Oct 15 2011

Reason #15 to be wary of #TeachForAmerica

I wrote about this topic a few months ago, but on Twitter I recently saw this:

This got a lot of ‘amens’ and retweets, of course.

What I’m about to say needs to be prefaced VERY carefully so as to not … Oh, the heck with it, Poverty IS Destiny.

Wait. Wait. Don’t go away. Let me explain why I think that.

Well, first I’d like to clarify what they could be implying by the phrase “Poverty Is Not Destiny.” If it means that it is POSSIBLE for a student born and raised in poverty to overcome the odds and graduate high school, graduate college, and go on to have a very successful life then YES, I agree with that.

But when they say “Poverty Is Not Destiny” they are not saying that it is just possible and that a small percent of outliers will accomplish that. They are saying that with enough hard work by adults, schools can help a large percent of kids rise out of their poverty. This hard work, presumably, takes the form of the ‘best and the brightest’ including 12% of the graduating class of Yale or something. And by giving these poor students very bright teachers with almost no training, this is supposed to help those needy kids rise out of poverty. Many people who apply to TFA probably believe this. Certainly I did twenty years ago when I applied. (Back then the equivalent catch phrase was ‘All Children Can Learn’).

But in my twenty years of experience, I have yet to be convinced that schools and teachers have the power to lift a very high percentage of kids suffering from the many distractions that come along with living well below the poverty line. The supposed schools that are defying the odds, I’ve learned, are always doing something beyond just getting hard working teachers with a relentless attitude. They kick out the disruptive kids. They focus exclusively on getting math scores up at the expense of reading scores. They lie about all the extra money they are spending that they got from private donations and then claim they deserve more federal money since they have ‘proved’ they can do ‘more’ with ‘less’ so what could they do if they had ‘more.’

So now the question is: Can someone who believes ‘Poverty Is Destiny’ be a good teacher? Can someone with this belief be a good principal?

TFA would argue ‘no,’ but I, of course, would say ‘yes.’

Believing that ‘Poverty Is Destiny’ does not mean that teachers and principals give up. It might even make them work harder.

Imagine, to use an analogy, two track team coaches. Coach A is very optimistic and believes that although his runners currently run 10 minute miles, they can, eventually, run 4 minute miles. Coach B is well-versed in physiology and has a similar team that runs 10 minute miles. He believes that even with hard work his runners will not, on average, run faster than 7 minute miles.

Who is the better coach? I’d argue it is coach B since he is the smarter one. Now coach A has to get his times down to 7 minutes on the way to his ultimate goal of 4 minutes. Coach B is also trying to get his times down to 7 minutes. Who will get to the 7 minute mark first? Probably coach B. His realism is derived from research which will also guide him to the best ways of getting kids to lower times from 10 to 7 minutes.

Another analogy: If someone had lung cancer, would he want to go to the doctor who says “Cancer Is Not Destiny” or the one who says “94% of people who get this kind of Cancer die within 8 months.” If it were me, I’d want the smart doctor.

So I think if you want to applaud the phrase ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ because it says the most obvious thing — that there is no ‘genetic’ obstacle that makes poor kids incapable of succeeding, then go ahead.

But if you are applauding because you believe that TFA has ‘proved’ that with enough grit schools and teachers can overcome all the distractions of poverty, then you are just naive. That naivete might be the thing that causes you to be a failure in the classroom, ironically.

Research has shown that even though there is nothing about the ‘nature’ of poor kids that prevents them from learning, there are issues with the ‘nurture.’  The first one is that many poor pregnant women have poor pre-natal health care.  This often causes babies to be born prematurely which causes a high number of learning disabilities (often undiagnosed).  Again, this is not to say it is anything genetic, but it’s just a medical fact. And even for poor kids who do not have any learning disabilities, when a kid is preoccupied wondering if he will eat dinner that night, well, he’s going to have trouble concentrating on his homework.

The ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ (or ‘Demography Is Not Destiny’ if you like alliteration, or ‘Your Zip Code Doesn’t Have To Determine Your Income Tax Bracket’ or something like that, or, the worst, ‘Poverty Is Not An Excuse’) crowd implies that these issues are not very relevant since they are out of the teacher’s control.  They say that people like me don’t have a sense of urgency, that we deny that there is an education problem.  I’d say that they are worse since they deny the importance of the poverty problem.

The most recent statistics are that 22% of children are living in poverty and 39% of black children. At TFA they like to say “I don’t think we have to wait to fix poverty before we can fix education” but the question is whether or not it is truly possible to ‘fix’ education without addressing the bigger issue and the root cause of the education problem. Think of all the money this country spends on standardized testing. Perhaps some of that can be diverted to work on the huge poverty problem which if improved would help with a lot of other problems in this country too.

