Should we really expect schools to cure poverty?
By Alex Kotlowitz
The opinions expressed are his own.
Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Kotlowitz’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein, Deborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings and Diane Ravitch as well.
I greatly admire Steve Brill and his writing, and so was surprised to read what felt like a jeremiad against the teachers’ unions. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot amiss with how the teachers’ unions have come to defend their members at the expense of the children, and at the expense of honest, true school reform, but why the finger pointing when there’s plenty of blame to go around, if blame is what we’re after.
In some ways, Brill’s book is poorly timed. He makes the argument for greater teacher accountability — and yet look at the exploding testing scandal in Atlanta and the emerging one in Washington, DC (under Michelle Rhee, who became a hero to many for her eagerness to take on the unions.) In Atlanta, nearly 200 educators have been accused of tampering with test scores, a culture which clearly came from the top in an effort to keep up with a federal policy aimed at evaluating teachers and schools through test scores. Rhee, according to a New York Times piece today, has run from USA Today reporters trying to ask about allegations of a testing scandal under her watch. The question isn’t whether teachers need to be evaluated or held accountable — but how? (And I suppose we also need to ask: how do we hold administrators accountable, as well?)
But here’s my bigger concern. Brill writes: “Poverty, broken families, race discrimination are huge obstacles, but they are not excuses for allowing kids to fail.” We hear this a lot, especially in the context of the teachers’ unions, that they use poverty to let their members off the hook. Yet, that ignores the profound and deep impact the violence of the streets, a missing father, crowded housing, an incarcerated parent or sibling can have on the ability of a child to learn. There’s evidence, for instance, that being the victim of violence or witnessing it can actually rewire the brain, or at the very least lead to many of the same kind of symptoms we see in war veterans suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder. A common complaint, for instance, of teachers in inner-city elementary schools are kids, especially boys, virtually bouncing off the walls. Hyper-activity — hyper-vigilance, really — is a direct consequence of experiencing trauma. As is the inability to concentrate. Diane Ravitch, who Brill dismisses in this essay, but whom I think is an important voice in the school reform debate was asked recently, If you had a magic wand what would three things would you most like to see changed. The first two had to do directly with education. Her third? Pre-natal healthcare for women.
What Ravitch and others have come to realize is that what happens outside the walls of our schools effects what happens inside. Our children don’t enter that school building every morning and leave behind all that bears down on them. Rather it follows them, it distracts them, it pushes and pulls at them. It permeates their very soul. A few years back, a charter school on Chicago’s West Side lost two students to the violence of the neighborhood within the span of a few weeks. It wreaked havoc on the spirit of students and staff. The school’s principal, Myra Sampson, told me students would stop her in the hall and tell her, I’m going to be next. She told me that the kids were in such a heightened state of arousal that they couldn’t learn. One boy had to be hospitalized because of he was having auditory hallucinations that one of the deceased students was talking to him. “What’s going to be the impact of having a group of young adults who shut off?, she asked me, somewhat rhetorically.
In 2000, James Traub wrote a thoughtful piece in The New York Times Magazine titled, “What No School Can Do.” Traub wrote: “Nobody believes in school the way Americans do, and no one is more tantalized by its transformative powers. School is central to the American myth of self-transcendence…(but) The idea that school, by itself, cannot cure poverty is hardly astonishing, but it is amazing how much of our political discourse is implicitly predicated on the notion that it can.” Traub’s piece still feels like must reading today.
For all the money and thought and resources we’ve poured into schools in impoverished neighborhoods, we’ve done little to raise the trajectory of those growing up in these communities. Brill believes that’s because of racalcitrant teachers’ unions. I believe it’s considerably more complicated than that.