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Should Teachers Ignore Poverty's Impact?

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:

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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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Rafe Esquith, central Los Angeles fifth grade teacher and best-selling author of "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire":

I'm with the teacher on this one.

Of course, there are teachers who give up far too easily and make excuses. I think of myself as a reasonably hard worker and someone who gives every child my best effort.

But there are fantastic doctors who have patients that die. Is it always the doctor's fault? Certainly there are patients who will not survive despite a great doctor's heroic efforts.

People who believe that "all children will learn" have watched too many Hollywood movies about teachers. I'm pretty good at what I do and fail all the time. There ARE circumstances that are beyond my control, despite the fact that I normally work 18 hours a day and spend every penny I have on the kids.

And as you wrote about me when you said kind words about my book, many of the teachers who "save everyone" don't even teach anymore. The idea that all children will learn sounds wonderful, but these words need to be surrounded with a little bit of realism.

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Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) school network, Houston:

Full personal responsibility for student achievement and refusing to blame other factors does NOT mean we ignore the other factors; it simply means we view other factors as challenges and problems that require solutions, and we view the possibility of solutions as fitting inside our personal sphere of influences vs. shrugging our shoulders and giving up.

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Kenneth J. Bernstein, social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Prince George's County, writer and blogger:

Imagine a football coach who designs his plays with no regard to the talents of his players, half of whom are on crutches, deaf or blind. And even if they are not so handicapped, if they have no ability to catch or throw a ball, running a pass-oriented West Coast style offense will not work.

To impose an educational regime without regard to the knowledge of the students is not fair to them, and highly unlikely to be productive. Knowing something about the family background, the circumstances from which they come, is certainly, in an age when we are trying to improve the school-home relationship to be more productive in our efforts, relevant information to consider. That is not to write off any student, but rather to adjust our instruction to meet the student where s/he is.

We will still try to raise that student as far as we can. Just as I would no more attempt to teach algebra to a student who lacks basic arithmetic or offer the third year of foreign language instruction to a student who has yet to pass the first year, why should I be expected to pretend that there is no information to be gained from knowing the family background of the student, and then be surprised when my middle-class experience of a family's ability to help with school work, or even to support the efforts of the school, is missing? What if that student lacks a safe or quiet place in which to do school work? What if that student comes to school without dinner or breakfast on a regular basis, or is being abused? All of this is critical to the well-being of the child even as it is critical to the academic expectations we place on that student.

That is why I call every family at the start of the year, why I attempt to get to know my students as people. What happens in my classroom is inevitably going to be affected by the life of the student in the 23 hours and 15 minutes outside my classroom and on the days I do not see her.

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Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington:

A school or teacher group should be able to follow a tightly defined vision of a good teacher, or a good teaching method. That doesn't mean there is no place for people with other views or approaches. There might be schools that would hire someone with this person's views in an instant and would not like to bring in a "no excuses" type.

Coherency and consistency work, and they should trump any teacher or administrator's right to be different.

This person subscribes to the dominant public education ideology, which is that any point of view sincerely held is as good as any other. That might be true in the grand scheme of morality but it plays hell with an organization's effectiveness.

It is annoying not to be picked for the team but she is lucky they didn't let her in and let her find out how miserable she would be.

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Mark Simon, national coordinator, Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, Washington D.C.:

The hypothetical question test about the applicant's belief system is the wrong question. My history as a high school social studies teacher for 16 years -- teaching history, government, sociology, psychology, Latin American history, African American history and economics -- in a socioeconomically diverse but highly functional educational environment, would lead me to give the TFA right answer that I believe that all kids can learn at high levels. I certainly insisted that all my students grapple with high-level thinking and forced myself to make learning relevant. A response that amounts to excuses exhibits faulty thinking, underestimating human potential, ignoring research on effort-based intelligence, etc.

That having been said, its the wrong question -- OR AT LEAST AN INSUFFICIENT CRITERIA -- because such a correct belief does not mean that a teacher will be successful with any, never mind all, students. Believing that all kids can learn does not make one good at helping kids succeed. It takes a high level of skill. Working with kids who do not have learning strategies themselves, who do not have organization or study habits, who have never done challenging work, and who have self image issues takes a much higher level of skill and a broader repertoire of strategies. None of these skills and strategies come with novice teachers. They're not instincts. They are learned and depend on a knowledge base about teaching. What I worry about is the magical thinking that "anyone can do it if you have the right attitude." I'm not saying that TFA, The New Teacher Project and D.C. Teaching Fellows suffer this kind of simplistic can-do-ism, because I don't know what their approach to teacher development is. But such magical thinking underestimates the complexity of the craft of teaching. It risks demoralizing a whole work force if such magical thinking becomes the foundation philosophy of a whole school system.

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Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. public schools and founder of the New Teacher Project:

You have to know the challenges our kids come with, take them seriously, try to provide resources to address them but at the end of the day they CANNOT be an excuse for low achievement levels. That's the bottom line. If a teacher doesn't believe it's possible for a teacher or school to overcome those factors, that is actually okay. Those teachers should teach in Fairfax County or somewhere where the challenges are not as great. And they'll do good things for those kids. No issues with that. But we need people with a different mindset for our kids.

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Caroline Grannan, San Francisco journalist, parent and blogger:

I think there's a sane middle ground between a flat-out "Blame the Teacher" philosophy (euphemistically called "No Excuses") and falling back entirely on excuses, throwing up your hands and giving up.

Your correspondent makes an excellent point when she asks why "a difference of opinion makes someone wrong and unhireable." I also have to wonder if the "No Excuses" attitude has something to do with the sky-high teacher turnover in schools like KIPP. Unrealistic expectations and pressure to achieve miracles are not the foundation for a fulfilling career.

In my observation, disruptive students are a frequent problem impeding other students' learning and at times driving teachers to seek employment elsewhere. I hope that some districts have found sensitive and compassionate yet effective ways to cope with disruptive students. In my ultra-politically correct district, if a disruptive student is African-American or Latino, there are many voices -- including some school board members -- who will blame the teacher for causing the problem by being racist. That's the lefty version of the "no excuses" attitude.

Here's the two and a half minute parody commentary on exactly this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVF-nirSq5s

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Dan Domenech, executive director, American Association of School Administrators, Arlington:

I think that there is a significant difference between acknowledging a child's background and how it may influence that child's ability to learn and using the background as an excuse as to why the child won't learn. I can't understand how accepting full responsibility for a child learning is translated to "not accepting alternate viewpoints." I would only add here that the responsibility does not lie entirely with the teacher. It extends to the principal and to the superintendent of schools, and everyone has to do their best to help overcome the very background that we refuse to accept as an excuse to the child's ability to learn.

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Jay Mathews:

Although none of these people saw one another's responses in advance, it seemed to me they were recognizing some truths on the other side. Owens did, too. Having spent nearly three decades reporting on both good and bad teaching in urban and suburban schools, I think attitude is very important. The prevailing view that impoverished children cannot be expected to learn as much as affluent children is poison in any classroom. The question Owens encountered in that interview exercise was designed to expose such feelings and give the interviewers a chance to hold them up to the light. That's good. The next step should be to show those prospective educators what teaching is like in schools that have made the essential attitudinal adjustment, and how far those students have gone.

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