Friday, March 18, 2011

Structural Problems

60 Minutes aired a segment last Sunday night about a charter school in New York that pays its teachers $120k a year in hopes of attracting "great" teachers, so as to end the achievement gap.  Apparently it isn't quite working yet.  They say they do this all without private financing - which makes me think they are at least hiring a great accountant.

But here's the thing.  The premise is the same old one we hear from ed reformers: bad schools just need better teachers, bad schools just need to do a better job
Deb Meier writes about the real problems driving the achievement gap. She says the schools can't do a good job because of larger structural problems. She  references the notion of "soft bigotry of low expectations", that pointing to these social problems are simply an excuse for "bad teaching".

"It has been reported that 56 percent of black Chicagoans (over the age of 16) are not employed, 21 percent are officially unemployed, and a third live in poverty. These figures are double and triple those for whites. .... More and more members of the lower-middle-class white community are moving in this direction, too. In fact, it's even affecting—less dramatically—the solid middle class (like my own children and grandchildren). Isn't it time to look beyond schools to blame our plight?

But it's considered "soft racism" to mention these factors as relevant to the test-score gap, the graduation-rate gaps, etc. We are expected to believe that young people growing up in such intensely poor communities will not be damaged by it unless we have "low school expectations"—plus lazy, overpaid, unionized teachers!"

As an educator, I've always found this infuriating. A) it denies that there are real problems out that that get in the way of student learning, and B) in doing so it devalues these real claims and thus doesn't treat them.

So when a kid is absent too much because his mom can't afford to fix the car and get him to school, we blame the teacher, when in reality we need a more robust transit or school bus system. If a kid's homework is not getting done because his parents work two jobs, we blame the teacher instead of paying for after-school tutoring. Or if there is a lack of education in the home, resulting in cognitive and knowledge delays, instead of expecting teachers with 29 other similarly disadvantaged students to get them to the same place as advantaged kids, we ought to be investing in getting those kids the interventions they need, preferably 1-2 years before kindergarten even starts.

All teachers are asking for is more targeted support for interventions. Poor kids tend to have greater need for differentiation and remediation. Why isn't this factored into classroom expectations? Why aren't there more resource specialists or small-group aids.

Can we please get past the facile dichotomy of bad teachers vs. disadvantaged kids? Let's acknowledge that different populations have different needs and that services should be tailored accordingly.

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