It's Wrong To Blame Teachers And 'Failing Schools,' When Flight To Magnet And Charter Schools Leaves Neediest Students Behind
March 14, 2010
I retired last June, after nearly 38 years of teaching at Hartford's M.L. King Elementary School. I am always distressed by the degree of blame and scorn leveled at "failing" city schoolteachers and their "obstructionist" unions. Concerns regarding the state of education in our poorest communities are valid, but the solutions leave many of our most vulnerable students even further behind.
I began teaching with a master's degree in urban education from Columbia University. I earned 90 additional college credits to improve my instruction. My last year of teaching, as in most other years, I was at school daily until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., or even 8 p.m. I took work home at night and on weekends. There are countless other teachers just like me. With all of our training, experience and effort, we faced failure daily.
With the advent of magnet and charter schools, the population at King decreased annually. It was a stable community school, with parents, children and sometimes grandchildren being taught by the same teachers. With so many students leaving for choice schools, the population of King has fallen by more than half.
Unfortunately, many, if not most of the students and families who left were those who had greater economic, educational, emotional and social advantages. The application for choice schools is only online. Families without time, confidence, computer skills or even basic literacy are excluded. Those students left behind require considerably more resources, yet in the decentralized, competitive school model, they receive far less.
Despite these disadvantages, King School showed marked improvement on test scores for two consecutive years. King is no longer considered a "failing school." Yet teachers were recently told the school will close over three or four years. It will be replaced by a charter school. Teachers will be laid off, and might not have the option to transfer to another Hartford public school.
I can't help but compare my experiences with those of my sister, who works in a nearby suburban school. She earns more than the teachers in Hartford. She works in a brand-new building with state-of-the-art equipment. Although she is hard-working, she works far fewer hours. She doesn't do piles of paperwork documenting her efforts to improve instruction for large numbers of academically deficient students. Her students are overwhelmingly well cared-for, and it is highly unlikely that any of them have encountered extended periods of hunger, homelessness, drug dealers, gangs or traumatic violence in their neighborhoods.
She has a wealth of supplemental materials at hand. Well-educated parent volunteers are in her classroom daily to assist her students while she delivers small group reading instruction. Most important, she is not blamed for her students' failure to meet proficiency. They are predominantly all at or above proficiency. Her superintendent and members of the board of education honor their teachers contract.
Many teachers in Hartford are trapped, due to an economic situation that offers few teacher openings. But this will soon change. The baby boom generation of teachers is about to retire, and cities and towns will compete to hire the best replacements.
When my generation joined the ranks of teachers determined to fight the War on Poverty in our cities, we understood that resources were unevenly allocated and we'd no doubt have to work harder than our suburban counterparts. We worked collaboratively with administrators and, generally, received respect (if not appreciation) from the public.
In this new world of high-stakes testing and teacher accountability, I fear for our most at-risk children. Who will choose the very vulnerable job of teaching in our poor urban districts? The disparity in pay, resources, safety and, most important, respect will lead teachers to more stable careers in suburban schools. Our city children will be left further and further behind.
Hartford's new schools model is based on the capitalistic theory in which competition drives success. This is largely true. The major flaw in this theory, however, is that although those at the top do quite well and their success does, to an extent, trickle down those at the bottom, the most vulnerable are largely ill-served.
Blaming teachers and failing schools is an easy way to avoid the bigger, more costly issues. Generations of misguided, sometimes racist public policies have created intractable problems for the poor.
Opening assorted charter schools and hiring new, inexperienced (sometimes uncertified) teachers is not the answer. It's a band-aid covering far more systemic problems, for which we, as a society, have proved unwilling to provide the substantial resources needed.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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