Education debates in D.C. and the media tend to be
dominated by what economists and think tanks say. What is needed
most and seldom heard is the voice of teachers. Here is a brilliant
new voice that should get as much air time as Bill Gates, Joel
Klein, and Arne Duncan. What are the chances? In
this article at Salon
, John Savage describes his
experience teaching at J.E. Pearce Middle School in Austin, Texas,
which the state education commissioner called “the worst school” in
the state. Why was it the worst school in Texas? Savage considers
the reformer thesis: Teachers with high expectations can work
miracles. This is the line from Michelle Rhee and Teach for
America. Savage quickly dashes that fantasy–or his experience
dashed it. He writes: “In the last decade a new species of
educational reformer has captured the public’s attention. Talk
show-friendly celebrities like former Washington, D.C., Schools
Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and award-winning movies like “Waiting
for Superman,” have gained fame by blaming teachers for the
achievement gap between poor students and middle-class students.
“The appeal of this educational axiom — ascribing student
achievement to teacher quality — is understandable. It suggests a
silver bullet solution: improve teaching and you improve test
scores, especially for poor students. And because test results
predict life outcomes — the likelihood of securing a job, getting
divorced, going to prison—better teaching can lift students from
poverty. Or so the thinking goes. “Some have called this narrative
the myth of magical teaching. We yearn to believe it. We yearn to
think that caring, hardworking teachers can change the world, or at
least their students’ lives. Like American Exceptionalism and
Horatio Alger stories, this supposition has become part of our
national mythology. As an idealistic young educator I, too, gladly
accepted the myth of the magical teacher as reality — that is,
before Pearce shattered my naïveté.” He discovered: “Here is the
hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact.
Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some
students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives,
much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming
into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their
true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but
“Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is
survival.” Reform after reform came and went: “We have poured money
into high-poverty schools, and we have replaced entire teaching
staffs, but to little avail. Teachers aren’t the problem, poverty
is. Moreover, segregating our poorest students in high-poverty
schools, as we often do, exacerbates the problem. “After parsing
fourth-grade math scores, education theorist Richard Khalenberg
concluded, “low-income students attending more affluent schools
scored almost two years ahead of low-income students in
high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income students given a chance to
attend more affluent schools performed more than half a year
better, on average, than middle-income students who attend
high-poverty schools.” “If socioeconomic status is a primary driver
of academic performance, and if student achievement suffers in
high-poverty schools, why do we continue to organize schools in a
way that predetermines some for failure and then blame teachers?
“There are ways we can make education better for all students —
socioeconomic school integration, investing in early childhood
education, providing the wraparound services students need — but a
myopic focus on teacher quality won’t fundamentally improve