Saturday, March 30, 2013

Miguel's Window

As the tagline at the top of this blog suggests, I am a bastard.  Well, now it has become more official than ever.  For the second year in a row, I have been given a rating of "unsatisfactory" by an administrator, and asked not to return next year.  Try as I did to do everything right, to do everything they wanted me to, in the end I could not do the job.  As I have argued on this blog for years, the job was incredibly difficult, and only the most amazing teachers had any hope of pulling it off.  I must now admit that, at least in this particular type of classroom, I am not an amazing teacher.  That might sound like I'm making excuses for myself by hiding behind inflated expectations.  But the expectations didn't feel inflated.  They felt crushing, demoralizing and impossible - the kind I'd agonize over as I drove home each day, as I played with my daughters, as I sat at the dinner table, as I tried to unwind in the final hours of the evening, as I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, haunted in my dreams.

For three years I have taught what can only be described as juvenile delinquents.  First, for two years at the continuation high school, where stories of substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, and mental illness were the norm.  Then for the past year at a regular education high school, teaching the students whose grades were so poor that they were placed into lower-level science courses.  These students weren't nearly as bad, with about 40% of them failing all their classes, another 40% in serious risk of failing, and a final 20% managing to quietly do their work and behave themselves.

Both administrators' main concern was my inability to adequately engage my students.  At the continuation school, this was a joke.  Teachers were evaluated on their ability to deliver direct instruction to a class of quiet, engaged, obedient learners - despite the reality of who the students really were and what they were capable of.  (What they really needed was out of the question).  I did my best to pretend to give the principal what he wanted, but ended up spending too much time talking to the students about their problems and trying to simply provide a safe, positive environment away from the chaos of their young lives outside school.

Expectations could be higher at the regular high school.  These students were much higher functioning.  There was a broader range of abilities.  While many of the students could do little more than highly scaffolded, fill-in-the blanks worksheets, their emotional and behavioral problems getting in the way of higher-order participation and self-directed learning, many others were genuinely interested in the subject at hand.  My job was to meet the needs of both these types of learners.  On the one hand, I had to deliver quality, meaningful, engaging instruction while at the same time making the curriculum accessible to the majority of students for whom simple, repetitive tasks were all that was within reach of their emotional and hence cognitive zone of proximal development.  It was a forgone conclusion among all the other teachers that, in regard to this specific student population, "they love worksheets". 

The sad truth of this is that it reflects the institutional, structural bind the students and teachers are in.  Of course the students don't "love" worksheets.  But given the practical limitations of the classroom environment, this is how they can at least be successful, even while hating school and feeling trapped in its Kafkaesque, social Darwinist chains; unable to have developed the proper emotional and cognitive capacities for success, they are forced to bow their heads and plow ahead with little understanding of where they are headed, from lash to lash, all the while being reminded of the seemingly futile existence they and their peers share.  For them, disobedience is an ongoing political act, the only dignified response they have to a system in which they feel unable to participate effectively.  The bargain on offer is that if they simply stay within the lines of respectable behavior, they will earn their freedom.  Because they are so poorly developed, and so fraught with emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems which the institution cannot hope to begin to address, school becomes not a place of inspiration but control. 

So the dynamic is set: an authoritarian teacher keeps them in line while delivering unto them simplistic, rote behavioral tasks designed primarily to keep them quiet and obedient until graduation.  The company line is that the students are choosing their lot in life.  The poorly performing students have no one to blame but themselves.  The teachers are expected to hold them to this, delivering consequences as needed.  As a practical matter, this is what the students need to hear: they have choices, there are consequences for their actions, and they need to become aware of them. 

But from a larger, sociological standpoint, the system is failing them miserably: socio-economics is responsible for their underdevelopment, public institutions have not been designed to properly intervene, and the simplistic model of authoritarian teacher keeping them in line while delivering a curriculum that can only be designed to fit into a narrow range of cognitive and behavioral limitations facilitates a model of education that ignores the development of the totality of a student in favor of scoring a few points on academic memorization and self-control for some, while killing inspiration and ignoring real student needs of most.   One might call this "Miguel's Window": the explicit design of educational programs to make the most of a poorly-developed, poorly-resourced student population through the use of authoritarian, control-oriented instruction. 

