Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blame is Not is Plan

I wonder where David Brooks gets his numbers. In his column today, he states that in 1960, the "average American" had almost 14 years of education. I assume this number comes from the book by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz that provides his other evidence. I don't know where they pulled that from, since, according to the census and every other source I can find, fewer than 20% of American adults had even a year of college education in 1960 and the median educational level was 10.5 years (12.3 among adults between 25 and 29). The graph at right is from Education of the American Population (1976).

Of course, if you define "average American" as "average white, male American," as Brooks does, his numbers are much closer to reality.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What struck me as the most bizarre was that, in a column on educational inequality and the achievement gap, Brooks completely ignores race.

By discussing the "average American" and focusing on the overall rate of high school completion, Brooks buries the lede, which is that the achievement gap is between students of different races. Yes, "socio-economic status" is a big part of the gap, but black, Latino/a, and Native American students are being out-performed by white and Asian students at all income levels. A lot can be achieved by erasing inequality between poor, middle-class, and wealthy students, but pretending that race does not matter is foolish.

In this column, Brooks is advocating investing in education and closing the achievement gap, and I agree with him that these are top priorities. Yet, I think heaping the blame for educational stagnation on "family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years" is wrong x 10.

I was a TFA teacher, and no one has devoted more time and energy to finding research-based evidence on the achievement gap than TFA. If you have a few free hours, go read through the data and overviews on the TFA site. After only two years in the classroom, I totally agree with the TFA research that says that funding and family are not the major problems holding kids back: a lot has to do with teacher quality, expectations, and fostering a culture of achievement. Lots of factors go into teachers'/administrators' low expectations, but I really believe that many people in education hold lower expectations for African-American and Hispanic students specifically because of their race.

I taught at a school that with a predominantly Mexican-American student body, though there were also students from Central America, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Portugal, and smaller populations of black and white students. Just like at the school I attended when I was a child, free lunch was the norm. Many of the students at our school came in with a full complement of educational disadvantages — parents with low levels of education, few English skills, low-income families, limited vocabularies in any language, etc. Some teachers dug in to fight the good fight, but others just threw up their hands and declared the situation hopeless.

It is undeniably true, as Brooks notes, that educational inequality starts early in life. By now, most educators are familiar with studies that have found that by age 3, the gap in language skills (a prerequisite for reading in any language) between the richest and poorest children is astounding. The error is in assuming that since children from some families start out at a disadvantage, they will inevitably lag behind their peers. In our current system, they will indeed lag, but it is NOT inevitable. Explicit vocabulary instruction, evidence-based pedagogy, and high expectations can do wonders for even the most disadvantaged students.

The trouble is that too many teachers and schools see poor students (particularly black, Hispanic, and Native American students) as unteachable. That might sound harsh, and I certainly don't mean all teachers or all schools, but there is a lot of that going around.

I've seen a lot of amazing teachers work wonders with kids and families, but I've also seen awful teachers who blame their own failures on the kids and the parents. A teacher cannot get the best results out of a student if that teacher assumes that the student is irredeemably lazy/ignorant/hyper/stupid/worthless. The things I've heard teachers say out loud about students would blow your hair back, and that's not even taking into account unconscious prejudices and systematic injustices (ex: systematically denying Latino students access to the Special Education services to which they are legally entitled — I'm looking at you, Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, CA).

Brooks is right on his large point: investment in human capital is necessary to the nation's health. But honestly, blaming educational stagnation on the largely mythical declension of "the home" is not a solution. By all means, invest in early childhood education. But don't pretend that race is unimportant.


habladora said...

Brilliant post - there is so much here. Brooks is a dimwit.

I taught in a public high school for 2 years, and the administration consistently pushed me to 'dumb-down' my courses by teaching Spanish 1 and 2 in English (which is ridiculous and hypocritical when you realize that we were expecting ESOL students to take all their classes in English with very little support). They also denied services to ESOL students, often claiming that the appropriate tests didn't exist in Spanish (which is false).

Yet, a lack of funding was a HUGE problem, and one that directly impacted the kids. We didn't have money to provide each student with a textbook of their own, so students used class sets that they couldn't take home each night. The photocopiers (there were two) were always broken, and teachers had to provide their own paper - so providing students with handouts with take-home information and practices was not a great solution. Since we didn't have money for additional positions, class sizes were ridiculous - in one class I had 35 students but only 30 desks, so students were sharing. Even worse - I felt that money was being mis-appropriated. We had tons of content-free after-school seminars aimed at helping improve our teaching and new scan-tron scoring equipment and 2 new 'data analysts' to help with standardized testing, but teachers' request for books and additional staff to help decrease class size were dismissed as signs of laziness.

