By Jim Nelson, Executive Director, AVID Center
I read with great interest Paul Tough’s recent opinion piece, “No Seriously: No Excuses” in The New York Times Magazine. Tough writes that education reformers are still using poverty as an excuse for poor student performance, and that many schools, claiming improved scores for low-income students on standardized tests, are still far from acceptable. He says poverty is no excuse for poor scores on standardized tests, and I couldn’t agree more, but he should go even further.
Based on my experience as the former Commissioner of Education in Texas and as the current Executive Director of the AVID Center, the “no excuses” stance should focus on college readiness and college access instead of standardized tests. From both a national and international competition standpoint, these two criteria should always be part of the education reform discussion. As Tough states, and reader comments on the article confirm, “successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard,” and I would add, not for the faint of heart.
We all know, no single solution exists, but the 31-year-old, non-profit AVID system comes about as close to a silver bullet as you can get. While many talk about what should be done to educate poor, typically underserved students, AVID is doing it. For more than 30 years, AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, has helped thousands of students rise above the obstacles they face (especially poverty and language barriers) to achieve academic success, and it's happening in districts across the country serving more than 400,000 students in 48 states and 16 other countries and territories. AVID sets high expectations for all students, teaches academic skills and behaviors not regularly taught, and accelerates under-achieving students in rigorous courses. Results from the AVID system speak for themselves: of the 2010 AVID graduates, 99.6 percent graduated from high school, with 91 percent planning to attend college ~ 58 percent to a four-year college and 33 percent to a two-year college. Additionally, in 2010, AVID students completed four-year college entrance requirements at a rate of two and a half times greater than the national average.
What differentiates AVID from other educational reform programs is its success rate, and focus on district-wide professional development. This summer alone, AVID will train more than 20,000 educators in strategies to enhance the learning experience of students.
One of those educators, Sonya Ramirez, spoke at AVID’s Summer Institute in Dallas. Sonya is a four-year AVID teacher from Sharpstown High School, an inner city school in Houston, Texas, where more than 90 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch and “gang violence is a part of the everyday routine.” She is a perfect example of a “no excuses” AVID teacher, focused on college for her students.
Sonya spoke about her AVID senior class, “a couple of former gang members, some were in single-parent families, some students had parents in prison, others had no parents at all, and still others were parents themselves.” She told the audience about a student at the school who was shot and killed, and how the tragedy “shook the entire student population.” She said, “… my heart was breaking for these students, and there seemed to be so little I could do – I wanted to leave. But in the end, I stayed. I stayed because my students don’t get to leave. This is their world, day in and day out; they fight for their futures; they battle against their own self-doubt and society’s definition of what they can achieve… I couldn’t give up on them.”
“Without AVID,” she continued, “many of these students would have been lost to prisons or poverty, but they have overcome these circumstances. To date, most are planning to go to four-year universities, a couple to two-year colleges, and one, in addition to going to college, has a heart to join the military. Some of the schools they have been accepted to are Texas A&M, Stephen F. Austin University, University of Texas in Austin, UT- San Antonio, Sam Houston State, A&M Corpus Christi, and the letters of acceptance just keep coming. AVID has changed their lives, and they in turn, will exponentially impact the world.”
Tough says that it is not impossible to “achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.” That strategy is AVID. The AVID system has a college focus intended to give students opportunities they may not otherwise have, and means true reform for schools and districts. AVID works for all students, especially low-income students - no excuses accepted.