At the beginning of the year, when I had not yet realized the reality of the developmental lack in my student population, I had attempted to engage them with more student-centered, higher-order thinking curriculum.  It immediately became obvious that the students wouldn't be able to handle such instruction: they were frequently off-task, using the independence as an excuse to not do their work.  For them, schoolwork was something to avoid as much as possible in favor of socializing with their friends, destroying class materials, pranking each other and generally avoiding any and all academic pursuits.  Rigor was impossible.  Studying was out of the question, as homework assignments would simply be ignored.  Keeping expectations high was resulting in failure rates of 80-90%.  (At the semester, I was told at an evaluation that a 40% failure rate in my classes was unacceptable, primarily because they didn't have the staff for that many summer school classes.  But, I was told, I needed to maintain high standards).  Phone calls home with this population are nearly useless.  So far this year, I've made at least a hundred calls, mostly unreturned messages, wrong numbers, or conversations with exasperated parents who tell me they don't know what to do with their child anymore.

On this blog I've mentioned the notion of "Rambo Escalante", the illusive master teacher who is able to overcome his student's disadvantages and inspire them to greatness.  Administrators regularly argue that the teacher is indeed the number one factor in a child's education, despite the fact that either the evidence proves them wrong, or that in thousands of schools across the country, where socio-economics is by far the biggest determinant of student success, most teachers are not doing their job.

So, maybe I could have been that teacher.  Maybe my lessons could have been so exciting and engaging that behavior wouldn't be an issue and my students would all be successful.  Or maybe I could have been at the very least the teacher who keeps his students so frightened and buckled-under that all do their work and are engaged in every single lesson.  (In one critical comment on my final evaluation, one student was observed drawing a picture of a boat instead of writing down my notes, and I didn't catch it.  Shame on me.)

I accept full responsibility for not having the best classroom management.  My students frequently took out their phones, had side conversations, through things, drew on their desks, cursed, or didn't take their notes.  I did my best to correct them.  I picked my battles.  I wrote "incident reports", I wrote referrals, I made calls home.  I tried to catch them all, but there were so many, and I would get tired.  I would get angry and yell at them when they wouldn't listen.  I would sometimes smack my hand on the table to communicate my frustrated irritation and seriousness.  The worksheets are so depressing.  The constant reminders to behave were depressing.  The resentment my students felt towards me, towards the school, towards their friends, towards life - it was all so hard to take day in and day out.  It was so hard to know that I was merely acting as a conduit through which socio-economic inequality was being perpetuated through benign neglect and practical moral compromise.  The worst students had the worst lives, were the poorest, the darkest, while the best students had the best lives, were the least poor, were the whitest.

This will have been my seventh year in education.  What began as naive optimism eventually decayed into disappointment, anxiety, confusion, fear, anger and depression.  I loved my kindergarten students - who couldn't.  With them, at least, I felt I was doing good.  But even that job became impossible when I was asked to teach a combination class of kindergarten students who didn't know what letters were and first graders who were ready to take of reading and writing.  At one point I was designing 16 rotating "centers" a day - reading in the morning and math in the afternoon, so that I could juggle 4 different direct instruction lessons and maintain some semblance of classroom order.  (Imagine teaching a group of 7 students on the carpet to write paragraphs while overseeing the rotation of thirteen five-year olds through four different academic subjects via independent learning stations, then switching grades.)  After that, the years deteriorated into the charade of teaching the process of protein transcription to emotionally disturbed high-schoolers.

