Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Income Gap and Achievement Gap

All of my teacher friends are sharing a recent New York Times Article titled "No Rich Child Left Behind."

This article finally got me to write a post about my shift from public to private school, something I have been thinking about for a while.  (That, and I am home sick with strep throat.) 

First, let me give you the extremely brief summary of the article: rich kids do better in school.  Reason?  Rich families invest more in early childhood enrichment.  No surprise there.  Geoffrey Canada, creator of the school and community outreach project The Harlem Children's Zone, talked about his ideas for creating the school.  He said, basically, that he wanted to teach the parents of Harlem to do for their kids what parents in the suburbs do ("suburbs" read: wealthier parents.)  Paul Tough wrote a book about The Harlem Children's Zone, Whatever It Takes, where he described the institutional structure of the organization that is "designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods."  I appreciate that Canada recognized this and has made a huge effort to reach out to parents and children as soon as they are born.

The Times article extends the analysis of the data to schools.  If those early childhood enrichment experiences are what is making the difference in children, then what responsibility (read: blame) should the school receive for failing students?  Aha, here we are.  It is much easier to blame teachers for failing students.  Because we are a nation of privacy and we don't tell parents how to do their jobs.  Teachers are public employees, and therefore much easier to reprimand. 

I used to have this elaborate fantasy of a thug posse of teachers.  We would roam the city dressed like mafiosos.  We would roll up to a house in a big boat of a car.  We'd step out in velour track suits with baseball bats and big gold necklaces.  A knock on the door reveals a quivering parent.  The lead thug says, "How come Sierra has been late at school all week?"

"She's--she's been walking her little sister to school."

"Excuse me?  Did I hear you right?  Sierra is 11.  She is the kid and she's late to school.  You are the parent.  You need to find a way to get Sierra to school on time," says Lead Thug as she slaps the baseball bat into her hand, menacingly. 

"Yes!  Of course.  I will walk her to school from now on.  Sierra will be on time."

"What about her homework?" asks the thug.

"What about it?"

"She hasn't done it for 2 weeks."

Okay, you get the idea.  I could go on and on.  Where does this fantasy come from?  I felt accountable for my students' progress and test scores, when I only saw them for an hour each day.  Schools' attendance rates are published each year and factor into the schools' ratings.  It felt like sometimes the parents or the inherent disadvantages the student was facing were undoing all of my hard work.  I found that no matter how hard I worked, how many extra hours I put in, I could not bring on that much change.  It sounds obvious, but it isn't a part of conventional school wisdom.  A teacher can only affect one hour of a student's life.  I can't make them come to school on time and with all supplies and homework completed. 

The first two years of my teaching, I was at a public school in Brooklyn.  It was a new, small public school that was all-girls.  Yes, those exist.  After teaching there, I taught at a charter school in Manhattan.  Charter schools are funded by public money and are run by the state, therefore they qualify as public schools.  When we moved to Nashville two years ago, I started working at an all-girls, independent school.  "Independent" and "private" are synonymous for all intents and purposes.  We refer to ourselves as independent because "private" implies a certain image of exclusivity that has a negative connotation.  Cynicism aside, independent schools' raison d'etre is to do things their own way--whatever way that may be. 

I have now taught full time at 3 of the 4 major types of school.  Parochial schools are the only type I am missing, but I did do some tutoring during grad school at a Catholic nativity school in the East Village while I was at NYU. 

I didn't think that I would be teaching at an independent school 6 years after getting my teaching degree.  At NYU, I was instilled with a passion and commitment to public education.  I felt strongly drawn to schools that served students who needed me. 

But after 4 years I was becoming the sad statistic.  50% of teachers quit the profession entirely in the first 5 years.  I swore left and right that that wouldn't be me.  I was top in my class, I had an excellent teacher education program and I had the commitment.  And yet, after 4 years, I made the decision that if I couldn't get a job in a private school, I was going to quit teaching. 

Judge away!  I know that I felt immense guilt.  But, I decided that teaching was still my passion and calling, and I had to do it in a way that I could sustain. 

Okay, I am taking forever to get to the point I want to make.  So, let me cut to the chase.  When you judge teachers by their test scores, you are not really judging their quality as teachers.  Here is how I know: on paper, using the measuring stick that state and local governments use to judge teachers and schools, I was a terrible teacher and then I was awesome.  None of this actually has anything to do with me. 

