Back to School Night: Part II
In Back to School Night: Part I, I sketched out differences between two schools.
School #1 is a public charter school, has pretty poor facilities, test scores are high, parent engagement is high, and the teachers appear to have a relatively high degree of freedom in the classroom and seem to be happy.
School #2 is a regular public school, has amazing facilities, test scores are low, parent engagement is low, and the teachers are strictly regimented and mostly unhappy.
What I left out, intentionally, is that School #1 has a student population that skews heavy to the middle- and upper middle-incomes while School #2 skews just as heavy to low-income students.
At the end of the post I posed the following provocative question: What’s going on here?
I want to talk about the requirements placed on teachers in these two schools. At School #1, my son’s school, it appears to me that teachers have a great deal of freedom in deciding how they want to begin their classes, pace them, schedule assessments, choose texts, create projects and other assessments, etc. They are trusted to do these things in a responsible way to meet the needs not only of their students but, just as importantly in my opinion, in a way that makes them comfortable with what they are doing and plays to their strengths. (Recall at this school that teachers seem happy and scores are high.)
At School #2, teachers are told what to do in the most minute detail. The scope of requirements is breathtaking, demoralizing, impossible to fulfill, and ultimately takes as much discretion out of the hands of teachers as possible. This school loses about 50% of its teachers every year. (And, yet again, the fucktards in DCPS made her Principal of the Year.) Probably half the posts on this blog are devoted to describing the insanity of teacher control and regimentation in this school. So I will spare the details here.
It appears that great facilities alone don’t go far in raising achievement; and that poor facilities alone don’t prevent it. And it probably matters less whether a textbook is 20 years old or brand new if nobody is going to read it anyway. Everybody would enjoy a nice auditorium, but nobody really needs one, strictly speaking.
So, what about teachers? If we keep teachers living in fear and try to control their every move and thought, will that help poor kids learn? It doesn’t seem to be helping. Unless the argument is that scores would really be much worse if we didn’t force you to have a data wall and write the objective on the board in the form of Students will be able to…in order to….and if we didn’t force you to collect tons of useless data. Maybe we have to make sure that students are “engaged in meaningful and challenging work” every single goddamn second of the day in order to prevent total chaos and no learning whatsoever.
But this isn’t the way middle-class public schools are run and it’s not the way private schools are run. The underlying assumption, then, of the reform movement of the School #2 type seems to be that poor kids are different from middle class kids and if we ran schools with all the freedoms you can enjoy out there we would be in a whole lot of trouble. If we don’t treat the teachers like morons and the students like inmates, all hell would break loose.
I’d like to propose that teaching low-income kids and teaching upper-income kids are functionally two different jobs. Low-income urban kids come to school generally unprepared and unable or unwilling to hold up their end of any reasonable teacher-student compact. This is precisely what the achievement gap is. So in the part of the agreement that is normally the students-doing-stuff part, we see teachers dancing around like idiots instead.
It doesn’t sound nice, but can we agree that upper income kids are generally better prepared and work harder in school than lower-income kids? This is the reality that teachers face. This is the achievement gap. It’s about school. I think we would do ourselves a favor if we defined the causes of the achievement gap in terms of school-related variables rather than race and class.
It might help us to be more creative and realistic in solving problems if we didn’t have to run everything we do and everything we say through the filter of identity politics and the Self-Esteem-O-Meter.
Anyway, I don’t know how to fix this. Thanks for sticking with it this far, but I hope you weren’t thinking there would be an answer when you got down here. All I can say is I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t to simply put every teacher in the same mold and then tell them they’re bad if they don’t fit. It’s just as clear that it’s not working as it is that it’s not true.