So, the news I got this week was somewhat of a relief.  I mostly agreed with the administrator who told me that my classroom management wasn't good enough.  I could not be the teacher he wanted me to be.  But the truth is, I do not want to be that teacher.  I hope he is able to find someone who is willing and able to do it.  But me?  I'm done playing that game.  I refuse to sacrifice any more of my time and emotional well-being - on which I have a dependent family - in the service of a system that is actively harming students by pretending to offer them what they need.  It may need to tell itself it is because there is no alternative.  But unfortunately, the process of telling the story binds it to a model that does not work, and keeps it from exploring or championing alternatives.

At this point, I don't feel qualified to say what those alternatives might look like.  If we had the funding, a good start might be to take the disadvantaged, under-developed kids and give them more of a special-education model, segregating them into small intervention groups in which their needs can be met on an individual basis, without the absurd expectation that they will all prosper in mainstream classrooms.  But I'm still to close to the system to see around it right now.  I need to back away and get some perspective.

I don't know what my future will look like.  It may or may not involve education.  If it does, it will be with very young children, where I can still effect change within the system.  I'd like to work with poor families, providing real support and effective intervention.  I might explore special education,where there might at least be more realistic models for supporting a students needs.  But wherever I end up, I need to be me.  I'm not a stiff, strict man who tucks his shirt in tightly and issues rigid orders, and I'm not a man who takes orders I feel are impractical, misguided or would otherwise have me ply my skills to ineffective ends. 

I went into education because I believed I could make a difference, that I could find a place in a system that seemed so central to our democratic values of giving every child a reasonably equal shot at life.  I've come to see the futility of this vision, that my commitment, creativity and capacity to empathize with children was simply no match for the vast number of forces arrayed against them from birth, and the severe limitation of public schooling to effect real change in their lives.  In the end, the best I was expected to offer them was soul-crushing, mindless routines designed for control, inspired by fear and domination.  The only light being let in was through "Miguel's Window", and it was a cold, cruel light.  For me to continue to shine, I'll have to look elsewhere. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Complexities of Poverty

Chicago just announced it was closing 50 public schools.  Of course, these were the "lowest performing" schools.  Of course, these were the poorest and blackest.  Citing budgetary constraints as the primary issue, nevertheless it was an opportunity for the neo-liberal, reform-minded officials to apply their particular brand of educational ideology.  Closing schools has been a key pillar of the reform movement, which views teacher/school quality as the root of the problem.  Better schools and teachers, so it goes, will close the achievement gap and provide equality for all.  A more radical progressive argument says the problem of poverty and disadvantage is far larger and more pernicious than can be handled simply better teaching and curriculum.  However , the neo-liberal reformer apologizes for the ravages of an economic system which inflicts intense social destruction on families, and deligitimizes their disadvantages by assuming them to be so minimal as to be solved merely by better teaching.

One of the tropes regularly offered in support of this illusion is an example of how one family in poverty outperforms another when simply offered the same chance at success.  This argument is ancient among conservatives, the classic Horatio Alger story of someone pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps as proof that if they can do it, anyone can, thus disproving structural inequality as an oppressive force.  Similarly, education reformers point to the success of certain charter schools, saying essentially, "if they can do it, why can't other schools?" 

Yet the problem with these arguments is that they rely on faulty comparisons, ignoring the complexity of large data sets in favor of narrow, cherry-picked results.  Both examples take a view of poverty, which no one can argue doesn't correlate with disadvantage, that misses the specific qualities of poverty that actually cause disadvantage to begin with.  By excluding these causal relationships, they are able to emphasize cases in which the causal relationship doesn't exist, and people are able thus to free themselves from its shackles.  For instance, a Horatio Alger who while poor, has not been molested since the age of 11 is a very different young man than the Horatio Alger who has not.  Or grew up without a father.  Or grew up with a mother who didn't know how nurture him.  Or was bullied because he was gay, etc.

In the reformist film Waiting for Superman, a portrait was painted of a community of poor parents whose children's success was determined merely by whether or not they won a lottery to get into a neighborhood charter - ostensibly a "good" school.  Yet the reality of good vs. bad schools is that they are overwhelmingly determined by SES.  That is, the families themselves.  This seems contradictory.  These are all highly motivated parents, who want the best for their children, so what gives?   The simplistic answer is that they are being held back by "bad" public schools.  There is some truth to this.  But the bigger picture is more complex.

