Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers? Is the National Debate Beginning to Acknowledge the Impact of Poverty?

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

Well, not really.

Education was a state function. The Constitution makes no reference to education, it is not “delegated to the United States … nor prohibited by it to the States,” therefore education was the responsibility of the states.

In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson steered the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) through Congress. For the first time the federal government had a role in local education; Title 1 of ESEA provided dollars to school districts based upon a poverty formula with specific guidelines detailing how the federal dollars could be expended.

From Lyndon Johnson to Clinton to Bush to Obama the feds increased the specificity of the regulations governing the use of the federal dollars. The lure of dollars resulted in states crafting policies to increase their chances of garnering additional dollars. Perhaps to increase the number of teacher trained to teach STEM subjects, or, to “reduce racial isolation,” aka racial integration usually through magnet programs.

The goals of ESEA were widely applauded, by states, by school districts and by teachers and their unions.

The 2002 reauthorization of ESEA, renamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a bipartisan bill, established a wide range of rewards and, for the first time sanctions.

Obama-Duncan used ARRA dollars to create a competition (Race to the Top), competitive dollars requiring states to address teacher quality (measuring teachers by student scores on standardized tests), school choice (charter schools), standards (Common Core) and sanctions (school turnaround).

The Chicago strike is not an “ordinary” strike; it is a strike against the Obama-Duncan policies. The core and most intractable issues are the teacher evaluation plan and school closings and resultant teacher layoffs.

The tentative settlement makes only minor changes in both teacher evaluation and school-closing layoff rules.

An unintended consequence of the strike is the raising of an issue that challenges the federal role.

Alan Kotlowitz in the NY Times asks,

Are we expecting too much of our teachers? Schools are clearly a critical piece — no, the critical piece — in any anti-poverty strategy, but they can’t go it alone. Nor can we do school reform on the cheap. In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide? This is a question asked not only in Chicago, but in virtually every urban school district around the country.

Education is a state responsibility, with fifty state departments of education and 14,000 elected school boards setting budgets, graduation requirements, teacher certification and selecting measurements of pupil achievement.

Slowly, inexorably, the feds eroded the traditional constitutional state responsibilities: billions of dollars will do that! As states endorse the Common Core and are on the verge of adopting tests created by one of the two national consortia – PARCC or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the federal policies will drive classroom instruction. In two years we may have national tests, and, very close to a national curriculum.

Has the increasing federal role, no matter how well intended, been effective? Have the federal policies reduced the racial achievement gap and raised achievement across the board? The answer, depressingly, is no.

Joseph Viteritti in a June, 2012 article in the Notre Dame Law Review  traces the twists and turns from the creation of ESEA to the current highly controversial current federal policies.

His detailed analysis questions the effectiveness of ESEA Title 1; the implementation was at the state and local level and a variety of reports not only questions whether the programs worked the reports question whether the dollars reached the students for which they were directed.

Viteritti’s sorts through reams of research and concludes the charter schools are about as effective and ineffective as public schools and that value-added models of teacher effectiveness are in their infancy: he concludes that the federal reliance on unproven theories are fraught with problems.

Maybe the entire federal goals are misguided. In his new book Paul Tough makes a cogent argument the “cognitive hypothesis” is flawed and schools should be directing their efforts to the “character hypothesis.”

Most readers of The New York Times probably subscribe to what Paul Tough calls “the cognitive hypothesis”: the belief “that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — the kind of intelligence that gets measured on I.Q. tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns — and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” In his new book, “How Children Succeed,” Tough sets out to replace this assumption with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.

Listen to a detailed analysis of Tough’s ideas on the NPR Ira Glass radio program, “This American Life.”

Joe Nocera in the New York Times, Pedro Noguera in The Nation and CNN News and Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post  all are sharply critical of the current federal approach.

Joe Nocera:

The Chicago teachers’ strike exemplifies, in stark terms, how misguided the battle over education has become. The teachers are fighting for the things industrial unions have always fought for: seniority, favorable work rules and fierce resistance to performance measures. City Hall is fighting to institute reforms no top-performing country has ever seen fit to use, and which probably won’t make much difference if they are instituted.

The answer lies elsewhere — in a different approach to teaching education and to dealing with the unions. It won’t be easy, but it is not impossible. It’s the way forward.

Pedro Noguera:

However, his [Obama’s] big weaknesses all along have been his stance toward teachers and his unwillingness to acknowledge that the biggest challenge confronting public schools across the country is actually poverty. What has happened in Chicago’s schools exemplifies these weaknesses.

Emanuel must stop his bullying tactics, and the union must put forward its own proposals for change. Both parties must begin working together to create the schools that the children of Chicago deserve. This must include comprehensive plans for addressing the effects of poverty, but it must also include plans for improving the quality of teaching and the performance of schools.

Eugene Robinson:

The brie-and-chablis “reform” movement would have us believe that most of the teachers in low-income, low-performing schools are incompetent — and, by extension, that most of the teachers in upper-crust schools, where students perform well, are paragons of pedagogical virtue.

But some of the most dedicated and talented teachers I’ve ever met were working in “failing” inner-city schools. And yes, in award-winning schools where, as in Lake Wobegon, “all the children are above average,” I’ve met some unimaginative hacks who should never be allowed near a classroom.

It is reasonable to hold teachers accountable for their performance. But it is not reasonable — or, in the end, productive — to hold them accountable for factors that lie far beyond their control. It is fair to insist that teachers approach their jobs with the assumption that every single child, rich or poor, can succeed. It is not fair to expect teachers to correct all the imbalances and remedy all the pathologies that result from growing inequality in our society.

I believe sanity is returning to the national debate on education.


7 responses to “Are We Asking Too Much of Teachers? Is the National Debate Beginning to Acknowledge the Impact of Poverty?

  1. Nocera et al are right on target.


  2. “I believe sanity is returning to the national debate on education.”

    I so hope you’re right. It gets so discouraging here in the trenches sometimes.


  3. A laptop in every home and free internet. This will eliminate scores of problems.
    Ah Asimov..The fun they will have…


  4. This may be an historically opportune time to address the need for federal funding for education. Localities and states often do not have the tax base to adequately or equitably finance public schools. This issue should be combined with the creation of a truly progressive and fair tax system.


  5. This chicken/egg argument is unproductive: Do we need to end poverty before schools can improve, or improve our schools as a means of ending poverty? While I ascribe to the latter, what appears inevitable is that education is a multi-billion dollar endeavor, and that if we don’t do a damned sight better with the 50% of our children in large urban districts who are not succeeding, educators will inevitably lose our exclusive franchise to serve them. That ought to be the focus of our organized efforts. If we insist that teachers of poor kids can’t be fairly evaluated., we may win the skirmish, but will most certainly lose the war.


  6. Yes, poverty has a major impact on education, but it’s not the only one. Another insidious influence is our mass/media culture that makes celebrity at any cost and reality “stars” the ultimate role models, rather than the pursuit of knowledge, culture and life-long learning. Education has become synonamous with elite – which conjures up all kinds of negative associations these days. Until going to school and learning regains its stature in our culture and homes (which indeed it had) all the money, reforms and talk is in vain.


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