Helping students think and learn, not just pass a test

October 10th, 2017

The Commercial Appeal | Vincent Hunter

Seismic change in the Memphis community, technological advancement and global competition have far outpaced what American secondary education provides for students, despite the ongoing efforts of educators, business partners and communities to improve our schools.

Course level expectations, competencies and objectives set by educators at all levels of academia are not closing the gap, especially the gap encountered by economically disadvantaged children and children of color.

The focus on end-of-course exams -- TNReady, TCAP assessments, NAEP assessments, Advanced Placement exams, SAT examinations and ACT examinations -- as true measures of academic excellence are slowly but surely limiting our young people's chances of experiencing any semblance of life success and post-secondary education.

In my opinion, our present educational framework does students a tremendous injustice and disservice by not delivering the quality schooling we are capable of providing. 

Our desire and confidence to take educational risks are quickly diminishing with the retirements and departures of trailblazing teachers and administrators from the educational profession, and the influx of educators and enthusiasts who are not grounded in a particular community's social, economic and educational culture.

Exams and assessments play a role in education, but a score on a test will not be the primary determining factor when a student is competing for a job with someone from China, Egypt, Denmark, India or Japan.

What is important is that students enter the global economy with the ability to apply and effectively execute what they learned in school to the whirlwind of life scenarios and challenges they could not fathom before high school. That is the mark of creativity and a quality education denoting academic excellence.

I have served as principal of Whitehaven High School, one of 36 high schools in Shelby County Schools, since March 2004. During the past three years, Whitehaven High has experienced much success.

Because of that success, we often are asked how a school with our demographics (more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged):

  • Earns over $350 million in academic scholarships in the past five years.
  • Earns a 5 TVAAS score (the highest) in numeracy.
  • Maintains a graduation rate above 80 percent for the past five years.
  • Maintains an attendance rate above 90 percent for the past five years.
  • Maintains a positive trajectory in Algebra I and Algebra II for the past three years.

The answers? Competition and Peer Power.

Peer Power is a nonprofit that recruits and trains older, higher-performing students to tutor and mentor their peers. The program supports creativity in the school while enhancing academic competition.

We are convinced that Peer Power's intervention has helped  Whitehaven High School achieve the second-highest graduation rate (91.7%) among traditional Shelby County high schools, and level 5 status by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Our present way of educating children of our community has been in place for more than 100 years, but we are expected to produce new millennium results. 

This will not happen if we do not embrace alternative ways of creating a sense of urgency for education and supporting students and teachers.

Dr. Vincent J. Hunter is principal of Whitehaven High School.

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Malcom V. Rawls

Peer Power is a phenomenal program that is about bettering the lives of hundreds of students, one day at a time.  The name itself exemplifies how powerful this program is.  Through intensive commitment and dedication, complimented with wise leadership, Peer Power is able to effectively transform the lives of students through education and mentorship.  With the help of Peer Power, these students are able to recognize the unlimited possibilities afforded to them within the community and the world.  Peer Power creates a perpetuating cycle of leadership development that molds the young minds of our future, builds their academic and social skills, and converts them into productive global citizens.  The creed of Peer Power says it all: "mastering reading, writing, and speaking skills lays the foundation for making the future of these young people TEN TIMES BETTER."