In any given classroom that draws from a heterogeneous population of poor students, you are going to have a range of family stories.  Statistics bear this out, but I can personally attest to witnessing this in my own classrooms.  The higher performing students are well behaved, come from relatively stable homes, and are motivated to learn.  These are the students whose parents show up on parent night, and are generally involved in their children's education.  The middle-ground students are less stable, often experiencing a variety of stresses in their lives that impact their academic engagement.  Their parents are harder to get a hold of, and generally less available.  The lowest performing students have a variety of behavioral issues, and their home-lives tend to be the most unstable.  Their parents might have substance abuse problems, issues with the law, and are frequently very difficult to get a hold of.  These students take up most of the teacher's time, and generally place a heavy burden on the rest of the class.  Some of these students will of course be successful despite their backgrounds, but it is a daily struggle.  Just the other day, I overheard one of my students tell a friend that, when she told her mom about another student who was causing problems with her, that she should "beat that bitch's ass".  "But Mom, I said, "as the student went on to describe the conversation, "I can't get in trouble again for fighting because of my probation!  I don't care, she said - that bitch deserves it!"

In the film Waiting for Superman, you can guess which parents are clamoring to get into the exclusive charter schools.

Too often, we see such a simplistic model of how SES relates to a student's human capital, or their total abilities to be successful. SES is a powerful general predictor, but it is just that - general. Too often it is assumed to represent more than it should. As it is mostly used in education, it refers only to parent income. But that is only one measure of what is a much more complex picture of SES.

A proper measure of SES would include not only family income but things like parent education, whether the family is intact, are there health issues both physical and psychological, neighborhood safety, substance abuse, etc. The number of factors is almost endless, and there are limits to what can reasonably be measured when designing policy. But that doesn't mean that confining ourselves to a simplistic model frees us from being limited by our data. Just the opposite, it means our data is superficial, and any conclusions we derive from it will be limited.

So, by looking only at parent income, two families could look similarly disadvantaged on paper, while in reality having wildly different levels of disadvantage.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Better Childhoods

In a latest newsletter, education commenter Robert Bligh sorts out some stunning numbers:

An American Childhood Without Preschool
Time from conception to kindergarten = 50,000 hours
Time from conception to age 18 = 164,000 hours
Time from birth to kindergarten = 44,000 hours
Time from birth to age 18 = 158,000 hours
Class time from kindergarten to graduation = 14,000 hours
Portion of childhood spent in school = 8.9 percent
Portion of childhood spent someplace else = 91.1 percent

He then makes a useful point: "What kids need is not better schools, but better childhoods."

This is a damning social indictment, which in its truth paints the dillema in stark terms: the problem isn't in the classroom, but in families themselves, thus limiting the power of larger society to intervene.  What kind of policy would create better families?  How much of the effects are going to be indirect, such as availability of quality employment, reduction in crime or substance abuse, or child and health care?

To begin with we must ask ourselves what it actually means to have a poor childhood in the first place.  Reflecting on my own classroom teaching science courses designed for lower-performing high school students, I am surrounded by evidence of poor childhoods.  It is a fact that socio-economics correlates with academic performance, and this is no less true for my students.

While my knowledge of my students' home lives is limited, it is almost a truism to say that those who are struggling in school are doing so because of trouble at home.  The number one problem most struggling students have is one of motivation, in keeping up their faith in the prospect of education being a rewarding experience.  For those most at-risk, the ones with consistently poor academic performance, those struggling to pass their classes, the problem is not the difficulty of the courses, but rather simply their willingness to maintain focused on completing their work and paying attention in class.  If a student is able to concentrate in class, and has the determination to succeed, the teacher is able to demand more of them knowing that they will be successful.

