More than two decades teaching in the hard scrabble Oakland public schools have taught Anthony Cody to view urban kids with pity.
That’s my assessment after reading his recently recycled blog post that lathers readers in a wellspring of negative statistics and damning studies. When you’re done reading it the only logical conclusion is our children are so horribly battered that they are no longer kids. They are sociological objects for study who deserve condolences.
I have a name for this sort of overly gratuitous writing that aging white liberals seem so fond of producing. It’s poverty porn.
In Cody’s case it comes with props. Every possible chart, graph, study, and statistic to paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally, or intellectually unfit.
One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.
Even worse, “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”
If you feel helpless now to the point of apathy, join the club. I spent over a decade working with families in poverty through government and faith-based services. If I read you some of my case notes it could probably make you cry.
But I never became a fatalist. I didn’t see people as an assumed set of diagnoses. Reading Cody’s post tells me he feels the needs to prove kids are irreparably broken as a device for managing expectations of teachers.
He says “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”
It’s a great diversion, but why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and succeeding teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction, and learning?
For Cody, it’s all a pretense. Why do “reformers” pretend poor people are capable when evidence says they are not?
Our education reformers want teachers to come into the schools like knights on white horses, plaster the walls with college logos, and push students to new heights with our high expectations. I have seen this in dozens of classrooms of novice teachers, often associated with programs like Teach For America. We are pretending that there is some sort of level playing field here, but we are failing to create such a field. Instead, we just pretend these students are going to be able to compete with their well-heeled counterparts in the suburbs for shrinking higher educational opportunity. For most of them it is an empty promise.
The idea that education can contribute to social parity is a ruse. Further, thinking teachers can make a difference is unscientific.
…teachers only account for at most 20% of the variance in student test scores, and more than 60% of score variance correlates to out-of-school factors. We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.
What is it like to believe – as Cody does – that the only viable path to classroom learning is shifting focus to building “a well-functioning democratic welfare state.” How does it feel to be a “teacher” who sees teaching as futile?
I imagine that if you truly believe you have no agency as a classroom teacher, and that your best efforts will only yield a minor impact on the academic achievement of your students, your results might live up to that expectation.
A powerful disbelief
If his point is that poor people of color in urban centers have caught hell in America, I agree. Oppression, racism, and structural injustice are real. But my people are more than our struggles. We are not defined by deficits. Only strangers and cultural tourist see us that way. We are never more pathetic than when well-meaning liberals describe us to their friends in blogs and tweets.
Educators shouldn’t awfulize black children because it sets in motion systemic belief systems that form the basis of institutionalized racism. It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones. You possibly know this as the Pygmalion effect.
Maybe you’ve heard this research story from 1968:
Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher.
Belief can be powerfully positive when kids are seen as amazing, but unmercifully negative when kids are seen through Cody’s lens.
Maybe that’s why American girls do less well in math. Research suggests math teachers are more “generous” to boys and have lower expectations for girls. That by the way isn’t a race or income problem. That is a long standing bit of institutional sexism.
In other cases boys get lower letter grades from their teachers than girls, even when their achievement on standardized tests is higher than girls.
While Cody & Co. want us to obsess about the correlation between poverty and educational results (as if that is new or unbreakable), they are less willing to to talk about research that shows a correlation between teacher attitudes, expectations of students, and student achievement.
I am believer
When we raise expectations in classrooms for students they do better. I believe that as much as fatalists on the left believe the opposite.
I am fascinated by great schools and enlivened by doing school visits. Seeing schools where children are honored, and affirmed, and where very smart people really give of themselves in a way that has the look of being on fire – it’s fuel for a life less cynical.
In all my stops I have never encountered a school where children of color who live in under resourced neighborhoods where doing well if teachers talked like Cody. Focusing on the deficits of children is a loser’s strategy. It helps no one. The reflex of some educators when I say this is to ask “have you ever taught.” It is intended to invalidate my thoughts and firm their position as an authority on my community.
I pray for them.
For the record I only teach my own five kids. Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists. They are running schools on ingenuity, hard work, and humility, so they are often tired and highly stimulated. Sometimes they win. Sometimes there are setbacks. Either way they always seem in the process of learning something new. They are students of success, not experts on failure.
The last great school I visited had teachers that seemed to believe their kids were all gifted. When I asked one teacher about the challenges of poverty in their neighborhood she said “we don’t buy into all that. We do our job.”
That echoed a Finnish teacher in Amand Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids In The World.” When she asked him about educating poor students he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded: “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”
That couldn’t be more precious, or more real.
What he says next is the line I have remembered most from Ripley’s book: “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”
That teacher and Cody should talk.
In the end we should agree that if you are not capable of getting results in classrooms with children of color who live with poverty, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
It just means you shouldn’t blog or teach.
Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud
My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.
My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.
I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.
Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?
Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.
I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.
Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.
Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.
In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.
a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.
And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.
“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.
Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.
The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.
And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.
But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.
And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.
Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!
Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!
Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.
So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?
According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”
His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.
“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.
See his powerful speech below.
It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education
The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.
I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.
In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.
Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.
Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.
“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.
Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:
People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.
If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?
Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”
Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.
During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.
Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”
Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:
…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.
Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically, the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?
Again, only she can say.
In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.
In supporting Pataki’s push she said:
It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.
Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?
Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.
Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:
Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.
If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.
But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.
Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.
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