On educational inequality: whose fault is it?

Recently Joy Resmovits of HuffPo wrote an article implying or stating that students in high-poverty schools did worse because they were assigned inferior teachers.

I would like to turn the cause-and-effect around: teachers in high-poverty schools get lower scores on VAM or structured observations because their students were much less cooperative and receptive to the official curriculum and come to school less often and are in general much harder to teach.

Having taught in nearly every quadrant of DC, and in high-and low- poverty schools; having my own tw children go through DCPS from K-12; having a wife who teaches in a DC public school that is rapidly changing complexion; having a mother (now deceased) who was an itinerant DCPS art teacher in the 1960s; and having attended JHS here too myself, half a century ago, i know more about the DCPS system than many.

I had my weaknesses as a teacher, but I had my strengths as well. I hope my former students can forgive my weaknesses and that they learned to appreciate more and different math with me than they would have otherwise. My competitive MathCounts teams at two DC middle or junior high schools generally did well to very well; we were always competitive with places like Maret, Sidwell Friends, St Alban’s and so on. Sometimes the other schools private or public were #1 and sometimes we were #1. It depended on the year, and what our top “recruits” were like.

Which brings me to let you in on a secret that all sports teams know: the coach, while important, doesn’t control everything. The players control the game, because they are not robots. In other words, a team that is shorter, flabbier, weaker and has less motivation and slower reflexes and game skill is always going to lose to an opponent that is taller, more coordinated, more mature, fitter, and more eager to win.

This is true in any field, though you might want to change some of the descriptive words.

Otoh, schools are not mostly supposed to be about competition. They really should be about raising the level of even our weakest children, however you might define that. They need extra help, and Are often denied it. They do not need to be put into classes of 50-100 students and a single teacher straight out of college, as famously prescribed by NYC mayor Bloomberg.

Otoh, a coach has the luxury of having a much smaller pupil to adult ratio than any public school teacher, and also unlimited time and the benefit of motivated students; thus, a coach in fact has much more influence than a teacher who meets 5 classes of 30 kids for 48 minutes a day for 36 weeks…

So here’s the secret: it is MUCH harder to teach in a high-poverty setting and with remedial atudents than it is with advanced students. I’ve had both, often during the same year.

With the advanced kids, all you have to do is come up with interesting and creative ways of presenting the material and to invite them to dive in deeper: they love it!!

With more remedial kids, with poorer kids, you soon realize that there are lots and lots of reasons why these kids might be behind. For example, some kids might be from a country like El Salvador where public education is really not universal at all, poor kids barely went to school and girls almost never if they cost money to send. Other kids are getting over seeing a parent arrested, repeatedly, or sent to jail for long periods of time, or worse. You need to be a deep psychiatrist and psychologist and understand what is and isn’t appropriate developmental stages at age 3, or 4, or 5, and so on; be able to recognize signs of depression or abuse or bullying or schizophrenia or nearsightedness or deafness or dyslexia… And learn all about cultural norm in a sicuety that you probably werent raised in. and learn how ro deal calmly with energency adter interruption after crisus after humiliation after petty bureacratic harrassment.

It takes much longer than 2 years, believe me.

And just think: just how useful is all that we learn? Have you ever asked an engineer (yes, engineer!!) how often he or she uses all that calculus he/she learned in college, on their job? I bet the answer is, NEVER. Kids have a right to be suspicious of the standard curriculum, which includes calculus as the be-all and end-all of our math curriculum.

Me? I love calculus and rejoice when I can find a use for it and solve a problem. But I’m a weirdo. As my readers undoubtedly know. Yes, I love showing it and other math stuff, getting them to another few steps in math.

But I hope I’m wise enough to know that not everybody needs to know all that. Why does every single barber, plumber, janitor, truck driver, repairman, computer programmer, nurse or doctor need to be familiar with the exact sme works of literature AND also learn integral calculus? As is implied by the Common Core Gates Curriculum?

I mean, there is too much to learn in our age. When this country was founded, a single (wealthy) person (with servants or slaves and therefire wuth plenty of leisure time) could in fact learn all of the math or physics or chemistry that was known at that era.

Today? Forget it! No one scientist in any one specialty of one science can understand much of what’s being done in another specialty of the same science! Nonetheless, we have gone in a century from an era when many adults couldn’t even sign their names, to a period where – believe it or not – average IQ scores keep rising steadily * and the number of passing AP scores for HS 11th and 12th graders keeps rising faster and faster every year.

When I stated teaching 7th grade math in SE DC in 1978, I had quite a few kids who could not add or subtract if any carrying or borrowing was involved, and could neither pronounce or write their address. Not today.
Not that we don’t have problems!! We certainly do! We can learn from other countries’ examples, both the good that we might emulate and the bad we should understand yet avoid.

Some of my former students who were born in China and later returned there told me that American teachers were infinitely better than the ones back home: we smiled, we encouraged kids, we thought if different ways to explain things, we tried to make sure every ody understood. Back home, none if that. The lesson is put in the board, the kids copy it and the dictation, and study like hell because if they flunk then they’re going back into the rice paddy or dangerous construction site or factory.

So, while this is going on, our public school systems are being sytematically desegregated, de-funded, devalued and dismantled because they aren’t producing little productive robots for factories that were long ago shipped overseas…

But I’m getting away from my point:

In my own experience, it is many times easier to teach more affluent kids than poorer kids.

And in Washington DC, nearly all of the veteran teachers have retired, died, resigned or were terminated. Over 80% of all teachers in DCPS and in the DC charters were hired and placed by the Queen of Error herself, Michelle Rhee and the bureaucracy she put in place. Joy, are you honestly saying that the corporate educational DEformers themselves somehow put all the inferior teachers in the high-poverty, highly-segregated schools of wards 5-8?

What does that argument lead to?

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* it has a name: The Flynn Effect.

Published in: on August 28, 2013 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve never understood how high rates of absenteeism were not allowed to have any influence on an individual teachers VAM rating, on whether or not there was enough overall possibility for growth for the teacher to be rated on. I mean, VAM is supposed to adjust for lots of “stuff” right? I guess it would be a bit hard to explain to the average taxpayer that the system used to inaccurately rank teachers is actually more useful in demonstrating it’s own inadequacies in everything but removing money from the classroom.

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  2. Right on point. Teach to the test and form after form are driving from the profession excellent veteran teachers who have the expertise. Check who is making the money out of a reconfigured system that rewards charter schools and their owners for mostly doing no better on true measures than public schools.

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  3. We always had the debate “If you took the teachers from school A and swapped them for the teachers from school B would student achievement change?”
    The old gang always said “nope”
    We are not in control of the student’s environment outside the classroom.
    I worked harder in my lower-level classes just to give the kids a glimmer of what they could do with math. Upper-level classes were easier to prepare.
    Your sporting analogy is correct. When you have good players, don’t screw them up. When you don’t have good players, you have to coach like crazy.
    A few of my engineer former students say they don’t have to “do calculus”, but many of their problems force them to “think calculus”.

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  4. […] Recently Joy Resmovits of HuffPo wrote an article implying or stating that students in high-poverty schools did worse because they were assigned inferior teachers. I would like to turn the cause-and-effect around: teachers in …  […]

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