Disentangling the education and poverty debates

In a previous post I noted how for a long time I avoided writing at all about the topic of K-12 education. But now, even with the best intentions of taking a break from even thinking about teaching, I find that schools are very much the thing on my mind summer.

I’m delighted to hear of Sacramento Mayor-elect Steinberg’s desire to focus on paid internships for high school students as a means toward college and career readiness, and plan to cover this topic in a future post. I’ve also run across a Chicago-based non-profit I want to investigate, in part because the non-profit, OneGoal, seems to have an approach that connects on at least one level with the Talent Transfer Initiative I covered already. The connection? Both programs involve excellent teachers getting paid more money.

For now though, I want to focus in on the concluding chapter of journalist and author Paul Tough’s bestselling book, How Children Succeed. This is due to the fact that Tough names a truth I have long felt but never quite had the words to say; namely, we need to quit allowing the broad discussion we ought to be having over poverty in America to be subsumed into a narrow, often mean-spirited “education reform” debate about teacher quality. Here is how Tough puts it:

“It’s true that the current system has tended for many years to assign the least capable teachers to the students who are most in need of excellent teaching. That’s a serious problem. But somehow we’ve allowed reform of teacher tenure to become the central policy tool in our national effort to improve the lives of poor children. And even those original papers, the ones by Hanushek and others that are now cited by reform advocates, concluded that variations in teacher quality probably accounted for less than 10 percent of the gaps between high- and low-performing students.” (Tough, page 191).

I love this quotation from Paul Tough, and the larger essay that concludes his book, for the balanced perspective it provides. Yes, it’s absolutely true that the system does assign the most capable and experienced teachers to the most advantaged students, and the least capable and experienced to the least advantaged. There’s tons of data on this, for instance in this study by Goldhaber, Lavery, and Theobald which found that in Washington State classrooms across the K-12 spectrum, “every measure of teacher quality – experience, licensure exam score, and value-added estimates of effectiveness – is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage – free/reduced lunch status, underrepresented minority, and low prior academic performance.”

I’d go further than Tough to say that on this narrow issue, if nothing else, it’s us teachers as individuals, our unions, and even the culture of teaching as a profession, that takes the lion’s share of the blame. It is fully within our collective professional power to foster rather than fight the creation of a system that assigns the strongest teachers to the neediest kids in the neediest districts.

But – and here’s the huge but – we also need to stop assigning primary blame for the problems of poor kids to teachers. And if you haven’t noticed, dear reader, teachers get blamed and shamed and generally ground into the dirt all the time, which in itself becomes a disincentive to attracting people to learn a difficult profession.

For those of us who actually pay attention to the news, the drumbeat of negativity and blame really is constant. Just this past week for instance in announcing the City’s bid for a federal grant to Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, Mayor and former Oak Park resident Kevin Johnson was quoted in the Sacramento Bee as stating, “If you get a bad education when you’re young, in those early childhood days, if affects the rest of your life.” As a teacher reading this, it sure sound like Johnson is echoing his wife Michelle Rhee in blaming teachers for the problems of poor kids. Even more, there is the irony that Johnson himself is the founder of substantial public charter school network based in Oak Park that by now is a large enough institution to take its own share of the blame for whatever poor educational results exist in the neighborhood.

Why are the strongest, most experienced teachers not working in the schools with the neediest kids? The Goldhaber, Lavery, and Theobald study mentioned above suggests that “traditional theories of labor economics” may be a factor. In other words we may as a society already be getting the best people we can to work in extremely tough job for relatively little pay. If we want better-quality teachers matched to the neediest students, something must give either in terms of the pay structure, the working conditions, or both. In the absence of this, as Goldhaber, Lavery, and Theobald put it, “high-quality experienced teachers will flee high-needs placements.”

But even assuming we can fix the labor market incentive structures for teachers, which might just be eminently doable if not for the politics of blame surrounding the issue, it’s important to get real in terms of thinking about the effect this will have on poor kids. Teachers can do a lot, but it’s going to take great deal more than us to turn around the effects of poverty and racism. Paul Tough, for one, suggests we might want to start with pediatric wellness centers and early childhood parenting interventions. Or, in a trenchant, provocative essay in the most recent edition of The Atlantic, contributing editor David Freeman argues for providing government incentives to “resist automation,” guarding against job loss in low skill industries like transportation and restaurants, and for radically expanding career technical education programs at the high school level.

There are many good ideas for addressing poverty. Getting the best teachers in front of the neediest students is one such idea, but first, as Tough so clearly points out, we may need to begin by rescuing the debate about poverty from the long locked jaws of the debate over education reform. In fact, it may be the  case that it’s only by disentangling the poverty debate from education debate that education reformers will be able to actually reduce the emotional stakes of the discussion enough to bring us teachers on board as real partners.