Friday, February 19, 2016

Poverty, Teachers, and Public Image

The New Yorker recently published a piece calling for the end of humiliating teachers. I found it emotionally hard to read, perhaps because seeing the teacher struggle laid out there in black and white made it too real. The article summarizes the fall of the profession under the standardized testing movement, what tying school success to test scores has done to the teaching culture, and the need to make teaching a viable career path to support a middle class family. It also identifies the real culprit to our schools' struggles not as the teachers themselves, but poverty.

After teaching for four years in a "no excuse" school, where we are not allowed to mention poverty as a reason a student may be performing below grade level, I find myself shying away from any mention of poverty as a reason for poor performance. I do believe that as teachers we need to hold all students to the same measures of accountability, and that we cannot use poverty or disability as an excuse. We need to do whatever we can to get every student in front of us up to grade level. We cannot control what is going on outside our school's walls. We cannot guarantee our students have health care coverage, enough food, and proper supervision, but we can fight as hard as possible to ensure they are being given the absolute best education they can get when they are with us.

But the article brings the use of poverty into another light. It states,
"the dismaying truth is that we don’t know how to educate poor inner-city and rural kids in this country. In particular, we don’t know how to educate African-American boys, who, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, graduate high school at rates no better than fifty-nine per cent." 

Yes, it says we need to address health care and universal preschool, but it also brings about a stark reality- we don't know how to educate poor inner-city and rural kids. What we are doing is not working. At my own school we see this reflected in the behavior data. Our students may be succeeding according to academic numbers, but the data that looks at students' engagement in school and whether or not they've been disciplined points out that something is not working in how we are teaching our minority boys. So what are we missing? What is it that is not working?

Is the public right to blame us? Is it the school's role to look inward and change our approach? Or is it society's role to change early intervention programs, health care, and address poverty itself? Can the schools even begin to change their approach when their hands are tied trying to meet test scores benchmarks? I could argue both sides- the importance of schools making the changes themselves as well as the importance of changing the testing culture so that we free schools up to be creative and open with the students they serve.

Whatever the answer, let's paste the article on every surface imaginable and begin to turn the tide on how the public views teaching. Let's stop humiliating teachers so that we attract quality teachers to the field. Let's get the best and brightest minds to start examining the question of how to make changes so we can better educate all students.

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