of Learning voluntary, then scrapping them.
I can't say that I disagree with what you have written re: curriculum and instruction. I have made similar comments in published writings. However, I think that curriculum, teacher training, teacher turnover, and teacher effectiveness are so closely interconnected that it is not possible to make big improvements in curriculum content and teacher effectiveness for a large majority of the students (who are getting a lousy education) without first taking steps to reduce teacher turnover rates, to equalize educational inputs between programs, and to phase out curriculum tracking.
[Nancy Sayed] You mentioned the "outcome based education" which had been imposed on them--shades of the "upper ten percent"! And how discriminatory when opposed to the fifty percent for whites.  But I'd be willing to bet a year's salary that the "outcome-based" curriculum STILL wasn't in a format that could be used in order to facilitate [learning], rather than discriminate against the [nonwhite & low-income] students. For example, our own Missouri "curriculum", which the state touts as being "criterion-referenced", and thus supposedly matching tightly with the state assessment, is still impossible. It's impossible for the teachers to teach from it, it's impossible for administrators to assess teacher or student performance by using it, it's impossible for students or parents to use it to measure student progress--and I had lived too long to think that this is an accident, Mr. Mann...the objectives are so general as to be almost incomprehensible. What the **** does it mean, for example, when we say that "the student will read an age-appropriate paragraph with understanding"? That is is so loaded with generality as to be useless. Every single person who reads it might come up with a different response as to what a "right" outcome would be for that "objective". And then if the outcomes are clear and measurable, they are too often disjointed and unconnected to other outcomes. And supposing that someone could and does write a curriculum that is crystal clear, measurable (in its short-term form) and seamless in its scope and sequence, then does it actually match the assessment that will be used to determine the children's "mastery" of the content and format? In our Missouri state curriculum guidelines and assessment, for example, one can find almost no match whatsoever--we should be able to disaggregate the test items to match them with the guidelines (or better yet, the state should already do that), but it's not only impossible to do so, it's also against the law! And this is supposedly a criterion-referenced test, which is SUPPOSED to be made with that purpose in mind. Had I not been a consultant, and co-proponent of a charter school, I'd never have been able to even attempt to make the match, much less find that the state STILL (still, still, still, after thirty years) wasn't doing their job.
That's why I'm so infuriated. To me, if a curriculum is in place, everything else falls into place. We would then have a measurement by which to assess the performance of the child, the teacher, the district. Teacher turnover is a terrible problem, I agree. But that is a secondary, not a primary problem. What is a student's purpose in being in school in the first place, if not to learn? And if the district, or state, or nation, doesn't have measurable, clear objectives, then how does one know what's being learned and taught? As a matter of fact, I'd agree with many people much greater than I, who assert that teachers don't CAUSE learning--in many cases, they impede it...
[Doug Mann] Here I am going to present some of my thinking about the role of teachers and curriculum. I was planning to keep this message short, but...
Re: role of teachers
While researching alternatives to a public school in 1997 (first grade), I observed classrooms in a couple of other public schools and a few private schools, including a Montessori school. In the public schools, learning activity was very teacher focused, a lot of the kids were pretty disengaged, and the teachers didn't seem too concerned that many of the students were not catching on. In the other schools, learning activity was more student centered (especially in the Montessori school), the teachers were more "off to the side," but clearly engaged and aware of what was going on in the classroom, and much more focused on individualized assessment, planning, and evaluation.
Curriculum is important. However, I think that the skills acquired by a teacher over time are also very important. Other things being equal, schools with the most stable teacher staffing will tend to have the best outcomes. By comparison the SES of students is a factor of second or third rate importance, in my opinion.
Several years ago, in a school with one of the highest concentrations of low SES students in the Minneapolis district, but with a stable teaching staff, a high percentage of the kids were put into "gifted and talented" programs, which initially caused an uproar in wealthier parts of the city. Most of those low SES kids placed in the gifted and talented program didn't fit the criteria that would make them eligible in other schools. Yet they did quite well with the coherent, college-bound, enriched, and individualized curriculum provided in their gifted and talented program. And the performance of other students was about halfway between that of low poverty schools and most of the other high poverty schools.
Re: curriculum.
