Are Our Students Academic Hostages?

In Chapter 2 of Culturize by Jimmy Casas, it is said that unleashing true potential begins by removing the labels that hold children hostage. My first thought was “how unfortunate students have learning limits placed on them by their teachers!” I then quickly realized I was one of those teachers. How many of us have taken results of state testing and crossed out the special education students to boost our proficiency percentages? “They don’t count” I would tell myself. What I was really doing was making an excuse as to why my instruction wasn’t as effective as it could be. (And, would any of us really want to tell parents that their child doesn't count?)

When we place labels on students, we subjectively place ceilings on their learning potential because of our own beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. It is not our place to do this. John Hattie’s Visible Learning research discovered “not labeling students” has an effect size of 0.61. This equates to 1.5 years' growth in 1 year’s time. This is huge! It is our responsibility as educators to quit giving our students academic death sentences. Students should be responsible for establishing their own identity and potential – and not forced to live up (or down) to the levels they have been assigned. 

Several years ago there was an elementary student in a building I served as principal who was multiple years behind in his reading ability. Regrettably, I joined in with other educators who would make comments like “he’s destined for the family farm and just passing time going through school.” I am ashamed to admit I contributed to creating this child’s perceived destiny based on my own perspectives. This is not our job as educators. Our responsibility is to provide hope. We must simultaneously increase expectations and provide the opportunities our students need to grow and be successful. We were all shocked when, after one summer, we learned the mother of this student worked diligently to help him with his reading. The result? He returned to school in the fall on grade level! This taught me that it’s not my place to say the possible is impossible. My job is to continue educating students and providing hope through whatever obstacles that may appear. 

I’ll conclude with a paragraph from Culturize:

I know from conversations with some students, they still believed school was an “institution” which put limits on their potential. They shared stories of being told for years they couldn’t do this or they couldn’t do that. They believed the system categorized them throughout their school experience and labeled them as average, low-ability reader, at-risk, potential dropout, special needs, etc. At the same time, they watched the same “institution” label others as honor students, talented and gifted, college bound, and as possessing AP potential. Some students have shared stories of unfulfilled promises by adults and a system which assured them of success only to find out they meant success for those who were willing to play the game of school and who were compliant. Some of these students attended school in body but were absent in mind and in spirit. In other words, they had checked out and were just hanging around the prison yard of lost potential waiting to escape.

Remember, unleashing true potential begins by removing the labels which hold our students hostage. We must help them escape their hopeless prison yards. Unleashing our own potential and maximizing our impact as educators may also mean removing labels we’ve been assigned by ourselves or others. We must step out of our comfort zone and know that success does not occur by accident. The first steps? Quit putting labels on students and begin working to undo the damage done by the labels our students have been conditioned to believe about themselves.

Note: The comment about the family farm was not intended to be insensitive or unappreciative. Farmers are critical, valuable members of our society.  The point was educators determining a child’s destiny.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.