A Useful Exchange of Ideas: The Lance Goes Head-to-Head with SSFP
by Eleazar Wawa, age 18
A recent Simpson Street Free Press editorial regarding student achievement and teacher expectations prompted a rebuttal from La Follette school newspaper, The Lance.
In examining the arguments presented by both sides, I thought they warranted further discussion. SSFP staff writer and La Follette student Robin Mwai recently wrote an editorial headlined “The Achievement Gap as Seen Through the Eyes of a Student.” The editorial discussed issues such as academic disparities, behavioral problems and discipline, and the presence of minority students in school hallways during class time.
Mwai’s editorial drew varied responses from readers. Some readers agree that systems at La Follette involving discipline and classroom dynamics are worth a review. Minority students don’t do as well as their white counterparts at local high schools. Others felt the editorial attacked La Follette staff and students. This reaction prompted the editorial in The Lance, written by La Follette student Andy Porter.
Porter criticizes Mwai on several key points. He says Mwai’s editorial implies only “non-white students” are affected by these issues. While Mwai’s editorial could have worded it more clearly, a careful read reveals Mwai didn’t say that the issues only affect black students. It seems Porter and Mwai actually agree on this point.
Porter also thinks Mwai’s piece “attacks” LaFollette. But again, a careful read reveals Mwai does not attack her school. Some of Mwai’s observations are negative. She paints a harsh picture. But the comments are based on personal experiences. And to be fair, Mwai called these issues “community problems.” It doesn’t seem Mwai thinks this is only a LaFollette problem. So here again Porter and Mwai actually agree – they both support their school.
I think the two editorials, placed side by side, are excellent examples of the debates we need. I applaud both writers. These are conversations we need to have. Sometimes we debate the achievement gap without realizing we often agree. Sometimes we talk past each other rather than to each other. And sometimes we forget that good debates are healthy.
For instance, Porter goes on to say that skin color does not determine success. He adds that he has never seen minority students treated differently in classrooms. I agree with Porter that race shouldn’t determine academic success. But in Madison it does. I think we all agree the evidence is clear. We can’t deny Madison’s obvious racial disparities. Recent reports are well documented.
Porter is a white student. Mwai is African-American. Both agree that skin color does not determine potential. But we all know there is a connection between race and success. It seems clear these two students have had vastly different experiences, particularly in academic settings. So on this point, Mwai’s comments seem fair.
I also appreciate Porter’s personal observations. But observations are not facts. The fact is school district numbers are clear. About 87 percent of La Follette’s white students graduate within four years. Only 57 percent of African-American students graduate on time. Porter correctly points out that our school is attempting to bridge this gap. But we’re not there yet. Numbers don’t lie.
Mwai’s editorial is written through her eyes. She thinks minority students are treated differently in some classes. Mwai states “many bright and capable minority students are being overlooked because teachers see them as simply another unmotivated student to push through the system.”
In his rebuttal Porter says that Mwai attacks teachers. He states, “It is not the fault of a teacher if a stubborn student refuses to do their work and actually try to earn their grade.”
Again, I think Mwai will admit her editorial paints a harsh picture. But it doesn’t seem to me that she blames teachers. And it doesn’t seem fair to say that Mwai doesn’t support La Follette. In fact, I don’t think Robin would have written her piece if she didn’t care about the school. Mwai shared her byline with SSFP managing editor, Deidre Green. Green is a proud La Follette grad. In fact, few organizations do more to support La Follette than Simpson Street. I think it’s fair to say Porter and Mwai both support our school.
Rather than taking it personally, teachers should take this criticism in stride. I know most teachers are completely invested in the education of their students. And I have seen a few who don’t care as much as they should. It’s true some students are not fully engaged. That doesn’t mean it’s the fault of teachers. But just like the rest of us, teachers can fall victim to assumptions.
I decided to do some investigating. I interviewed several students related to Mwai’s and Porter’s articles. I distributed a survey to my AP English class and led a discussion on the questions. Ironically, I’m one of the few minority students in the class.
Several of my peers agreed minority students are sometimes treated differently. They think this is particularly true when students behave badly in class. Some students report noticing that while both white and minority students act up, some teachers are more likely to reprimand students of color. My classmates noted that behavior is less likely to be an issue in AP or honors classes. Unfortunately, they do not see many minorities in those advanced classes.
Mwai stated that while advanced classes are necessary to improve academic skills and prepare students for college, many students don't take advantage. They settle for easier classes. I think Porter misunderstood Mwai’s comments on minority participation in advanced classes. He characterized Mwai’s statements as “stereotypes.” Although making generalizations about a person’s work ethic based on race is dangerous, it is equally dangerous to deny the existence of problems that disproportionately affect students of color. Data show that at La Follette and throughout the district there is a pronounced underrepresentation of minority students in advanced classes. On that point, Mwai is right.
One of the more light-hearted elements in the Mwai-Porter debate relates to the presence of students in the hallways during class time. According to Mwai and Green, “At any time during the school day there are at least 10 to 15 students, many of whom are minorities, wandering the halls aimlessly."
Porter responded, “Considering the fact that multiple times throughout the writing of this article I myself walked around the halls and never during that time did I see these '10 to 15' students.” Porter took a picture of La Follette’s empty G-wing, a non-central part of the school during class time, to illustrate his point. He commented sarcastically on how full it was.
All of the students I interviewed did indeed report seeing students wandering the hallways during instructional time. Not only did these “wanderers” not seem to be doing anything important, but many or most of them were minority students. Most responders reported seeing these students in the commons. Porter’s picture didn’t show the commons. So I caution Andy that simply taking a picture of an empty hallway does not prove his point.
As I read Porter’s article, it became obvious to me that one of the main reasons he wrote his piece was a desire to defend his school. Again, I applaud Porter for voicing his opinions. But defending the school might not be necessary here.
Porter stated, “It’s impossible to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. If Simpson Street Free Press would really look at our teachers here they would see that we are far better at helping out students get back on track to where they need to be.”
In this statement, Porter seems to forget that Mwai and many other SSFP students currently attend La Follette. And while they recognize the achievement gap is a problem, they also support their school. I think we can all agree that recognizing we have a problem does not infer any sort of disloyalty.
Later in his column Porter says, “At La Follette we are like any other high school, there are some kids who behave and do well, and there are others who choose not to.” I’m sure Andy knows that just because La Follette isn’t the only school with an achievement gap, doesn’t mean it’s okay to have an achievement gap. I myself am a proud La Follette Lancer. I would not change where I spent my high school career. But I do think we can do better.
Lastly, I was sad to notice how many students and teachers took a reactive approach to the Mwai and Porter articles. As I said in the beginning of this opinion, I think we should celebrate this sort of healthy debate. Both writers deserve praise. There is no question the achievement gap is a problem that involves our entire community. But that doesn’t mean we can’t address it at our school. If the whole community jumped in the lake, it doesn’t mean the Lancers would follow. If an engaged and caring student says she doesn’t believe all kids are engaged in the classroom, we should probably take a closer look. Let’s not shoot the messenger. Robin Mwai didn’t create the achievement gap. She just cares enough to write about it.
These can be contentious issues. The good news is it seems we agree on many points.