School Reform: Build In Support and They Will Come

Summary: Presidential directives and court cases are useful, but good teachers know schools of poverty will burn out their energies without well designed support for their efforts.
The drumbeat of reform has a new cause. Since quality teachers are the sine qua non for turnaround in low income schools, a chief impediment to progress is the predominance in those halls of new and less qualified teachers.
President Obama has recently announced that he will order by executive authority that high poverty schools will have their share of experienced quality teachers, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled that teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional under the California constitution because they protect longevity over quality, and so deprive poor California students of the equal right to a quality education. Creative move, that.
But I suspect that both the Obama directive and the court development, while waving big sticks, will be insufficient in the face of some critical realities on the ground.
Let’s say I’m a teacher in an elementary school in a big city USA. I do have a sense of a mission I am called to, and in particular on a deeply gut level I am incensed by the inequalities I see around me and the poor shake given to too many students of color in particular, and often low income students in general. So I am motivated to chart my course in a poor neighborhood with a host of the social ills foisted upon it by the broader culture, and which the culture of poverty continues to incubate in a deepening beat.
But I am increasingly overwhelmed, despite my emotional commitment to the kids in my class. Some have parental support behind them, but lag in skills because of poor previous instruction, or the intrusions of a chaotic street on their attention to school. Another may be in foster care, several contend with unknown abuse in the home, and others eat poorly or not enough at all, and may have already suffered cognitive deficits from inconsistent and inadequate nutrition. Only a few have been read to on a frequent basis, or have had the luxury of competent day care. Perhaps 75 – 80% of my students are behind grade level in math or reading, or both; the degree of deficit varies with each student. Yet I am charged with bringing each student up to grade level standard, a requirement that seems unpityingly unrealistic.
For a few years the battle zone has fed my sense of making a difference. I am in a school with a demanding but supportive principal who pushes her staff to step beyond assumed limits.
But in important ways my personal life has been put on hold, such are the emotional and multiple demands on my time. I simply cannot maintain my current commitment without limit. My boyfriend encourages me to check out recent openings in a nearby suburban school……
Well, our hypothetical teacher may in fact leave to a suburban school. Or, burned out, she may leave teaching entirely. Or, as Mr. Obama laments with his executive order, she may have been riffed in a context of many more experienced teachers, get disgusted with the system, and leave it entirely. The upshot from these vectors is that the student in the poor school in a low income community does not get an equal shake.
These one direction personnel exits beg the question, why do not quality teachers flow from their suburban enclaves to more challenging inner city venues? After all, that is where the action is.
Well, for the same reasons our hypothetical teacher has left. Teaching is difficult wherever one teaches. But the difficulty of teaching is amplified in deeply urban areas because of the relentless demand on flexibility, creativity, time and emotional resources. It is one thing to sustain energy in the first blush of professional life; it is another to do so year after year for a sustained career.
Simply, teachers in poverty schools need more supportive infrastructure, and fewer students so as to better mentor the multiple needs their students have.
Social workers to provide a variety of family and individual scaffolding, and programs to upgrade nutrition are but two examples. Instructional assistants to help with the monitoring of individual progress and the customizing of curriculum to meet student need on a daily basis can play a vital role in this era dominated by testing.
In a familiar tactic that is cheaper than hiring more certified teachers or other professionals, Garfield Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts, has partnered with an after school outfit called Citizen Schools, which leverages Americorps’ young college graduates to supplement the work of regular teachers (as reported by Laura Pappano in Inside School Turnarounds). Citizen Schools’ “teachers” provide after school tutoring, call parents on a regular basis, forge relationships with kids, and in general do the many things that teachers know need to be done to be effective, and which wear down teachers’ resilience in their absence.
To me, it is striking that charters and inner city schools that have shown promising advances all seem to have supplementary monies and hence programs that support the fundamental effort of teachers. That is not to say that many of them haven’t leveraged existing resources in creative ways, but most that I encounter benefit from foundation support, or dedicated tax dollars, or some other means of bringing resources to bear beyond the norm on the problem of poverty in schools.
Provide in creative ways such supports to the classroom teacher in neighborhoods heavily impacted by poverty, and then ask the experienced teacher to take up the challenge of teaching there, without the risk of giving until her spirit is exhausted.
She may be ordered to the inner city, and tenure may disappear, but she cannot shift the balance in the way poor kids need without significant assistance.

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