You just don't have more kids than desks in affluent, majority-white communities. The kids there have books and after-school buses so they can stay for extra help and 'office hours' too. Is it any wonder that most highly qualified teachers leave public schools after 2-3 years?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I couldn't agree more.

Your school situation sounds very similar to mine — the copier situation in particular brings back (unpleasant) memories.

In my second year of teaching, our district somehow ended up with a multi-million dollar surplus, and we teachers spent a good many lunchtimes devising lists of what we'd do with that cash if given half a chance. I'm 100% with you on those useless, wasteful "training" programs — why does every conference/seminar have to give out a free, ugly tote bag? Couldn't they just have given me a ream of white copy paper? I could have used that.

Understaffing due to lack of funds is such a huge issue. Our lower grades were capped at 20/class by CA law, but the 4th and 5th grade classes routinely had 36-38 students. It made no sense to me — if there are six 3rd grade classes with 20 students in each, why are there only three 4th grade classes? You can't predict that all of those 3rd graders might stick around for 4th grade? Yes, some kids leave, but about the same number move in.

One of the most frustrating things (besides the mounds and mounds of paperwork) was that primary teachers were allowed a single paid hour of prep per week. The 4th and 5th teachers got an extra hour because their kids had P.E. once a week (we shared the P.E. teacher with several other schools) — that was to make up for their ridiculous class size, I guess.

Another discouraging thing was that the credentialing program I was in was awful. My fellow TFAs and I went to class after teaching all day, and all but 2 of our professors were largely unfamiliar with reality. Several of them made repeated reference to "your classroom aides" and "the school nurse" and refused to believe us when we said that there was no such thing at any of our schools.

I could gripe for hours, but the absolute, 100% worst thing I saw in my time as a teacher was the way that the school district and administrators exploited the parents' difficulties with language and lack of information in order to get away with all sorts of illegal shit. All of my students' parents cared passionately about their kids' educations, but many had limited English skills, free time, and knowledge of their rights. There are all sorts of laws about holding SST meetings in a timely fashion and adhering to IEPs, but the school violated all of them and counted on the parents not to notice. They never would have gotten away with it in an affluent, majority-white community, and they probably wouldn't even have tried because they would have had more respect for everyone involved.

Example (apologies if this is too long):
I had a student — let's call him Jesus (not his real name). He was on grade level in math, science, etc., but he was a very very low reader (could not read single-syllable, short vowel words). When Jesus was in kindergarten, his teacher filled out all the forms to start an SST/IEP process. Since my school only held one SST per month (none in Aug, Sept, Oct, May, or June), Jesus didn't make the list that year. His teacher held him back in k, but he didn't get an SST the next year either, nor the next.

When Jesus arrived in my second grade classroom, I took one look at his file, did some diagnostic tests, and immediately tried to get him on the list for an IEP and individual help from the reading specialist. My principal told me I had to start the whole process, including lots of built in 6-week observation periods, over again since the old paperwork was "out of date." By the time I finished the observations and paperwork, it was November and the only SST slot open was in April. I literally begged to reserve it for him.

I worked with Jesus and his family all year, but it was obvious he needed more individual attention than I could give him. In the weeks leading up to his SST, I was obsessive about making sure everything was in place. Since the SST must be attended by the principal, the teacher, the parents, a translator, the reading specialist, and a school psychologist (we shared one with several other schools), I called every one of those people to give them reminders at one week, two days, and the day before.

Day of the SST, the psychologist cancels. The principal leaves early, but not before she tells the district translator that she doesn't know who called him or why and sends him away. The reading specialist is absent. I'm there and Jesus' mom was there, but we couldn't legally hold the meeting. I almost cried in frustration, but then I said fuck it and pulled in a fellow teacher as a witness and the temp who was subbing for our office aide to serve as a translator, and we had that SST without them (my Spanish is ok and I could communicate well with Jesus' mom, but since it was supposed to be a legal meeting, I wanted a translator to be sure she understood what everyone was saying). It was not at all by the book, but it was the last SST date of the year and I couldn't let it pass.