Exhibit A: My 3rd year of teaching I taught 8th grade English at a charter school.  Only 22% of my students were judged as "proficient" by the state English exam.  (Let's, for the moment, not argue about the validity of test scores.  Let's operate on the assumption that the state tests tell us what they claim to.)  I know that we can't only look at that number, we have to also compare that to those students' scores from the previous year to see how much improvement they had from the previous year (called "value added.")  If only 2% of those students were proficient the year before, then I am awesome!  I rock!  But guess what, there wasn't a huge amount of growth.  Those students will be seniors next year, and I could potentially find out how many of them enroll in college, and in 5 years I could check on graduation rates.  As of now, I don't have that data. 

But, let's say that based on that 22% proficient rate, we can call me a crap teacher.  I was sleeping on the job.  I was undereducated in my content area.  I was what was wrong with the system.  (Let's be a cliched extreme for a moment.)

Then I moved to Nashville and started teaching at an independent school.  The juniors I taught last year are college bound next year.  I don't have their SAT data, but that would be a good substitute for state tests (independent schools do not give state tests.)  But, let's take their college enrollment as a point of judgment.  One is going to UNC Chapel Hill on a volleyball scholarship.  Of the students who have decided on a college, they are going to Belmont, Kenyon, Howard, Denison, Centre College, UT Chattanooga, and Loyola Chicago.  Those schools are all highly selective, or ranked in the top 50 for the type of school they are.  I rock!  I am awesome!  I am the best teacher ever!  I have 100% college enrollment.  Clearly it is all due to my dedication and skill as an educator.  I am the solution.

What happened?  How did I suddenly strike teaching gold between my 4th and 5th year?  How did I magically become better?  I didn't.  My students changed.  They are naturally more gifted, they have a network of support (financial, emotional, and otherwise), and they have ambition.  Not all of them are rich, mind you.  (I can see you scoffing.)  No, really.  Of that list of universities, I know of 4 students who received partial or full financial aid to attend my school.  (I only know this of students who have volunteered this information.) 

I know that the New York Times article is right because I have lived it.  When I talk to non-educators, I always try to explain this phenomenon.  I try to emphasize this to fellow parents, especially.  They are all really worried about the quality of schools their children will attend.  They keep talking about the school as if it is the only factor in their child's success.  I remind them that they are the most important factor.  And their child will be fine.  Why?  Because they get fed, clothed, read to, loved and taken to quality medical care when they are sick.  Sound basic?  It isn't.  I could tell you so many stories of children without winter coats, with empty tummies, with untreated tooth aches, with broken homes, with parents in prison.  As a middle or upper class parent, we can find a million reasons to feel guilty, to feel that we haven't done enough.  But, hopefully hearing the struggles of low-income parents puts that in perspective. 

What makes a school "good" these days is the quality of the parenting the majority of children receive.  The method that we currently have to quantify that these days is percent of students who qualify for free lunch.  It feels like a giant euphemistic oversimplification, but sadly, it's the most indicative number I have found based on my experience.  94-97% of students in my public and charter school days received free lunch.  That means that their families basically lived below the poverty line.  That means they may be displaced from their homes, may have limited access to food and health care, probably do not own books, may have to use inferior child care in early childhood, and are possibly being raised by a single parent, or have only one (under)employed parent.  How well is a student going to do in school under those conditions?  I would like you to imagine how you might learn and behave at school if you had woken up in those conditions every day.  (If my coffee isn't brewed right, I'm fussy all day.)

Now, I am not saying teachers don't matter.  I do think that teachers who are smart, hardworking, and committed are a must.  But they are not the only factor that matters.  We have to stop this culture of blame.  How about a culture of responsibility?  How about a culture that looks at the numbers and comes up with creative ways to address them, even if they aren't what "we have always done."   How about we start talking more about parenting?  How about we admit that it isn't easy to fix? 


  1. Can we have a lengthy discussion where we exchange our knowledge of teaching (you, David and Peter) and child protective services (me) and try to reform the universe? I feel like this would be useful. :)

  2. Maria, I talk about you all the time in my classes. I even said recently, "My friend who works for the DA's office..."

    What I like is that you bring the perspective of what happens after a student disappears from our classrooms or our schools. I had a student in my last year of teaching in NYC who stopped coming and I found out a month later that he had been arrested for armed robbery. What I also like about your perspective is that when a student enters "the system" we finally start talking about parents. Up to that point, it is all on the teacher.

    I think reforming the universe sounds great. You can be on my imaginary thug posse.