This post is not meant to scare people away from becoming teachers because it is a waste of time to try to teach ‘those kids.’  No, this is a post meant to make potential teachers smarter and more aware of the entire landscape.  The more informed you are about all the relevant issues (and I hope I’ve convinced you a little that poverty is relevant) the more of an effective teacher you will be.

19 Responses

  1. Mavor

    Now you’ve done it. Speaking the truth. You are going to be called all sorts of names and accused being racist. You have spent four years of teaching kids in poverty. You can possible know more than Wendy Kopp who spent no time in the classroom or Michelle Rhee who spent two years in the classroom. How dare you! In Calif. they want to close the school libraries. I am sure wealthy private schools are keeping their libraries open. But poor kids can overcome poverty. So they take more resources from poor kids. Rich kids would have a problem so they get to keep their libraries. I am becoming so cynical….

  2. Mavor

    I meant twenty years.

  3. Gary, this is your best post in a while, because you advocate for a change from the status quo! You suggest maybe we take money that we spend on standardized testing and try and work on fighting poverty instead. Although, given our track record at “the war on poverty” I’m not very hopeful. In any event, your points are right on. While it’s good to be positive, if it’s masking an underlying reality, it’s actually harmful.

  4. Cal

    As I always point out when someone claims the problem is poverty, scores of non-poor black kids are lower than the scores of white kids who qualify for free lunch. Nonpoor Hispanics and poor whites get roughly the same score. This is consistently true. It’s why the College Board and the ACT stopped sorting scores by race AND income. You can see it in all state test scores; California just makes it easy. http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2011/

    Go to this link and do the searches.

    The issue isn’t poverty, but nor is it nurture. The issue is cognitive ability and uneven distribution throughout race and SES. This does NOT mean that all poor children/black children/Hispanic children are low ability, nor that all white and Asian kids are high ability. This should be obvious, but many people don’t understand this.

    However, the result of this reasoning comes back to Gary’s basic point: TFA and eduformers in general assume that all kids can learn or Poverty is No Excuse, that all test scores should see the same distribution, and that any deviation from this distribution is therefore the fault of bad teaching.

    • No, actually, it doesn’t mean that the issue is cognitive ability.

      I means that there is an ongoing conflation of black poverty and white poverty. It means that we are living in a systemically racist society. It means that we assume white norms and ways of learning and doing in our assessments.

      It’s not that people don’t understand your point. It’s that your point has been debunked, and conclusively. I strongly recommend you read, at the very least, “The Bell Curve Wars”.

    • No, actually, it doesn’t mean that the issue is cognitive ability.

      I means that there is an ongoing conflation of black poverty and white poverty – and for that matter, of black and white wealth (different from household income, and very telling) . It means that we are living in a systemically racist society. It means that we assume white norms and ways of learning and doing in our assessments.

      It’s not that people don’t understand your point. It’s that your point has been debunked, and conclusively. I strongly recommend you read, at the very least, “The Bell Curve Wars”.

      • Cal

        My point hasn’t been debunked at all. Outside the education and identity group clusters, it’s accepted as reality.

        That doesn’t mean we can’t improve outcomes, but it does mean we should stop assuming that everyone is equal.

        More importantly–and pay attention to this part. Move your lips while you read, if it helps–I am not saying that any particular race is “stupid”, of low cognitive ability, or anything else. You are, in fact, exactly who I was talking about when I said “many people don’t understand”.

        ” It means that we are living in a systemically racist society. It means that we assume white norms and ways of learning and doing in our assessments.”

        Yeah, good luck with that argument. More importantly, if you make that argument, you implicitly agree that it’s not poverty. Eduformers won’t be happy with you.

        • Cal

          “but it does mean we should stop assuming that everyone is equal”

          Arrrgghh. Equal in abilities and academic outcomes, of course. Which should be obvious, but for any guy who yammers on about the systemic racism of america, I’m sure you’ll see it as evidence that I wear a white sheet and lynch people.

          • aea107

            Wow, everything you’ve said so far in this thread has me throw up a little in my mouth. I second the suggestion of The Bell Curve Wars and I ALSO suggest you check your privilege just because you sound so reprehensible. You ARE racist; what you just said is racist; every argument you’ve made so far reeks of racism and I can’t believe no one other than the brave soul ahead of me has called you on it. I also can’t believe I can log onto a TFA affiliated website and read this racist bull shit. Although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since TFA doesn’t have the best track record, in my mind, of dealing with these sorts of disputes.

