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Response to “No Seriously: No Excuses”

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.

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Reader Comments (3)

In reading this article, the point "no excuses" is loud and clear. As an educator, I continously hear colleagues and some educational leaders make subtle statements or "excuses" that infer that poverty, and all that encompasses poverty, is the excuse why are schools are failing. But I question, is it poverty or is it the fact that we neglect to deeply analyze the effectiveness of our instruction?

In my beginning years of teaching, I once heard a presenter emphasize in his speech that our students walk into our classrooms willing to learn and hopeful that their teacher will know them as individuals. Further in his speech, he stated that the responsibility of a classroom teacher is to teach each one of those students who walks into the classroom. And until now, the following words from his speech continue to resonate in my mind and remind me every day why I am an educator: "You look at each one of your students and you throw out all those identified barriers that "you think are barriers" to each of your students. Then, you take a good look at your students once again and you teach them! This is the reason why they sit in your classroom every day. This is why you (the teacher) is receiving a paycheck." At the moment, some of the audience seemed uncomfortable with those harsh statements. On the other hand, other teachers including myself, were encouraged and motivated to be better teachers.

This specific speech and my personal upbringing experiences have reinforced the concept of "no excuses." I am an absolute believer that all students deserve opportunities, I was given that opportunity. It is the responsiblity of all educators to provide an educational/instructional system that encourages and motivates students to higher learning. It is about providing student experiences that lead students to aspire for more than what their attached labels may say about them. There are "no excuses," ALL CHILDREN deserve an education that prepares them for the future!

July 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYvonne Andrade

Thank you for offering AVID as "the closest thing to a silver bullet" to help ensure the college/career readiness and success of mid-level performing students. I think, however that some refinements and improvements are needed.

First, I noticed that last year many of my students wanted to be in AVID and fit most or all of the criteria mentioned in this online training . . . yet they were denied admission into AVID . . . probably because there were not enough spaces in the intentionally capped classes that had been scheduled. While I appreciate the effort to ensure that the AVID participants succeed, I am concerned about the students who, like those who lost the lottery in the movie "Waiting for Superman," will not be allowed to participate because of limited resources. Some of these students who were denied the opportunity to participate in AVID could have taken AVID during a zero period or a class session immediately after school, . . . however the AVID essential requirement that the class be during the regular school day was cited as the excuse for not allowing students to receive AVID opportunities. We offer AVID during the regular school day, however we should be allowed to provide AVID before and after school for those students who could not be scheduled into the regular AVID class. We could even provide a family AVID class format in the evenings so that parents and older siblings might also participate and learn to achieve greater academic success for the whole family in learning English and developing careers at community colleges, etc.

Second, I think it is important to note that AVID shows summary statistics for all members of each ethnic group and then compares the performance to that of AVID students. With all due respect, this is an apples to oranges comparison. If you compared AVID student achievement to the subset of each ethnic population that 1)wants to work hard, 2)has parents who will complete and return an admission form, and 3)can achieve sufficient rapport with AVID site team members to be "noticed" . . . then I think that the differences would be much less striking. AVID involves students that "want to" . . . more needs to be done to help students reach that point where they "want to" attempt programs like AVID.

July 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Naugles, M.Ed.

"College Readiness - College Success" is so often the answer to our students achieving success in high school. Sadly this is the biased opinion of our teachers and professors in higher education.

Wouldn't a more appropriate goal for our studentns have them prepare to succeed in College, Work and Life? So many of our Trade Schools, Community Colleges, Apprenticeship and Journeyman associations are full of men and women with college degrees that have put them into thousands of dollars of debt and without a hireable profession or job to support their life or pay their debts after college.

How many of our high school graduates, go to college because "WE" the collective educators, measure their success? We are ignoring what made and makes America Great; Industry, Small Business, Skills and Trades. According to our Government Work Force Training Board, 70% of all jobs and professions in the higher income brackets and top 100 job openinigs do not require a college degree.

We, as educators, need to stop preparing our students for only college, and start preparing them for the well-rounded and successful arena of College, Work and Life.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermsurmeyer

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