I teach lower-level science courses.  Most of my students have demonstrated a history of receiving low grades in prior years, and so they have been counseled to take less demanding coursework, so that they stand a chance of passing their courses and eventually being able to graduate.  I see first-hand the origins of their academic failure, as they struggle to meet even the lower bar I set in my classroom.  Don't get me wrong, I would love to raise it.  The problem is that I would only be setting them up to fail; just this last semester, I gave failing grades to 40% of my students.  After bending over backwards for many of them - accepting late work, designing modified curriculum, awarding them points for simple tasks, not assigning them homework or other projects requiring them to work independently - nearly half still could not manage to complete the minimum standards for a passing grade.

So, what is the problem here?  They were being held accountable by me when I would not give them passing credit.  Yet this was not enough.  They clearly lacked enough intrinsic motivation within themselves to demonstrate the most basic acceptable behavior.

Essential to the conservative worldview is the notion of personal responsibility and free choice.  A conservative colleague of mine, one very familiar with the type of students I teach, once commented to me that it isn't hard to be successful - just do your work!  The implication is that these students are making a conscious choice to fail, and thus it is their own fault.  When and if they graduate, and go on to work for poverty wages because of a lack of personal investment and commitment, they have no one but themselves to blame.

The problem with this is, as they say, turtles all the way down.  That is, the assumption is that these low-wage workers have made their own choices.  But the choices they made began in high school.  And yet, when looked at demographically, as a group these students have one thing in common - disadvantage.  College graduates, as a class making much more money than high school graduates, in turn make more than high school dropouts, tend to come from families with higher incomes, more education, less mental health issues, life problems, etc.  If there really was such a thing as free choice going on, something by definition accessible to every conscious individual, you would expect there to be no correlation between family background and personal choice.  Children of high school dropouts would be as likely to "choose" to do well in school as those of college graduates.  Instead, we see very strong correlative relationships between family background and academic success.  Furthermore, what in high school are described as free choices - not paying attention in class, not completing assignments, etc. - also highly correlate with poor performance in middle school, in turn correlating with poor performance in elementary, in turn correlating with low levels of academic preparedness in kindergarten.

So what appears to be free choice is actually rooted in something larger, something deeper in the student's history.  And as we descend backwards in time, it becomes more and more difficult to describe the child's decision-making process as "free".  That is, a 17 year old senior who doesn't finish his homework seems like a choice that is as free as any an individual might make.  Yet a first-grader's choice to play with his pencil instead of finish his paragraph is intuitively understood to be a product of cognitive or emotional limitations, especially ones that demand a rigorous external disciplinary structure.  As a child grows, the choices he makes, clearly rooted in the developmental environment in which he has been raised, slowly transform, as his consciousness and self-awareness become more apparent, into choices that seem less rooted in his developmental environment.  But with enough information about his history, one can empirically trace a line of causality between this environment and his teenage, even his adult, behavior.  What's more, without even knowing the specific individual, one can predict his teenage and adult behavior merely by knowing the socioeconomic circumstances of his childhood with a frightening degree of reliability.

Proponents of early childhood education point all of this out, arguing that the earlier disadvantaged children are given the skills to succeed in school, the more likely they are to overcome the challenges of poverty.  This is a laudable policy position.  But it remains to be seen just how effective it can ultimately be, as long as larger social trends are at play.

There is only so much a school environment can offer a child, at least the kinds of environments currently on offer in mainstream educational pedagogic policy.  The problem in education is seen as one of an academic skills deficit, and so policy is designed to better deliver to students these skills.  The research is clear that disadvantaged children come to kindergarten years behind advantaged peers in vocabulary and numeracy.  The thinking is that by catching these kids up quickly, the achievement gap will be erased.  This is true enough as far as it goes.  However, something more troubling lurks underneath.  Child development is about more than mastery of academic skills.  More important are the deeper, more difficult to quantify areas of a child's growth. 

