Sunday, January 16, 2011

Two Sides of the Fence

 I recently came across the blog of Conor Williams, a PhD candidate at Georgetown, author at the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress, and a columnist for the Washinton Post.  Interestingly, he taught first grade for two years at a Title I school in Brooklyn as a Teach for America member.

After reading some of his posts on education, I realized I had found in Conor an interesting adversary.  He essentially takes the standard Education Reform position: that bad teaching is to blame for the achievement gap, that poverty is being used as an "excuse" for schools' continued poor performance, and that by eliminating teacher tenure and removing, or side-stepping, union resistance we will be able to close the gap.

I responded to a post of his in which he agonized over whether to send his own child to a DC school, knowing that so many of them are performing so poorly.  He wrote:
“So while my wife and I are proud District residents, we’ve hesitated over buying property in the city. When we have kids, and when those kids are ready for their first day of kindergarten, we need to be confident that the local public schools will give them their best chance to get “the knowledge to go to college.” We’re hoping for proof that the District’s schools are on a stable upward path.”
 I began by pointing to the fact that SES effects child development, and different students have different needs that aren't being addressed by current reform models.  I then took on his specific comments:
Your statement illustrates this seeming disconnect. You mention hesitating over sending your kids to a DC school, worrying whether it would prepare your child for success, that it would be on an upward trajectory. But aren’t you really talking about the student population? Aren’t you more worried about your child (the sire of upwardly mobile, college educated parents) being dragged down by the under-prepared, ignorant lower-class children? Isn’t this exactly what we are talking about when we are talking about school “choice” – the idea that no one should have to send their kids to one of these schools?

Well, aren’t we forgetting something really important about poverty and class in the United States? Property has value and neighborhoods become segregated by means and income. Families with human and social capital pay for property among their own, while families with little capital pay for property among their own. It’s the dirty little secret that educated, privileged white guys like us like to pretend isn’t entirely responsible for why we are where we are.
I then went on to discuss a Super Vidoqo perennial favorite site:, and how perfectly it illustrates the real problem facing our schools.

Conor responded by acknowledging that our theoretical differences were indeed great.  He then offered his own insight based on his experience teaching at a high poverty charter school:
My school shared a building with other neighborhood schools. Our student population was identical, but our teacher population was not. In my charter school, school culture was built around high expectations for teachers and their at-will contracts. We taught 11 months of the year, and had students in school for 9 hours a day. Classes pushed, and sometimes exceeded the 30 student mark.

Meanwhile, down the hall, policies were approximately the exact opposite: smaller classes, shorter days, shorter school year, teacher tenure, etc. There was no appreciable difference in funding between the schools. Our school, in Crown Heights, became one of the highest-scoring 3rd/4th grade schools in NYC, while the other schools in our building stagnated. The first year I taught, my students made an average of nearly 2.5 years of reading growth. Though only 1/3 of my students came to first grade on grade level, 100% left on or above it. The second year, all of my students were at or above grade level, but we made an average of 1.8 years of reading growth.
My response is as follows: 

I didn’t go into alternative prescriptions as I wanted to make the point that kids from different backgrounds need different levels of support. I think it is awesome that you were able to see such remarkable results with your students. And there are a few questions I would ask.

But first, you wrote:
“There are plenty who believe that poverty is the best factor to address for improving our schools, and there are plenty of others who believe that teachers and schools are the best factor to address for improving our schools. ”
This isn’t how I’d frame my position. Did you have a chance to look at the mapping website I linked to? Schools with high APIs are by far the ones located in affluent neighborhoods, where high levels of social capital, and thus human capital exist. I’ll assume you aren’t denying that there is a huge “environmental gap” in where students are coming from.

Your side is saying that this gap can be erased by more effective teaching methods (better teachers), not more support, or smaller classes. (You did mention that your school had longer hours, which I am in complete support of, although asking teachers to do this without extra pay seems unreasonable. If the union demanded extra pay for these hours would they be “standing in the way of reform”?).

My side is saying that the gap won’t be erased this way. And so far, the evidence bears this out. To date, charters aren’t really showing much better results. There are many more factors that go into successful schools than merely “high expectations” and fire-at-will policies. I spent three years teaching kindergarten at a low-income charter with no union and it was pretty horrible. The administration had a top-down approach that stifled teacher input and an oppressive climate of fear developed after numerous seemingly capricious firings. Good teachers (in my view) were fired, and often replaced by those no better. Expectations were high in all of our classes, but as we struggled to maintain enrollment, we couldn’t afford to expel students for non-compliance . (A K-12 school, many of our students had left district schools because of behavior, and acted no different with us.) So when assignments weren’t completed, or attendance was abysmal, there was no option but to push on.

The main question I had when I read your response, and this is a big criticism of charters in general, was what role selection might have played at your school. Could you afford to hold parents and students accountable by expulsion for non-compliance, and if so, would this have had an effect on your student population? Obviously, all poor families are not alike. Many, if not most would be capable of following rigid expectations for accountability. But many cannot – for any number factors associated with low-SES, such as drug abuse, violence, low-priorities for education, etc. These are the families that pull entire classrooms and schools down. These are families who produce students with severe emotional and behavioral problems, who hate school, and make learning difficult for everyone. These are the families parents are avoiding when they seek school “choice”. These are families that can’t handle “high expectations”. I taught high school science my last year at the charter (long story), and 3/4 of my students were consistently failing. They would literally just not do the work. Assigning homework was a joke. I practically did somersaults trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible, but they simply hated school. I currently teach at a continuation high school and this is my entire student population. They come in after two years of high school transcripts are seas of “F”s. Their lives are filled with drugs and violence, and school feels more like a prison than anything else – which is where many will end up.

My solution – to the extent that I have one – is built around these families. They are the ones responsible for the achievement gap, and they are heavily concentrated in poor urban areas. They are the ones who really need extra support. They need smaller class sizes, longer hours, school psychologists, and social workers. You can get rid of teacher tenure and unions, implement pay-for-performance, but these families will still not be getting their needs met. To the extent that these families are not being addressed by current reform models – it’s all the teachers/schools – they will continue to be left behind, pulling many down with them. This is what teachers in regular schools know, and what is behind the unions’ advocacy for not unfairly penalizing those of us, with a class of 30 kids and little extra support, faced with an impossible challenge day in and day out, who are doing our best in a bad situation.

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