Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Education Reformers Tend to Overlook

I teach high school in Camden, New Jersey — cited, yet again, as the second most dangerous city in the nation.
"I could never work where you do," this guy said to me at a social gathering I attended not very long ago. It was a friend of a friend who had been teaching in a suburban school district for over twenty years and whom I had just met. There were several teachers at this party because we teachers, like fish, tend to travel in schools (I hear the groan from here!). "Why not?" I asked. He looked at me as though the answer was obvious. "It's Camden," he said chuckling.
"And...?" I said.
He looked around the five of us who were standing in the kitchen. He was looking for help and wasn't getting any. Then, in a more serious tone, he said, "Well, being white..."
"Being white?" I said as if I misheard.
"Yeah. Being white I couldn't tell the kids, you know, what to do," he said.
"Why not?" I said.
"They're not going to listen to some white guy," he said.
I looked at my own complexion and then back at my acquaintance. "That has never been an issue for me," I said.
"But I hear the pay is good," he said as if I hadn't just addressed his last point. He was a classic overtalker, someone who will keep yapping with little regard to anything anyone else says. "Combat pay, that's what you guys get, combat pay." Was this attitude why inner city schools are plagued with such teacher turnover problems? Do people really believe you need to be a certain race to be effective with a certain population? And if that's so, do they also believe the inverse is true? Was this irrational and ignorant fear, subtle racism or inherent guilt?
"The idea that inner city teachers make more money than teachers in the suburbs is ludicrous," I said.
"Look at test scores," he overtalked. "They're always lower in the inner city. You know why? Because the kids are so bad that these schools have to waste money on higher salaries, combat pay."
"Combat pay is a myth! And you want to talk test scores?" I said. "On a practice assessment test once supplied by the state, the writing prompt for the persuasive writing section begins with a scenario: After a soccer championship, the fans, in celebration, charge the field and many cut pieces of the goal nets to take as souvenirs leaving the nets as tattered threads. The principal, so it goes, says that the money for the repair of the goals will come from all the school's clubs. The task is to write a letter to the board of education agreeing or disagreeing with this decision," I said in a single breath.
"Yeah? So?" He said.
"Soccer isn't exactly a big sport in the inner city. But in the suburbs..." I let my voice trail off.
"Doesn't matter," he began. "A test is a test is a test. The state standardized tests are the only way to measure achievement across the board."
"It's only one way," I said.
"It's the only one that counts," he said. "And all kids have the same opportunity to pass. These kids just don't take the opportunities that come their way."
"I'll grant you that there are inner city kids who live up to the expectation society and the suburbs have put upon them, but in no way do these kids all have the same educational opportunities. There are kids who have to care for their siblings because a single parent is off working her second or even third job. Others aren't sure if there will be a meal when they get home. Many walk the streets in fear and live in houses with bars on the windows to protect what little they have. Many do not have a desk with ample light and parents who have gone to college, parents whose parents have gone to college standing close by to help them with their homework. The opportunities are as far apart as their economic status," I said.
"Aw, you're just rationalizing because your test scores aren't as good as the suburbs," he said.

"You know what real school reform would be? Maybe school districts shouldn't hire teachers. Maybe the state should. Then a teacher could work at one school for a few years and then be transferred to another for a few more years and so on. Then a teacher could work in both the more wealthy suburbs and the inner cities putting their real teaching skills to the test. If a teacher can get high test scores from their students in the most affluent districts, let's see those same teachers do it in the least," I said.
This friend of a friend sipped his drink and looked at me and chuckled, "A lot of teachers think like you when they first start teaching. Don't worry; you'll get like the rest of us. You'll grow out of it," he said.
"That's funny," I responded. "Teachers have been telling me that for years."


  1. Wow...great post...don't think you can understand unless you have been in the situation...thankfully for those kids...you are there...and you do make a difference...as important as they are...test scores aren't everything...they don't...and probably can't measure the true difference that dedicated educators...and school nurses like me...make on a daily difference...

  2. It's as if this automaton unwittingly served as your muse... I found your perspective to be illuminating.