A troubling memory haunts me, one indicative of a larger problem in education.  As a graduate student in the Portland State college of education, I once proposed to a professor that there were other things being taught in the classroom aside from the academic standards that were surely important to the children's development.  Obviously disturbed by my question, she shot back that if I were to be teaching things in the classroom that were not in the state academic standards, then I should think about a different career.  On the spot, I tried to quickly think of an example of something important to a child's development that fell outside the rigid lines of the standards.  I can't remember what I said, but it was true that I wasn't capable of addressing the question.  It was largely an intuition I had that there was more to school, more to learning than mastering academics.  However, the professor wasn't just uninterested in my inquiry, she was actively offended by it.

My question never did get answered at university.  In the years that followed, I taught classroom after classroom of disadvantaged students, at all grade levels, first as a substitute in Reading, Pennsylvania, then in the communities that surrounded Palm Springs, CA - a resort community with an insatiable appetite for low-wage, immigrant service workers, then as a kindergarten teacher in Indio, CA, then as a high school science teacher at a continuation school, and now at a regular high school in the poverty-ridden high desert.  Again and again, I've seen our education system failing in its best attempts to deliver to disadvantaged students skills equal to those of advantaged students.  I've seen bad teaching, but mostly I've seen smart, dedicated, passionate teachers doing their best to deliver high-quality instruction in what often seem like impossible circumstances.

Teachers of disadvantaged students are expected to teach their students the same academic content as advantaged peers, and are then measured by their students' performance on tests of this academic content.  Allowances are made for the fact that disadvantaged students struggle more academically, and so will generally have lower test scores.  However, progress is expected, under the assumption that eventually, through good teaching, disadvantaged students will one day all perform at the level of advantaged peers, the achievement-gap thus closed.  The underlying, implied premise here, is that despite any disadvantages students might face, quality educational instruction is capable of erasing the effects of poverty and disadvantage from American society.  A liberal notion, countering the unwieldy conservative premise that the disadvantaged only have themselves to blame, it seeks to correct the injustice of structural disadvantage through technocratic, government intervention. 

However, as socialist as this sounds in principle - that society is coming together to guarantee a basic level of education to all students -  the reality is anything but.  The actual delivery of government intervention through public education makes little account for levels of disadvantage among actual school children.  From Baltimore to Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles, disadvantaged students are provided roughly the same service as their advantaged peers: one teacher per 30 children, in one classroom, with a set of curriculum, a stack of textbooks and a desk for each kid.  Title I funding, apportioned by need, allows disadvantaged students a free or reduced breakfast and lunch, with a few funds left over for maybe an extra counselor and a few teacher's aids. 

This, as a remedy to the inequities of socioeconomic disadvantage.  When people speak of "throwing money at the problem", as they claim we have done, this is what they are talking about.  Instead, what we need, many will argue - indeed at this point majorities across the political spectrum, from the leaders of the Republican party to the Democratic president and his secretary of education, as a group advocates of what is called "education reform", is better teaching, higher standards, and innovative charters.  The real problem standing in the way of closing the achievement gap, as they tell it, comes down to low-quality teachers and the unions that protect them. 

There is no doubt that a great teacher can have dramatic effects in the classroom, providing a much more enriching experience than a bad teacher.  And there is no doubt that union contracts can have the effect of making it difficult to remove these teachers from the classroom.  However, the issue is much more complex.  To begin with, a "bad" teacher in a classroom of disadvantaged kids might be perfectly adequate in a classroom of advantaged kids; I can attest from personal experience that the two jobs are entirely different.  Advantaged kids are generally academically prepared, have less stress in their lives due to more stable homes, cleaner, safer and more optimistic neighborhoods, causing them to have more intrinsic motivation and fewer behavioral problems.  The difference between a student who is unmotivated, unhappy, hates school, doesn't do his homework and is more interested in showing his friends how tough and cool he is, and a student who is happy, motivated, excited about learning and unconcerned with rebellious peer pressure, is unfathomably wide.  This is the difference between a soldier running training exercises and a soldier under fire on the battlefield.  "Good" teachers at disadvantaged schools have to be amazing just to be good.  There is a reason the least experienced teachers tend to teach at these schools: few want to.  The job is harder - more stressful, more demanding, and generally emotionally exhausting.  In the labor market of education, experience is leverage, and it is generally used to purchase a more enjoyable and, well, manageable work day. 

