EDUCATION Separate Minds, Equal Education?

More than half of Dallas’s minority students are failing miserably in public schools. At least one DISD board member says the reason lies in the different learning patterns of inner-city children.

One who thinks but occasionally on matters of learning and public education is rather like the weekend jogger: unfamiliar with the finer points of coordination, given to jerky knees, and subject to breathlessness at the end of it all. Because both thinking and jogging benefit from a preliminary warm-up, all those up for a think are invited to stretch and focus with the following five questions.

1. How do you tend to think? A. Linearly, straight from a to z; or, B. Globally, from a to f to y and perhaps finally to z. (If B, do people sometimes stroll right into the middle of your brainstorm and demand to know the point?)

2. How well and/oreasily do you expressyourself in writing? A. Aswell or even better thanthrough the spoken word;or, B. With difficulty.Speaking is easy; writingis an unnatural act.

3. When solving a problem or carrying out acomplex task, how do youprefer to work? A. Alone;or, B. With others.

4. When you thinkabout what motivates youto act responsibly towardother people, which wordcomes to mind? A. Duty;or, B. Loyalty.

5. Relative to youracademic accomplishments in high school, howdid your SAT scores stack up (assuming you cannot forget them)? A. Pretty much even with my rank in class, if not a little flattering (I was born to take standardized tests!); or, B. The SATs made my record and class rank look like misprints (I don’t test very well).

If your responses to this wholly unscientific exercise tend to the A’s, your learning style operates on the “analytical” end of the learning scale. You will be pleased to know that your position on the continuum puts you in good stead with both modern education and high-tech, linear living. If your answers come up mostly B’s, you lean to the “relational” side (more on these terms later), a tendency that makes negotiating the gates of public education and modem living more difficult.

When Dr. Ora Lee Watson, DISD school board member and administrator at North Lake Community College, says that the Dallas public school system does not address the learning needs of at least half the students in the district, she sounds an old alarm in new times. Black students have received inadequate education for decades, and a profusion of remedies seems to have failed to close the gap between white and black students. Separate is not equal. Busing does not guarantee learning. Knowing one’s West African roots may lift the spirit without raising the grade average. For all the well-intended efforts on the part of teachers, administrators, and judges, minority students in the Dallas system continue to drop out at a disproportionate rate and, irrespective of class rank, score abysmally on standardized tests such as the TABS (Texas Assessment of Basic Skills) and the SAT. Watson thinks she knows why.

Without belaboring the statistics, a quick look at the SAT scores from four area high schools will show why some educators and parents have lost faith in the system’s ability to teach their children. Lincoln, Madison, and Roosevelt high schools share two qualities: each has a proud tradition in Dallas, and each has better than a 98 percent black student population in a total enrollment of 3,563. Of the seniors from the three schools, seventy-four of them took the 1985-86 SAT, a test for which the scoring begins at 200 and goes up to 800 for both verbal and mathematical scholastic aptitudes. The mean scores for the three schools ranged from 258 to 291 for verbal and 323 to 346 for math. For the sake of contrast, from Hillcrest High School alone, 116 seniors took the test, recording mean scores of 421 and 459 for verbal and math respectively.

It appears, then, that legal and administrative interventions over the last two or three decades have had little impact on the testing performance of inner-city students-and it is by test scores that students pass courses, graduate, and enter college. What is going wrong? According to Watson and others there already exists some promising theoretical and applied work on learning, but for want of time and funding Dallas teachers do not have ready access to it.

Superintendent Linus Wright acknowledges that teachers do not get the kind of training they need to work in inner-city schools. They come to the district willing but unprepared and can expect no more than four days per year for district-sponsored training. “We need a minimum of ten to fifteen days per year for training,” says Wright, “but each day we add beyond the 185 contract days costs the city I million dollars.” Already the DISD foots the bill for the two extra days designated for parent-teacher conferences. Even if everyone agreed that minority students have their own style of learning, there is no money available to supply teachers with new skills and teaching styles more suited to these students.

If the city were to come up with a million per day for more teacher training, what knowledge would Ora Watson have DISD teachers acquire? “Above all,” she says, “teachers must understand how a particular child-rearing style affects how that child will learn.” For reasons of culture or economics, Watson says, some children begin learning in a “relational” style rather than in the analytical style compatible with public school teaching and testing. “Unless the teacher understands how to work with relational learners,” she warns, “those students will fall behind the pack-probably around the third grade-and eventually get lost.”