What I don't like about the term "curriculum" is that is has different meanings in different contexts. Curriculum might connote "course of study," a text book and other instructional materials used in a subject area, a set of favored instructional methods / approaches, objectives of a program in conjunction with qualifiers like "academic" or "college-bound," or all of those things at once.
In education literature I have seen the term "outcome based" used in a way that connotes something quite different from what is meant by the term as used in the "Outcome Based Education" model used in the Minneapolis Public Schools. OBE in the MPS is not an approach to designing a course of study that hopefully moves your student from point A to Z in some fashion. OBE in the MPS involves a basic restructuring of the curriculum for non college bound students, in which the objectives, assessments and outcomes are radically different from those for students in a college bound program. It is designed to prepare students for their future roles in society with a minimum of friction after leaving school. For example, being able to write a research paper at some point before graduating from high school is a desired outcome only for the upper tier of students. Desired outcomes for the lowest tier include "consistently and accurately following instructions" and being able to read just well enough (or almost well enough) to fill out a job application, a 1040 EZ tax form, and to pass a written drivers license exam.
The Minneapolis school district uses a fairly coherent curriculum (in the sense of a road map / course of study) in English, Math and other subject areas for its "gifted and talented" students, but not the rest of the student population.
For the "Gifted and talented" the curriculum is more individualized, learning activities more student centered, the teacher is more focused on the job of individualized assessment, planning and evaluation. The public school gifted and talented teacher functions more like Montessori teacher than those who are teaching the bulk of the general student population.
I have written quite a bit about the problem with the "look-say" method of reading instruction. Certainly, teachers in the early elementary grades need to have some expertise in the area of reading instruction, a good, coherent curriculum (in the sense of a road map) for teaching phonics / phonetics / orthografia -- and grammar, and learning activities other than drill and kill, and filling out worksheets. And the reading curriculum should be integrated into and reinforced by the curriculum in other subject areas.
In Minneapolis, the public schools assign K-3 students to separate classrooms for reading instruction, then begin to ability group students into classrooms by ability in different subject areas by the 4th grade. The more "gifted" students learn the higher level skills in reading and are best equipped to stay on top of what is being taught in other subject areas in "mixed ability" K-3 classrooms, where students are divided into activity groups according to ability. After the early elementary grades, student who had been in the high track reading classes fill up the high track classes in other subject areas.
In the early elementary grades, students bring home worksheets with randomized arithmetic problem called "the mad math minute."Worksheets of this type may have some utility as an assessment tool, but they are not appropriate as homework or as in-school assignments. To the extent worksheets are used, the arithmetic / math problem should be set up so that it is easier and more fun for the student. For example, I set out arithmetic problems, when addition was being taught, that followed a pattern like 1+1, 2+1, 3+1, then 5+6, 6+6, 7+6, etc. And I would throw in sets of problems that could befigured out by counting by 2s or 3s.
Counting, adding, and multiplication go together, and it is better to acquire mastery of those type of arithmetic operations before moving on to subtraction and division, then ratios, then basic algebra. And arithmetic and math go together with logic systems that have a lot of academic and practical applications.
Despite appearances, the time spent by a student in a Montessori classroom is not unstructured. It's just that the kids have a certain amount of control over what they are doing. They have some options. Group activities include projects based on a certain theme or objective where skills / concepts from various academic disciplines are applied. (The "thematic integrative curriculum" utilized in Arts for Academic Achievement.)
[Nancy Sayed]...Common sense tells you that if you want children to achieve something, it doesn't happen by osmosis or by random effort...Your own experiences with the different sorts of classrooms bear that out.
But believe me, it takes MUCH more preparation to have a student-centered curriculum and instruction program, than to have a teacher-centered one. In the latter, if the students don't learn, well--let's just let the chips fall where they may. We've done our best. In a student-centered one, such as Montessori, there has been a great deal of research done into just exactly what should be expected of children at certain age levels (although later tests suggest that given the proper environment, children are capable of achieving much beyond, say, Piagetian expectations). Then, well--to countermand what I just said--with a great deal of preparation and planning, with proper materials and activities--children DO learn, almost by osmosis. But only because the environment has been carefully structured. I don't think I'd be accused of overstating my case, if I said that it takes at least ten times more work to prepare for such a classroom. But it pays off in the long run with greater results--kind of like if a person takes the time to properly prepare the ground for a garden, the harvest will be better than if one just threw the seeds on some rocky ground.