            You kind of seem like a troll to me, but I’m pretty sure you’re not actually which is just so much worse. You know… your assumption that the low achievement of non-white, impoverished American students is linked to “unequal distribution of desirable traits across SES and race” or what-the-f-ever is just a justification that white Americans have used for decades to make themselves feel better about the fact that America always has and probably always will continue to disenfranchise people of color, particularly in the education sector. There is NOTHING to support your argument except for white propaganda like The Bell Curve, which has been so widely and extremely debunked it’s actually laughable that you would come onto this website and post something like that.

        • Despite the volatility of the issue, insults are absolutely inappropriate – and frankly, pretty telling about the strength of your argument. As are loaded buzzwords like “identity groups”.

          While I don’t think that the rightness of one’s view should be conflated with the number of that view’s proponents, since I share mine with the vast majority of educators, social scientists, economists, political scientists, pyschologists and statisticians, I feel pretty confident there, too. I suppose we could all be members of the “education and identity group clusters”, but I doubt it.

          It’s pretty clear that you don’t know the research around black and white wealth, or indeed even about what a bell curve is. So it’s probably pointless to add that believing the opportunity gap in American education is the product of both class AND race is probably pointless. However, the concept of “intersectionality” is neither new nor radical.

          In education circles, I think bad science and the racism it attempts to mask is far more of a problem than the Ku Klux Klan. It is no less ugly, however.

          • For the record, the deformer contingent tend to hate anti-racist allies like me, because we have this troublesome habit of questioning them about implicit whiteness in their models of education and pedagogy.

  5. Alex

    I invite you to look at the NativityMiguel school model and I invite you to visit the Nativity School I run in Worcester, MA. We have 74 of our 76 graduates still enrolled in school when only 65% of their city peers graduate high school in 4 years. We are not TFA nor do we pretend to be. I think we do a great job of training and preparing young teachers.

  6. Cal

    From Wikipedia about your school:

    “The extended school day almost doubled that of the local public school, a low student-to-teacher ratio ensured time for one-on-one instruction, and a summer academic program extended learning year round.”

    If this is what you do, how on earth do you not see this as deep selection bias of exactly the sort that Gary is talking about when he says “The supposed schools that are defying the odds, I’ve learned, are always doing something beyond just getting hard working teachers with a relentless attitude.”

    But even if you are truly selecting everyone that comes along, even if the selection bias of the faith-based education isn’t leaving out a bunch of kids, how on earth does your solution scale? And if it doesn’t scale, why would you invite him to visit? Your success at preparing a tiny, select group of kids with teachers given support and resources not allowed at the state level has no application to the larger problem of public schools.

  7. Alex

    We do what we do because of the committed faculty and staff that we have a the school, many of whom belong to our fellowship program that prepares young, recent college graduates to work n urban schools. 90% of our fellows stay n education and 3 of 4 from that group in urban education. They get the preparation they need in order to have success in our school and beyond. Being faith-based does not enter into our admissions at all. We are a Jesuit/Catholic school where over 80% of ur students are non-Catholic. That does not limit access to our program. We have created a model that can and has been replicated by other public and private schools. Nativity model schools have been n existence for 40 years and the model works.

  8. Cal

    I never considered you were using faith in your admissions. It’s the fact that you use faith in your education that a) is impossible for public schools and b) means there’s a huge selection bias in your student population.

    Again from Wikipedia:

    “The Mission of the NativityMiguel Network is to empower middle schools to provide a unique, faith-based education that breaks the cycle of poverty in underserved communities across America. The NativityMiguel model includes an extended day averaging 9.6 hours and an extended year of up to 11 months. The average total enrollment at a member school is 71 students with an average class size of 19 students”

    None of these attributes suggest a viable model for anything other than your unique circumstances.

    It’s great that you succeed. It’s just not relevant to fixing the problems in public education.

  9. Alex

    While I agree that the faith-based education unfortunately cannot translate to the public schools, there are many things that can – 1. Creating smaller learning environments, 2. Investing in more teachers in order to make the experience more personal, 3. Extending the school day with activities students can excel in and learn from other than the traditional disciplines, and 4. Extending the school year not to jam more material down their throats but to include opportunities like service-learning initiatives and community service. It’s all doable, it’s just a matter of allocating the c

  10. Alex

    Correct amount of resources. We also a co-teaching system so that students are in classrooms with 2 teachers for all major subject areas.

  11. Gary, thank you for this important post. As a TFA alum who is still teaching 8 years later, I have a lot of the same thoughts that I shared on my own blog recently: http://etvegan.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/does-poverty-matter-can-all-students-achieve-how-about-yes-to-both/

  12. If poverty isn’t destiny, why don’t we see Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, the Coors Family, the Walton Family, the DeVos Family, Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and the rest of the deform machine rushing to live in poverty?

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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