These critics are “the reformers,” including former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein— as well as his successors— who tend to argue that out-of-school factors don’t matter. That poverty is easily overcome by heroic teaching alone. Reformers contend that good teachers, if they weren’t hampered by seniority rules, lazy colleagues, unions, and other elements of the public system, could get all children to achieve at high levels through little more than persistence and grit. Too many bad teachers are the enemy.
People who are and know teachers don’t see it this way. They see schools as underfunded and feel teachers working as hard as they can. Teachers are now not only confronting difficult conditions in and out of schools, but also a rising tide of public scorn that seeks to smash their professional associations and union protections with a massive political hammer. Teachers in networks like SOS see testing, the reformers, and NCLB as the enemy. They argue that they do the best they can with dwindling funding, uninvolved parents, and students pushed on without proper preparation. One sign at SOS noted that there are several barriers to student achievement, but argued that teachers aren’t one of them.
I think that most of the time the these two camps miss each other.
The fact is, there is a reason that children who grow up in poverty, in single parent homes, without stable housing or nutrition, do poorly in school. Poverty matters in the sense that it has a negative impact on school engagement and academic achievement. Out-of-school factors matter. But there is also something to be done about it—by teachers and schools as well as other agencies.
Each side is reticent to admit the two simple points in the preceding paragraph. Too many reformers argue that teachers use these social factors to abdicate professional responsibility, and that failing schools are the result of low expectations and union protections for teachers who are professionally incompetent. Too many teachers argue that schools and the communities they serve are oceans apart, and demonstrate precious little agency in tackling these problems as they effect learning.
Poverty and inequality in society are significant issues that need to be addressed in order for our educational system to improve. Important research has found that lack of attention to inequality hurts achievement, not just for those who are disadvantaged, but for the whole system. Beyond academic achievement, festering inequality can have adverse impacts on public health and other vital outcomes for a fully-functioning society.
More equal countries have done better on international assessments. These nations have taken steps to address poverty and are seeing results. Finland, the international archetype of educational achievement, has a successful system that contradicts both the non-agentic segment of the teacher camp and the vision of the reformers. Finland and other successful systems have neither abdicated responsibility for non-school factors nor chosen to press ahead, heads in the sand, teaching harder and longer and louder. Instead, they have cultivated a collaborative system that invests more funds and greater trust in teachers as professionals, while raising standards to enter and remain in the profession. They have not created and over-reliance on testing, complex dismissal procedures, so-called merit-pay, or other measures that de-professionalize teaching.
In addition, however, Finland, Ontario, Canada, and other high performers on international comparisons acknowledge inequality in their societies, create structures to address it, and ask schools to participate in the hard work of collaborating around these efforts to meet performance goals. Of the factors that schools can control, teachers matter a great deal. But they need partners to do what schools—even great ones—cannot. High-performing systems distribute responsibility and share goals around social improvement. Our system needs greater level of cooperation among the entities who are positioned to address inequality and—by extension—achievement.
I have recently joined the staff of a project that walks this common-sense middle ground in the education reform and improvement debate. City Connects (CCNX) is a systemic, evidence-based approach to addressing the out-of-school factors that impact learning. Its mission is to have children engage and learn in school by connecting each child with the tailored set of prevention, intervention, and enrichment services he or she needs to thrive. To accomplish this mission, CCNX relies on the rich services and enrichments provided by district programs and community agencies.
CCNX was designed to address deliberately the inequities in opportunity that ultimately contribute to the achievement gap. Through the structure of the City Connects model, these inequities are addressed. By matching each and every student to the tailored set of services he or she needs to thrive, CCNX helps distribute the resources of the city based on a particular student’s individual strengths and needs.
Through this reorientation of the way resources are distributed, CCNX has evidence that it is changing school climate and school staff. Teachers have reported that because of the CCNX model, they view children differently. The opportunity to consider each student’s strengths and needs, one by one, as well as to try a range of services and resources to enable children’s success, has opened a new way of thinking about students and their potential. The support that CCNX gives teachers to act on this new way of thinking gives substance to the belief that every child can learn and thrive in school. It builds teachers’ capacity to do what most have always wanted to do. They share in the hard work of collaboration. And the results show that this American model of attending to inequality is paying dividends, raising expectations for teachers and scores for students.
There are things that schools can and should do, and effective, publicly accountable teachers are an important part of this equation. Our profession can do more to use effective teachers as examples, make better use of student data, collaborate, support new teachers’ growth, and, yes, permit and even encourage those justly accused of poor performance (or worse) to be dismissed. But if what we want is a truly functional, high-achieving educational system, we also need one that admits that there are other factors like poverty that force some kids to start way behind their peers. We can acknowledge this fact without abdicating professional responsibility and by playing an active part in using the school’s central role in the community to address these issues.
It makes little sense to claim that America will compete against the best, and then refuse even to consider the paths trodden by the most successful educational systems in the world. Schools are organizations that play unique and important roles in our society. As a conscientious public, we should do whatever we can to improve them, focusing special attention on their most important element: teachers. But we should also acknowledge that there are bigger issues that schools are not equipped to address. The good news is that much of that expertise is already there—often already paid for—in the communities surrounding schools. City Connects in just one of a variety of tools that we can use to improve the lives of children in poverty and enhance the impact of good teachers on their education. Teachers have a responsibility to partner in this effort, and they do as part of CCNX. Rather than making them the subject of scorn, we should honor teachers for their service. We should also ensure that they are part of a larger, coordinated effort to improve outcomes and our prospects for the future.
Doctoral Student of Professor Andrew Hargreaves