Saturday, November 5, 2011

Can Good Teaching Overcome Poverty?

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Can good teaching overcome the poverty? Of course not.
The notion that education is the great equalizer, that it is the poor kid’s ticket to the American Dream, is simply an extension of the American Dream mythology.

Statistics do show that those with a college degree earn far more on average than do high school drop outs and those who do not attend college and the overwhelming majority of today’s long term unemployed workers are those without college degrees. Furthermore, children who are successful in high school are more likely to attend and succeed in college. However, these are only correlations, not cause and effect relationships.

Consider that familial wealth is also correlated future career success, as it is with K-12 and college success. This does not mean that K-12 success causes college or career success, nor even that affluence does. Rather, the most logical interpretation of these statistics is that familial wealth provides numerous advantages to children that help them succeed at a higher rate in school, college and career.

The American Dream myth presumes that there is a level playing field and that everyone has the same opportunities if they only apply themselves and work hard. While we do all have the same right to an education, to sell our labor, run for office, or become an entrepreneur, there are numerous life circumstances that are not guaranteed or equally distributed that can facilitate or hinder our academic and career success.

Affluent children tend to have better diets, perinatal care and overall health, and less exposure to environmental toxins, each of which decreases the chances of being born premature, with low birth weight and brain size or having developmental or cognitive impairments. They have increased access to enriching extracurricular activities like travel, summer camp, sports, art classes, museums, and educational games. They tend to have greater early exposure to reading and complex vocabulary which results in an achievement gap before they have even started preschool or kindergarten (see Burkam and Lee and Hart and Risely). They have far less danger at home and in their communities and tend to have much less stress in their lives, thus reducing exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, which can impair memory and learning. While it is true that affluent kids, particularly teens, are under increased pressure to take more AP and other advanced classes, the stress associated with this is not the same as the stress of regularly going hungry, suffering with untreated injuries and illness, and constantly seeing parents worried or complaining about their finances.

Their material security and their parents’ assurances that they will always come out on top confers greater self-confidence and self-efficacy in affluent children. They grow up observing parents and family members who are comfortable with and effective at negotiating bureaucracies and getting their needs met at stores and businesses. Middle class language, norms and mores (which are essentially the same as the language, norms and mores of school) become internalized and second nature to them by the time they are ready for school. All of this gives them a huge advantage over their lower income peers. They are more likely to take risks at school, like asking questions, asking for help, or persevering with something that is difficult. They are more likely to “get” what the teacher is asking or suggesting and to already know how and be able to behave according to the teacher’s expectations.

Can good teaching help some poor students succeed in school? Of course!
There are obviously poor kids who transcend their class backgrounds and move up into the middle class and occasionally even become members of the ruling elite. This does not mean that all of them will. It also is absurd and condescending to them and their families to attribute their success entirely or even mostly to their teachers. Many poor kids come to school with self-confidence, motivation, perseverance and a strong work ethic—attributes that are necessary to succeed in school and that stem mostly from their upbringings and home lives, not from school. Having good teachers most likely helps them to reach their potentials, as it does for affluent children, but it is not the only, nor even the main, reason they succeed.

Nevertheless, the Ed Deformers love to assert that poverty isn’t the problem and that it shouldn’t even be on the table. Of course, many of the most well-known Ed Deformers are billionaires who want to crush the public sector unions and open up public education to private entrepreneurs. So it should not be surprising that they do whatever they can to distract the public from the notion that they ought to give up some of their wealth for the public good.

All the poor kids need, they insist, is better teachers, super men and women who are willing to work 16 hours per day, and do more during each hour than do those other shirkers we politely call teachers. They continue to misrepresent the data on the teacher’s influence on educational outcomes, suggesting that teachers are the largest influence, when even the most conservative researchers say teachers are only responsible for 7-20% of students’ academic success.

Dana Goldstein recently posted links on her blog to some of this research in a rebuttal to RiShawn Biddle’s criticism of her essay on Steven Brill’s Class Warfare.
  • This 1998 paper by Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin--economists who support free-market education reforms--concludes that teacher quality accounts for "at least 7.5 percent" of student achievement outcomes.
  • This 2004 review of a number of studies on teacher effectiveness estimates that between 7 and 21 percent of student achievement differences can be attributed to teachers. See pg. 240. The authors are education researchers at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Tennessee State.
  • On pages 3 to 4 of this 2002 University of Pennsylvania study, the researchers conclude that depending on the valued-added method used, between 4 and 28 percent of student achievement gaps can be attributed to differences between classrooms within a school, of which the teacher would be the most significant. 
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The wealthy do not want to acknowledge the role of poverty out of fear that they might be asked to give up a tiny modicum of their wealth. Politicians don’t want to acknowledge it for fear of losing the support of their funders. School administrators don’t want to talk about it because they “don’t have any control over it,” and they want to focus on what their teachers can “control” through reforms (even if the reforms do not actually do much or anything to help poor children). Teachers do not want to talk about it because they’re too busy trying not to drown under the weight of all the new reforms. The Occupiers do want to talk about it, but ineffectually and delusionally, presuming that their mere presence in public spaces will be sufficient to get the rich to part with a bit of their wealth and that a few extra bucks going into education and public services will somehow end poverty.

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