Rich Child, Poor Child  

By Jane Weinkrantz  

 

11/12/14

 

    The Obama administration’s  July unveiling of the “Excellent Educators for All” initiative to place more “excellent” teachers in low- income schools has just been updated.  However, the initiative still suggests that the President and his basketball buddy, Arne Duncan, still haven’t gotten a realistic grip on how the American education system works and why it succeeds where it succeeds and fails where it fails.  The program demands that states create plans to distribute effective teachers more equitably among high and low income school districts. Here are the edu-vapor bullet points straight from Duncan’s press release:

                Comprehensive Educator Equity Plans

                                      The Department is asking states to analyze their data and consult with teachers, principals, districts, parents and community organizations to create new, comprehensive educator equity plans that put in place locally-developed solutions to ensure every student has effective educators.

                                      Chief State School Officers will receive a letter today from Secretary Duncan asking them to submit their new plans by April 2015. These plans were first created in 2006 and are required by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

                Educator Equity Support Network

                                      The Department is investing $4.2 million to launch a new technical assistance network to support states and districts in developing and implementing their plans to ensure all students have access to great educators.

                                      The network will work to develop model plans, share promising practices, provide communities of practice for educators to discuss challenges and share lessons learned with each other, and create a network of support for educators working in high-need schools.

                Educator Equity Profiles

                                      To empower communities and help states enhance their equity plans, the Department will publish Educator Equity profiles this fall. The profiles will help states identify gaps in access to quality teaching for low-income and minority students, as well as shine a spotlight on places where high-need schools are beating the odds and successfully recruiting and retaining effective educators.

In addition to the profiles, the states will receive their complete data file from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). States will be able to conduct detailed analyses of the data to inform their discussions about local inequities and design strategies for improving those inequities.

            Just to be clear, I want every child to have an excellent teacher. I don’t think income should be a factor in teacher quality. But, we all know it is.  Look at any real estate advertisement. We may love the granite countertops, the central air or the “park like grounds,” but without the “EXCELLENT SCHOOLS!!!” part of the caption how eager are we to move in? When we purchase homes, American families buy the best schools we can afford.  Think about the number of times someone you’ve met has said, “So what district are you in?” and commented “Very nice,” or sniffed with disdain, depending on your answer.  We take pride in our zip codes because of our school districts. So what types of schools do the people who can’t afford homes and really can’t afford anything else get? They get schools with high teacher and administrative turnover, building code violations, crowded classrooms, outdated materials and failing standardized test scores.

            A friend of mine teaches in a charter school in the South Bronx. She tells me stories of crowded classrooms, hungry children, violent children, kids who don’t speak English or have learning disabilities yet receive no services, a fractured discipline system, building safety conditions comparable to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sometimes scary walk from the subway to her school and, not surprisingly, an out-of-control teacher turnover rate. She is an intelligent woman and a dedicated teacher. In Plainview, she would be highly effective; at her school, most of her students failed the state assessments and we know test scores are the final and true arbiters of efficacy.

            In Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, Laurel M. Sturt, a New York City teacher who spent ten years working in an elementary school in the Bronx describes the revolving door of faculty as follows: “The want ads should read, ‘Seeking selfless, tireless, individuals with unbounded idealism, energy, stamina, and a capacity to be abused, maligned and underpaid.’ Indeed, the attrition rate is already huge, in urban districts about twenty percent a year, with about half of teachers nationwide leaving before the end of their fifth year. The instability from that high turnover, destructive to any learning community, but particularly to those in poverty (a change in teachers negatively affects learning outcome), costs in the billions of dollars annually from wasted teacher training, the expense of new training, and the loss of accumulated expertise from teachers who leave.”

            Teacher burnout in low-income districts is much higher because the work is so much harder and the kids face so many more challenges just to get to school each day. Sturt chronicles children who came to school hungry, dirty, sick, sleepless, abused, homeless, with parents in prison and pretty much any other Dickensian condition you can imagine.  There is a vast difference between that type of school and a school where, every August, teachers send out elaborate school supply lists that can total $50-$100 with the realistic expectation that everyone will have those items on the first day of school.

The difference is money. Any child, but probably particularly a poor one, could tell you that. The middle class and wealthy can afford to give their children the support they need to thrive physically.  I mention that before thriving academically because let’s face it---you can’t learn much when the loudest voice you hear belongs to the growl of your stomach and the heaviest thing you own is the weight of your own eyelids.

Yet, President Obama and Secretary Duncan think the difference is teachers. If they can just find the right teachers to teach in those poor schools, all will be well. Yet again, anything that’s wrong with education is something that is wrong with teachers.  Poverty is not the problem. In fact, it’s OK to be hungry and homeless if you’re reading on grade level and passing your ELAs.

If President Obama had announced a plan to make sure every low-income child has a full stomach, a bed to sleep in, a coat in the winter and a notebook to bring to class, I’d be thrilled. As it is, he’s announced a plan…well, not really a plan…if you look at those bullet points, there’s nothing there that could be called a plan. There are just some vague ideas:  states will share “promising practices” which means that states will have to think of some promising practices---we’re not even feeling confident enough to call them “best practices” yet--- because the Department of Education is flat out of suggestions. So, OK, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have issued a decree that states come up with plans, using guidelines that barely exist. Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, told The Huffington Post. “The guidance released here -- it's honestly pretty fluffy, it's just a non-binding plan.”

 The non-existence of a plan isn’t even the real problem.  Changing the players won’t change the schools, as long as the children remain deprived. The big change the President revealed today is painful in its naiveté and commitment to delusion. He announced that states now have until June 2015 rather than April 2015 to submit their Educator Equity plans, giving states two more months to devise a solution to what is ultimately the problem of poverty. That should be plenty of time.  

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