A stylized open math workbook with a pencil.

While wealthier schools give teachers leeway for creativity and local emphases, standardized tests, Common Core, and the cookie-cutter approach to curriculum are forced on poor schools and students. Credit: CreativeCommons / Bill Selak.

What happens when you close a struggling school “for the good of the students” and farm the kids off to charters? Very few researchers have talked about public schools as a source of precious jobs in desperate communities. What happens to the student whose mom used to be a “lunch lady,” a job with benefits, who now is unemployed? What happens to the children of the custodians, the school secretaries, and teachers’ aides, now unemployed? How does the parent’s loss of a good job affect the student’s education? This question came up at a Working Class Studies panel at Georgetown University recently where Jose-Luis Vilson, a teacher and education blogger, pointed out that the loss of public employment hurts the black community especially.

Students of Color, Teachers of Pallor

Vilson also pointed out a very troubling trend: the number of teachers of color is decreasing every year. Currently, only 17 percent of public school teachers are teachers of color while 54 percent of their students are of color. Will that statistic be on the standardized test? And even though there are effective teachers across race and ineffective teachers within race, many have pointed out the vital importance of a teacher who was clued into their culture and background.

Here’s another troubling fact: Teach for America, which contracts with many urban schools, is overwhelmingly white, and the schools where they teach are overwhelmingly non-white. I’m happy to say that a new initiative in Illinois called Grow Your Own Teachers is working to offer an alternative, and some districts are outright refusing contracts with Teach for America (I acknowledge there are some wonderful individual volunteers in the organization, but it’s not a substitute for longterm professional teachers).

Who You Teach Matters as Much as What You Teach

A community college instructor at the above-mentioned conference told about how her school had to change to accommodate a sudden influx of laid-off middle-aged factory workers. “We couldn’t continue teaching the way we’d always taught,” she said. And yet standardized tests, Common Core, and the cookie-cutter approach to methods and curriculum are being forced on poor schools with no regard for students’ particular needs–or strengths. At the same time, wealthier schools can give teachers leeway for creativity and local emphases.

Moreover, as the Schools Matter blog points out, “because we have more children per capita living in poverty than any developed nation on Earth, the effects of poverty take their toll on our national standings in the international test score derbies.” If we control for poverty, our schools are still doing really well.

Although some research suggests that schools alone (with teachers being the most important school factor) account for not quite 20 percent of a child’s achievement (these numbers, too, depend on many immeasurables), the myth persists that a race of teaching superheroes can leap income inequality, isolation, insecurity, lack of parental education, danger, and poverty in a single bound.

The corollary is that if we test and punish enough public school teachers out of the profession, somehow we’ll progress. Jose-Luis Vilson pointed out that the margin of error in some numerical teacher evaluations was greater than the score itself! The same teacher, therefore, was either wonderfully successful or woefully inadequate. Scores for the same teacher could also vary wildly from year to year. Do we know what we’re measuring? Maybe we really are an innumerate culture if we trust these numbers so blindly.

The imposing facade of Martin Luther King jr. high school in New York.

Few researchers have examined public schools as a source of precious jobs in desperate communities. One of the first in the country to close due to low teacher-student performance, Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Lincoln Square, New York, above, now houses six smaller high schools. Credit: CreativeCommons / Wally Gobetz.

What’s It Like to Teach at a Poorer Public School?

Let’s talk about context. Let’s discuss the odds teachers are up against. A friend of mine, a highly-qualified, Ivy League grad with an advanced degree, a credential, and experience, teaches at one of the poorer public schools in our area, the kind with no art, band, or choir, very few AP courses. The mandated evaluation process for teachers there was so opaque and bizarre that it turned her year into an alarming, stressful, confusing time. Interestingly, the school’s website boasts a delightful array of classes–2D Design, Sound Design, Filmmaking, Animation!–but it’s a mirage. They can’t get qualified teachers to teach these courses. They can’t get teachers with degrees in math to teach math. Yet they will be measured against schools that can get qualified teachers! And they will be punished.

That same school is firing new teachers like mad as they shove them through a disturbing evaluation process. How can high teacher turnover have a good effect on student performance? And consider this: how well would you do teaching a class of 34 students (30 is the max, ha ha ha) of whom six have special needs? Respected scholars such as Lisa Delpit have pointed out how important it is for teachers to know their students’ families. With 150 students, many of them English language learners, how is that feasible? Though the effects of class size are at times complex and hard to quantify, ask any teacher on earth whether class size makes a difference–in their ability to prepare, to get to know their students, and to remain in the profession: the answer will be unanimous.

Helping the Family Helps the Student

Possibly the single best thing we could do for poor students is to make sure their parents have decent jobs. We’ve tried every other experiment on them. Why not that one? Secondly, we could put continued education within the reach of poor parents. The same community college professor who talked about the influx of factory workers noted that those older students’ success positively affected the next generation’s education, a double bonus!

The final great thing we could do is to invest in our teachers, yes, even the failing ones. I remember a teacher who had so many good ideas and so many strengths, but her one downfall was classroom management, an area I’m willing to bet most teachers struggle with in the beginning. I was so sad to see her leave; with support, I feel certain she could have mastered this difficulty. But she was assessed, found wanting, and thrown away.

According to the reforming crusaders, all students are capable of learning, yet somehow at the same time, no teachers are! What a maddening double standard.

Wisconsin native Lita Kurth is a community college teacher, writer, and public-education-and-affordable-housing-activist in the South Bay where she also teaches private creative writing workshops. A member of the Working Class Studies Association, she has written a yet-to-be-published novel, The Rosa Luxemburg Exotic Dance Collective.


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