In the end, we got Jesus' IEP done before the end of the year, but I have almost no hope that it is being followed this year. According to the law, the school must convene the SST within 15 days of receiving a written request from a parent. Since Jesus' mother didn't know that and I was expressly forbidden from telling her (I am ashamed that I didn't ghost-write the thing for her), he waited at least 540 school days from the time of his initial referral to the SST until his IEP was finished.

That wasn't the only thing — kids who have been in the US less than a year are entitled to a special "newcomers" language program, but instead, they got 45 minutes per day starting in November (it took a long time to set it up, I guess). Parents were told they could not opt out of state testing (not true). Teachers without proper training were put in charge of moderate/severe special ed classes even when they protested that they did not have the skills/certifications necessary to meet their students' IEP goals. Teachers (not all, but some) routinely assumed that parents who did not speak English were stupid and/or uncaring. Portuguese students were designated "Hispanic" — I can only imagine that that was an effort to inflate the test scores for our Latino subgroup because it makes little sense to me (then again, any system that classifies my Argentine-German student and my Nahuatl-speaking student as being of the same "race" makes little sense to me).

Ugh. Writing all of this makes me feel super guilty for leaving. In hindsight, I can see 100 things that I could have done to improve this situation, but at the time, I must have been to frantically busy to take in the full picture. Maybe if I were in a different grade level I could have stuck it out past 2 years — I wanted to be a high school history teacher, but TFA doesn't really let you choose, so I got little kids. It was incredibly rewarding — they learn so much so fast! — but it wasn't right for me in the long run.

That's more than enough for now.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

That should be "'too' frantically busy."

I've been through second grade 3 times now, but I'm still missing some of those basic skills.

David Mabry said...

I agree with most of the comments left. Lack of funding is a problem. I have taught for seven years and have numerous problems with a lack of textbooks, supplies and definitely technology resources. I cannot say that all of my parents were concerned about their child's education. I actually had a parent tell me that between 9-4 the student was my problem then blocked the school's phone number. I had a parent night, with weeks of advertisement, refreshments, the whole nine yards, two parents showed. Effective teachers stick with it, set high expectations, create an environment for success and build on it. Creativity is the key.
I do have a problem with the unprofessional way that many teachers are treated. Low pay, long hours, disrespect by many students and some parents. The stories of teacher misconduct make the front page, teacher success is so common it is not featured.
I respect the mission of TFA but come on! Since when did teaching become volunteer work? Two years in the classroom and then you are out? This is not the Peace Corps. How does that help the kids or the state public education in America? Education is a serious profession that requires dedicated professionals.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

TFA's mission is not to produce teachers. It is to produce leaders in many areas (including education, but also law, business, government, etc.) who have a deep and personal commitment to ending educational inequality.

Of course teaching isn't volunteer work. But I don't think that means I didn't do right by my students. I enjoyed teaching and might have stayed longer if I were in a position that suited my interests better (I asked for high school history, I got second grade). Of my group of TFA friends, one stayed in teaching for a third year and is now getting her certification as a school psychologist while working on a reservation, one went into TFA administration and supports teachers in the classroom, and one is getting her PhD in poli-sci with a focus on educational policy. Of the four of us, I'm probably the most removed from the achievement-gap fight, and I'm in grad school with a long-term goal of teaching history at a college that specializes in training teachers. Also, I volunteer for several hours per week at one of the under-performing schools in my neighborhood. Other people from my corps have gone to law school in order to become advocates for parents, become principals, and gone on to work on Capitol Hill.

Many teachers/unions/traditional credentialing programs are down on TFA because they don't understand the mission. The mission is not to staff the under-resourced schools of the nation (though we do that too, and we do a pretty good job of it). The mission is to change the educational system by catching people who are poised to become leaders in their fields and getting them angry and energized regarding the achievement gap issue while they are young and still deciding how to make their marks in the world.

Of course, TFA teachers put tremendous effort into their classrooms for the two years that they are there. There are some recent studies that indicate that TFA teachers are as effective as veteran teachers. This study is pretty narrow, so I wouldn't argue that the conclusions are broadly applicable. Still, I would argue that the TFAs at my school were very effective teachers, especially compared to the traditionally-trained first-year teachers who were (for the most part) woefully underprepared. If my experience at SJSU is any indication, traditional teacher credentialing is ineffective and anachronistic.

I think the misunderstandings about TFA's mission is unfortunate. TFA and teachers are on the same side. TFA isn't trying to replace traditionally-trained teachers — it's trying to give them allies in every boardroom, courtroom, and legislative chamber in America.