The First Staff Meeting…

So we wound up looking at test scores today.  Sure enough, the data made clear to the staff, what I already knew myself, that one of our subgroups, those classified as being among a Lower Socioeconomic Status (SES), were the one key reason as to why our test scores, while not enough to meet our school’s required Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), was enough for us to make what is called “Safe Harbor”, the status many schools have as a fallback, given how draconian the punishments are starting to become under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for public school accountability.

Basically, for lack of a simpler and more elegant explanation, the “poor kids” done held us back.  But given poverty definitions in the neighborhood around my school, there’s not much the school can do about the area’s income, educational levels, or occupations, save the small city somehow annexing land, or bringing in business a bit larger than a skating rink.  Focusing upon our school’s major ethnic groups though, while it might, in theory, make sense, also tends to pigeonhole the school.  We wind up in a situation that sounds like something out of the Archie Bunker early-1970s, where the ethnic groups were the ones to make up the lower economic statuses.  It also stereotypes students and their families by their skin color vis-à-vis their home lives.  I mean, white kids can be poor too, no?

I found this online, while trolling for some other information to support this posting.  This part proved most interesting:

The following factors have been found to improve the quality of schools in low-SES neighborhoods: a focus on improving teaching and learning, creation of an information-rich environment, building of a learning community, continuous professional development, involvement of parents, and increased funding and resources (Muijis et al., 2009).

Getting into specifics about my school situation might be the most efficacious, yet it’s not necessarily the most prudent for my circumstances.  On the other hand, my inadvertent failure to drink my daily dose of coffee led to my general annoyance and ranting that produced the bulk of yesterday’s posting.  I nevertheless want to somehow link my rant yesterday with the main concern I’ve had of late, building upon a summer of vitriol that has driven “educational reformers” to paint teachers and their unions as impediments to student’s academic success:

The complex answer might lie in the social and economic conditions that bring many children to schools, regular and charter, unprepared to take sufficient advantage of what even the most dedicated and inspired teachers can offer. Brill and his heroes have no patience for discussions of, say, children with barely literate parents who rarely read aloud to them, or with unemployed parents too stressed themselves to offer real support, or with untreated asthma that kept them up the night before, or with no place to study because they are now homeless or doubled up with relatives. For the reformers, these are union-inspired excuses, so addressing America’s vast and growing inequalities has no place on their agenda. It’s clear that more flexible union contracts would indeed be a good step, but unless other obstacles to high achievement are addressed, it isn’t likely to make the difference Brill hopes.

The Slate.com article from which the above was taken makes a point that students in Texas, where teachers are non-union, do as well as students of unionized teachers in New York State, accounting for socioeconomic status.  Even more damning to the reformers’ cause, as pointed out by Dana Goldstein in the The Nation (link was down as I worked on this), is that it is ignorant to oversimplify school reform to a labor-management question. Goldstein argues that states with unionized teachers routinely academically outperform right-to-work states.  In addition, most of the nations who are kicking our kids’ rears internationally (Finland, Canada, France) also have unionized teachers.  Goldstein’s concern is that educational reformers stop seeing the role of schools as one of preparing students to be active and contributing members of a democratic society, but as test-score-producing machines.  Self-appointed school reformers like Steven Brill might argue, Goldstein continues, that the effects of poverty can be beaten back by good teachers, while ignoring a consistent body of evidence that while, at most, teaching can account for 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, socioeconomic factors account for 60 percent.  (Gee, sounds like the point that Stephen Krashen was making in the post I linked yesterday…)

But because we know, without a doubt, that family poverty exerts a crushing influence over children’s lives, it is no small thing when standards-and-accountability education reformers repeat, ad nauseam, that poverty can be totally ‘overcome’ by dedicated teachers.  Of course, we all know people who grew up poor and went on to lead successful, financially remunerative lives.  Many of them feel grateful to educators who eased their paths.  But the fact remains that in the United States in 2011, beating the odds of poverty has become far less likely than ever, and teacher quality had less to do with it than does economic inequality–a dearth of good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare, and higher education.

Ultimately, what is damning about Goldstein’s conclusions is that she makes a point that is the elephant in the room–that if we made changes in schools to give poor kids a fair shot, then we wouldn’t have to feel so bad about the fact that every thing about our society these days is inherently unequal.  That low tax rates and loopholes that help the superrich, helps keep the poor in their place, except when we need the poor kids to pull a school out of program improvement.   Let’s also not forget that it’s no secret that part of the impetus that drove the punitive nature of the NCLB punishments was the intent to push more and more children out of public schools and into the for-profit charter, private, and parochial schools.  But as the growing scandal amongst the Green Dot charter schools in Los Angeles is showing us, educational focus has become so narrowly focused upon the test results, with less and less focus upon the real process of what it takes to truly learn and make the progress necessary to go to college and find employment success beyond a minimum wage service-sector job.

It is ironic when I see teaching colleagues making fun of people who are on any sort of public assistance, in particular, when I realize that these butts of their Facebook jokes are the real “interest group” of my profession, given the neighborhood where I teach school.  I can’t afford to make fun of the people whom I serve.  These kids are my job.  These kids will take up the bulk of my focus for the next 170+ days over the next 10 months, even more so than my own little girl.  I will do my best to try to make a difference, but even then, it will not be enough.

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