[Nancy Sayed, quoting from Deciding What to Teach and Test: Developing, Aligning and Auditing the Curriculumby Fenwick English (next four paragraphs)]:
This is a conversation about the responsiveness of schools and school sytems to testing legislation that is designed to improve schools by "testing excellence" in them. It's a well-worn tactic employed by Horace Mann, the "Father of Public Education." In Mann's classic battle with the Boston schoolmasters, he devised a test in secret, had copies printed, and then would take his horse and buggy to a local school, order the teachers to bring all students to the auditorium, and administer the test. After this scenario he would drive away and later release the test scores with a blast at the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the schools. He used this method to centralize state educational power. We are using the same method to propose decentralization and privatization today. In this scenario, tests are not diagnostic tools. They have become weapons in a test of wills. Schools whose pupil population do not do well are assessed to be "poor", when the fact is that many are simply organizations serving the poor.
Most practicing educators know that many tests have little to do with any local-, state-, or national curricula. Any cursory "eye-ball" analysis of such scores in the local media after the tests results are released will inevitable show that the highest scores come from the richest areas of the state or city, and the lowest from the poorest areas. The injustices meted out to poor, minority students in the name of tests is a national scandal. The are placed in double jeopardy, first because they are poor, and second because color is related to proverty. What can educators do when tests are used as weapons to punish someone for being poor, black and hispanic? The answer is to make sure students are prepared to take the tests. To do this well means to engage in alignment and to confront the cult of secrecy that surrounds many testing programs.
If a test is going to serve as a measure of accountability, there can be no secrecy. To be held accountable within the concept of fairness and due process, a person must know what is expected, to have an opportunity to learn what is expected, and be provided an opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he or she can actually do the task. Keeping tests secretive violated due process...Curiously, in private conversations, most of the representatives of the testing companies who sell the tests on the road agree with me..."
...Deciding What to Teach and Test opened this conversation in 1992 (note that Fenwick English's first curriculum audit, however, was done in about 1979, and that he's written more than a dozen books on the subject--he by no means started in 1992). It's still going on. I keep working in this vineyard only because of my outrage at the false cloak of impartiality that shields the testing business from the scrutiny it deserves. Tests do not treat all children with equality, let alone equity. The fact that the important predictors of test performance are grounded in socioeconomic class, race and gender reveal the deep and biased fault-lines which permeate the industry....
(from pp. ix-xi)
[Nancy Sayed] Much as I am sick of the "curriculum/instruction/assessment" issue, it has been determined over and over again that the primary indicator that determines student success in norm-referenced tests, is the student's socioeconomic status. IF a child is lucky enough to be in a program where they prepare for his or her success, where they have teacher continuity and stability, where they have high expectations and good instructions/learning programs, then of course, as you say, they will improve the test scores, but only if they're based on a soundly aligned program where what is planned, taught and tested is aligned. I agree with you that we can move toward agreement on that issue. But only because the instructors care enough to prepare for the student's success.
There's an old saw in teaching. Perhaps you've heard it:
There was once a classroom. The kids were so bad in this classroom that they ran every teacher out. Finally one day, Ms. XYZ applied for the job. She took a look at the student files, and marched into the classroom, announcing, "You guys are way too smart for these raggedy old books--let's throw them out the window!" So she did.
At the end of the school year, when the students scored very high on the achievement tests, the principal gasped and said, "My gosh, what did you do to raise the scores so high?!?"
She said, "Well, I just looked at their IQ's."
He was puzzled and asked, "Where did you see those?"
She took him into the office and showed him the files. "Here," she pointed out triumphantly.
He looked where she was pointing, and started to laugh. She asked him indignantly what he was laughing about, and he replied, "Those aren't their IQ scores. Those are their locker numbers!"
There is also something known as the "halo" effect around new textbooks, instructional delivery systems, etc. Studies have found that they work, not because they're better, but because teachers believe in them so strongly (hyped up, no doubt, by salesmen and saleswomen with all their little "goodies" and promises) that they communicate this enthusiasm to the students...

Posts to the Minneapolis issues list    Doug Mann for School Board in 2008