Should Teachers Ignore Poverty's Impact?

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008; 9:10 AM

I received a message from a young woman named Erika Owens recently that was so honest and so important to our national argument about teachers that I decided to coax responses from smart people on both sides of the issue. It is an uncomfortable topic, making it all the more important that we pick at it a bit.

Owens described her effort to join the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, and her reaction to the prevailing view in that organization that good teachers should be able to raise the achievement of even the poorest kids. That is my belief, and the belief of the educators I most admire. But most Americans, including Owens, think people like me are wrongly discounting the effects of poverty and thus hurting, rather than helping, the national movement to raise the level of instruction in impoverished neighborhoods.

The issue can get very personal, which might explain why I rarely hear discussions of it. It is too easy to make one side think they are being called racists and the other side think they are being called bullies. So this time, it is a debate at a distance, nobody in the same room, just sending e-mails to a nosy columnist. Owens is up first, then several people who know schools well, then me.

In her first message, Owens quoted "Relentless Pursuit," Donna Foote's book about Teach for America, saying that organization wants corps members who take "full personal responsibility for student achievement, refusing to blame outside factors, such as truancy or lack of parental support, for underperformance." Owens said she thought "not accepting alternate viewpoints would keep talented people out of those positions and the district and TFA would not benefit from discussions with a diversity of opinions."

I replied in an e-mail to her: "I will soon do a column on a new D.C. principal who will not hire someone who says, when asked why kids at the school do so poorly, anything that sounds like, 'Well, you know what conditions they come from,' or 'Have you met their parents?' I think the principal is right not to hire them. But you raise an interesting counter-argument. Tell me more." Here is what she said:

**

Erika Owens, applicant to teach in Philadelphia:

I definitely agree with a principal not hiring someone with that "Have you met their parents?" sort of tone, but I don't understand why that is the way that disagreements about teacher accountability or teaching philosophy are portrayed. I don't think outside-of-school influences mean that students can't succeed, but I think it's absurd to pretend that they don't exist -- and more importantly, pointing out that outside issues exist is not an indication of giving up. To me, it's just a statement of reality.

A little background on me: I tutored in the D.C. Public Schools during college and loved it, but I never felt a "calling" to teach so I didn't really pursue it. Got rejected by D.C. Teaching Fellows, and moved to Philly. I tried again and applied to the Philly Teaching Fellows, reasoning that I'm not sure I could hack it as a teacher, but if I can get through their rigorous application process, that's probably a good sign.

During the group interview there was a hypothetical situation -- pretend you are a teacher at a cash-strapped urban school who just found out, a week before school starts, that you're going to use a curriculum the rich suburban district has been using. I said I would probably be really frustrated because I would not have the resources that the suburban district has to implement the curriculum and not only that, but that my students probably wouldn't be starting at the same place so they would need even more resources and time just to catch up. I didn't say that because urban kids are stupid, but because I worked with urban teenagers who couldn't read or add and who needed tremendous help to increase a grade level never mind get to grade level.

But, I think my view was seen as "stinkin' thinkin,' " giving up too easily, and making excuses. How do we address the outside influences if we pretend they don't exist? While tutoring, they didn't exist, we worked hard, tried new tactics and focused on the work, but they impacted the student's tattered uniforms or hungry bellies.

I now realize that the New Teacher Project/TFA view of education is just philosophically different from mine (and many other people's). But why does a difference of opinion make someone wrong and unhireable? Also, I'm trying to flesh this idea out a little better, but I think for people who have had outside influences wield enormous control over their lives it is nearly impossible to accept the 100 percent accountability idea because it just does not match their experience. That's how I feel anyway.


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