Watson’s designation of “relational” and “analytical” learners comes from a growing body of scholarly work on learning styles, varieties of intelligence, and culture. In particular she cites the work of Dr. Janice Hale-Benson, associate professor of early childhood education at Cleveland State University. In her book Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles, Hale-Benson brings together research done over the past twenty years in an attempt to formulate a working theory for how black children learn. By limiting her work to blacks alone and her research largely to studies conducted in low-income settings, Hale-Benson draws fire from critics who maintain that economics, not culture, is at the root of learning differences. But since 49 percent of the students in the DISD are black, Hale-Benson’s learning modes may be valuable to teachers entering inner-city schools.

What the inexperienced teacher brings to a first inner-city assignment is the expectation that children can be led to accept the “sit down, look, see” method of instruction. The traditional methods of Western education include a uniform curriculum in which “essential” subject elements are taught in a prescribed order. Such a linear curriculum suits an analytical style exactly with its stress on conformity and direction. Unfortunately, the teacher unfamiliar with the other end of the learning continuum is unlikely to teach in ways that engage the relational learner. As a result, that learner appears unreceptive and may be assigned to special classes to compensate for learning or behavioral deficiencies.

It is here that the terms relational and analytical become useful in the discussion of how children learn. Basically, the two words represent the end points of a continuum. Rules, conformity, precision, direction, and duty (among others) appear on the analytical end, with the counterbalance of freedom, creativity, approximation, indirection, and loyalty on the relational end. While high I.Q.s come in both learning styles, the value allotted to either end of the continuum depends on the demands of the larger society. In modern, high-tech America, those with strong analytical skills have a better chance at success in both school and in professional careers. Therefore, the grade-school child with home-grown relational skills needs the teacher’s help in becoming comfortable with the abstract, numbers-oriented analytical side.

The notion of a learning continuum-and the corresponding teaching styles required to help all students along the line-appears straightforward enough. But suppose we complicate the continuum by placing two one-way minors back to back at the midway point on the line of learning style. Viewed from either end of the true line, the reflected line will appear complete when in fact it represents only half the range of possibilities. Neither the teacher on the analytical side of the mirror nor the students on the other side can see anything but themselves and an illusion of reality. A “failure,” in this view, is anyone who doesn’t do things our way-and what other way exists?

Only with the knowledge that the other end of the continuum does exist can the beginning teacher choose an appropriate approach to engage a child having trouble in the classroom. At that point, whether the source of the learning style is culture or economics is largely irrelevant. Hale-Benson makes her case for a connection between a relational learning style and African-American cultural habits evolved from African retentions and the American experience. Others read the data differently and offer interpretations more in line with Superintendent Wright’s. “The issue,” he says, “is poverty, not race.”

Dr. Don Beck, director of the National Values Center in Denton, Texas, supports Wright’s view. He says that while on the surface it may appear that there is a stronger association of relational learning and black students, in fact the issue has more to do with poverty among inner-city residents. “It would be a mistake,” he says, “for a teacher to look at the proportion of black students in a class to determine how much relational learning should take place.”

Beck begins with the assumption that the brain will adapt an individual’s learning style to the necessities of the environment. Therefore, a middle-income black child in the Dallas schools will learn more like his white and Hispanic peers than like a low-income child of his own race. Beck’s system for bringing relational students into the analytical fold involves engaging them on their own terms and then supplying them with the means to cope with the demands of ’ the next economic level of expectations.

Working from yet another perspective on learning. Dr. Clyde Gillespie, director of the Maturational Assessment Clinic in the College of Education at North Texas State University, expresses surprise that anyone could get away with categorizing black students as relational learners. But he seems to agree with Hale-Benson regarding the limitations of a strictly analytical approach. “We advocate a more motor-sensory curriculum in which children are encouraged to get up, move, and manipulate. In the long run, if we recognize each child in his own right, we can do a lot.” Gillespie suggests that what is needed now in education is to identify what exists and then join forces-teachers, theorists, parents-to work with it.

Which brings the discussion back to the business of what it will take to provide teachers with the knowledge they must have in order to teach their students well. Superintendent Wright’s position is clear: “We have to restructure the system and reallocate resources. We simply cannot continue to do what we are doing and add on top of that. The cost would be prohibitive.”

Wright proposes that some money presently allocated for special and vocational education would be better spent on improving the liberal arts curriculum and teacher training. He agrees with Hale-Benson’s findings that many students identified as “slow” and in need of special education may in fact be relational learners unable to cope with the novelty of an analytically styled classroom. “These students need to be mainstreamed with teachers trained both to recognize their strengths and to convert those strengths into successful classroom performance.”

In a time of broad educational reform andlimited financial resources, how urgent is itto pursue the restructuring Wright calls for?This year the high school “exit test” isscheduled to go into effect. Relational learners-no matter how high their I.Q.s-willperform poorly unless they have been taughtthe necessary analytical skills. The schoolboard, the DISD administration, and parentsdistrict-wide may have to agree that rightnow is a good time to take the theories already available and put them to work inthe classroom.


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