Which of the following two statements would get a standing ovation at a TFA event?
1. “Poverty is not destiny. Social challenges in the community are not destiny. We can take you to school after school in some of the toughest neighborhoods in urban areas around the country where, again, every single student is graduating from high school and the overwhelming majority is going to college. We, as adults, have to lift our game. If we don’t do it, we perpetuate poverty and social failure. It’s incumbent upon us to give our students the opportunities they need to fulfill their god-given potential.” — Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education
2. “I think the things that are being done now by Sec. Duncan, by the Gates Foundation, by the Broad Foundation, by all of these very wealthy and powerful people, are taking us on the wrong track because they’re focused solely on ‘how do we find the bad teachers’? I don’t think America is overrun by bad teachers. I think America is overrun by too much poverty, too much poverty among children. If we’re going to talk about what works, we’re not going to talk about which teacher do you find and punish because their kids didn’t get high scores. We should be talking about is how do we make sure that our children have adequate healthcare, and that we have pre-K education, birth to 5-year-old education, because there’s a gap when kids start school, there’s a gap at age 3 where poor kids begin and they’re already behind because they don’t have access to healthcare or vocabulary.” — Diane Ravitch, Historian of Education.
If I were a new corps member, I’d agree with Duncan’s statement on CNN and would see Diane Ravitch’s comments on The Daily Show as a cop out.
In my opinion, though, the way the school system is right now, poverty is destiny. That’s not to say that poor children are not smart or not capable or that all of them are destined to be poorly educated. It’s just that things are not that different than they were ten years ago and the 28 year olds who were poor 18 year olds ten years ago are, on average, not doing very well.
I can think this, and might be accused of being defeatist, or worse, even racist since the statement ‘poverty is not destiny’ is a clever one that you have to be very careful when you argue against it.
Duncan puts all the responsibility on teachers who are supposed to overcome all the effects of poverty by ‘lifting our game.’ Unfortunately, as Ravitch says, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Poverty is a factor that won’t go away just because we choose to ignore it. Kids who are homeless or hungry or who miss fifty school days a year because they are ill. These are real problems that are tough for teachers to overcome. Threatening to fire teachers or close down their schools is not going to be the factor that motivates teachers to become miracle workers.
Duncan says that he can show all kinds of schools with high graduation rate and college acceptance rates as proof. However, when you really research some of these miracle schools you often find that there are games they play with the numbers. Kids they kicked out to get their scores up and other tricks. The truth is that there are not many (if any) of these mythical schools where poverty has been overcome by teachers working harder.
This is not to say that teachers should give up trying, and I don’t think that teachers have given up. We do the best we can, trying to make the biggest difference we can. I taught in Houston for four years and I think — not counting my first year — I did a very good job. It’s hard to measure exactly what impact I had, individually. My students did very well, they passed their standardized test and my class also, in general. I hope this gave them confidence and made them like math more. I don’t know if I changed many ‘life trajectories’ by getting kids to go to college who wouldn’t have in a parallel world where I had not taught them. Still, I think I enriched their lives. I tried to ‘make a difference’ in each of my student’s lives, and I hope I did. (I taught in Houston from 1991 to 1995 and many of my former students, who are now in their late thirties, have befriended me on facebook so I must have accomplished something with them.)
But I was not able to overcome all the effects of poverty. I think it is unfair to expect teachers to perform miracles, which is why I’m not happy with the current education reform agenda. Now to blame poverty definitely can be viewed as ‘passing the buck’ to the government. Teachers can’t fix poverty so they should focus on the things they do control and do as much good as they can with what they can control. And I think, in general, they do.
I think the theory is that by making teachers more ‘accountable’ they will work their butts off since they have a massive amount of power to overcome the effects of poverty but are just too lazy to do it.
Now fixing poverty, that’s a tough one, so assuming that poverty is not going to get fixed, what should we do as teachers, principals, all the way up to the Secretary of Education? Well, first we have to honest about what is working and what is not. Early childhood education, as Ravitch suggests, is something good which I think many politicians support. But putting up a fake miracle school as proof that teachers have powers that we don’t actually have and then basing a national education reform agenda on it which includes shutting down failing schools and replacing them with charters, firing veteran teachers who are finally making a decent living wage, and narrowing the curriculum so schools can teach to the test are only moving us backwards.
Right now, poverty (on average) is destiny and the ed reforms seem like they are going to make things worse.