Our current education model is not addressing this disparity in the profession.  The simple reason is that it doesn't have the money.  It isn't even worthwhile imagining what it might mean to truly make teaching a classroom of disadvantaged students a job with demands roughly equivalent of teaching a classroom of advantaged students if there isn't the money to do it.  But this gets to the more complicated answer: what would it actually take to make such changes?  Proponents of education reform, with a current majority of political support, focus only on the quality of the teacher, with nary a word to say about anything else that might improve a student's academic success.   Some seem genuinely offended by the notion that we look at anything but the performance of the teacher, much less discount that the problem even lies with teacher effectiveness at all.  Many go so far as to suggest that doing so is merely making excuses, and not, as Michelle Rhee stiffly asserts, "putting students first".  I can't help but be reminded of my college professor's bullying suggestion that I think about leaving the profession entirely.

But one might as easily turn the question around, and ask if in ignoring the larger issues, and focusing solely on a problem - the teacher - that may be of only marginal import - is to be making excuses, or to not be putting students first.  Is it, for instance, putting students first to pack 30 students from Chicago's south side into a classroom with one teacher, when, as a demographic group, the students are likely to be suffering from any number of social ills that are actively impeding the teachers ability to teach them, and their ability to learn?  Is it putting students first to give a free or reduced breakfast and lunch, maybe access to a counselor or part-time teachers aide but otherwise expect students from broken homes, with incarcerated parents, violent neighborhoods, uneducated parents who work long hours for low pay at stressful, unrewarding jobs, to succeed in school with a teacher who can't possibly address the larger issues that impact their lives and their ability to learn?

Robert Bligh proposes that what children need are better childhoods.  Can the state provide that?  I'm not so sure - we've never tried.  Our economic system is dependent on millions of low-wage workers.  Our system of property forces them into segregated neighborhoods.  Anything that might effect your ability to leverage yourself in the labor force will push you further down the economic rung, further into one of these neighborhoods.  Families whose heads-of-household suffer from health problems, mental illness, substance abuse, lack of education or lack of loving, supportive childhoods will be forced to live together in communities of disadvantage.  A lack of social capital will come to define their relationships, segregating them further not just by geography but by cultural and social networks.   A recent NPR story described a study which directly linked certain disadvantaged children's temperaments with behavioral problems, depending on how much nurturing they received at home. 
If the baby had.... an insecure attachment to his or her mother, the child's later behavior was often deeply troubled. These were by far the worst of all of the kids.
These children will go to schools together, and bring their disadvantages with them, only to be presented with an education system woefully inadequate to meeting their needs, to offering them the support they need to succeed.

Given the severity of the disadvantage poor students face, our educational system as currently designed is no where near capable of delivering on a promise of delivering unto them the depth of skills they need, finally closing the achievement gap.  In our continued emphasis on cold academic standards, we miss the larger story of what it means to grow up healthy and happy.  If disadvantaged students came to school with low levels of stress, feeling pleasant, loved, and optimistic about their future, would they need an "amazing" teacher?  I don't think so.

For so long we've been asking the wrong questions.  Just like a military, when faced with an existential threat, only sees combat as the best option, so too has our approach to the achievement gap been "militarized".  We have a public education system that graduates children ready to take on the world, and when they aren't ready, we think the solution is to fix the education system.  But just as diplomacy seeks to solve problems peacefully, by forging an alternative path to war, what we need to close the achievement gap is to look for answers outside our traditional education system. 

This isn't to say that education isn't a crucial aspect of a child's development, but rather to point out the seemingly obvious fact that there is a lot more to raising successful children than academic curriculum delivered in a traditional classroom setting.  Children need to feel loved.  They need to feel safe.  They need to feel special and important.  If we are relying on a teacher in a classroom of students to be the vehicle through which a deficit in these things is compensated for, we are destined for failure. 

Maybe the solution to the education problem isn't really education at all.