Can schools make a difference for poor kids?

Teacher Dwayne Betts, guest-posting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog, asks: Can schools make a difference for children in poor neighborhoods?

Two months into my first real job teaching poetry at a middle school in Southeast D.C. the English teacher whose class I took over once a week got hit in the eye while breaking up a fight. Two weeks later, after the student who’d struck her hadn’t been expelled, she decided not to return. This was a seventh grade English class, first quarter of the school year. . . . The school never hired another teacher. I watched a rotating cycle of substitutes come in and hand out worksheets to students that ran the gamut from on grade level to barely reading.

Disorder pushes good teachers away from troubled schools, Betts writes.  Most good young teachers in D.C. public schools leave for charter schools or private schools, “even when it means working more hours and longer school years.”

Betts is inspired by James Forman Jr.’s  No Ordinary Success in Boston Review, which compares two reform models: Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy builds on an attempt to transform a high-poverty community, while KIPP middle schools work to educate low-income, minority children who can handle a structured, high-expectations model.

Promise Academy faced serious academic and behavior problems with its first middle-school students, who’d come from district-run public schools. Yet test scores went up significantly, even for the most troubled students, Forman writes.

In a visit to KIPP, he found seventh-grade boys discussing Raisin in the Sun, listening to each other politely and citing passages in the text to support their points.

But KIPP is able to hire excellent teachers, Forman writes. There aren’t enough to go around.

. . . many mediocre teachers and administrators do not have the capacity to improve to anywhere near the standard required to achieve KIPP-like results. As much as it thrills us to read about extraordinary people succeeding with poor children, I want to see how ordinary people can do the same.

Forman recommends Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes on Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Jay Mathews’ Work Hard. Be Nice. on KIPP and Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change on the “persistence of failure in urban schools,” despite positive models.

In response to the ongoing “fix communities” versus “fix schools” debate, those doing the work in the trenches increasingly are settling on a single answer: do both.

“Canada started out running social programs, but when he peeked inside Harlem classrooms, he quickly realized he could never transform the neighborhood without fixing the schools,” Forman writes.  KIPP is now offering preschool, afterschool and summer school programs in some cities, plus “individual tutoring, social workers for kids in distress, and, at some campuses, classes for parents. It is also actively involved in community partnerships that address families’ medical and other needs.”

It seems to me that fixing poverty is a lot harder and more expensive than creating effective schools that protect teachers (and students) from violent kids.

Via Class Struggle.

About Joanne


  1. It’s an old joke with urban educators: What did you do to force that poor, sweet child to hurt his hand breaking your jaw?

    My husband had to leave a school last year, after repeated assaults. The perps were, sometimes, suspended for a few days. Often, the response from the administration was that the student had a different story, and they were prepared to believe that student (without talking to him).

    Ask your readers. In my experience, MOST urban teachers have been injured or threatened, or both, by students or their families, at least once in their careers.

    It’s a hard-knock life.

    But, as KIPP and a few other schools have shown, it’s not inevitable. Kids can learn to control their actions, they can learn to conform to reasonable standards of conduct

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I have to weigh in on this one. I have to point out, first of all that Dwayne Betts’ point of view is a valid one, but it is nonetheless the point of view of a first year teacher. To get a really complete ethnography of the situation, it would be necessary to examine the points of view of seasoned teachers, of administrators, of students and of parents as well to understand much that is meaningful about the experience of low-income students in urban districts. One might perhaps ask why the district never hired a replacement teacher. Were none of the revolving array of substitutes interested in full-time work and benefits? Were their qualifications so low that any one of them full time would be worse than the ever changing array of subs? And would this ever, ever have continued through the school year in a district where parents have lawyers on speed dial, go to Rotary or Kiwanis with school board members and have the ability to make a credible case that the principal who allows this to continue is incompetent?

    One of the differences with regard to urban schools is that so many parents are NOT routinely listened to, are so easily discounted as crazy people when they recognize that a situation makes no educational sense. A lot of energy goes into keeping them out, rather than engaging them. A parent with a basic array of middle class social capital would be (and I frequently am) outraged at the treatment that parents receive in many urban schools.

    But, I have also been a social worker in an urban community setting. I worked with children in after-school and resident camping programs. I can tell you that I was not hired because I had long years of experience, or a string of credentials. I had a teaching certificate as new and shiny as Mr. Betts. I was hired through VISTA, a program that places such new graduates sight unseen in various settings working with poor people. My cohort included an inexperienced social worker, an inexperienced architect, an English major with no professional work experience, a college drop-out, a theater major who believe that she was destined for the New York stage. In short, nothing about us would indicate that we would measure up to the quality of “excellent.” Our pay, actually a stipend, fell below minimum wage (although we had full health and some other assorted benes, like travel home at the end of the year with a readjustment allowance). We worked side by side with seasoned social workers, street-savvy youth workers who had grown up in the neighborhood, the occasional artist or philosopher, parents and community people and a Board that included a requisite number of churchy-types.

    I would say that the work that we were able to pull off might easily be comparable to that of KIPP or HCZ. But it was not because we were highly credentialled or even experienced. Nor was it because the agency was well-resourced–at least compared to the public school across the street. We were able to offer anyone willing to work there an experience doing something very important that fed the mind as well as the soul. We certainly were able to have discussions of Raisin in the Sun, or Caucasian Chalk Circle or In White America. We worked with some of the most disadvantaged, as well as some more advantaged kids whose parents just believed in what we were doing. We accepted referrals through Children’s Services and the Mental Health system. Through the efforts of neighborhood people engaged in groups that came together to study needs, we had a voice in expanding public housing (as well as determining where it would be located and what it would look like), we were able to motivate the local health department to access available federal funding to provide access to health care for the medically indigent and underserved populations on Medicaid. I recall the triumph of one evening when we loaded up a van full of kids to lobby the School Board to keep an arts component in the elementary school (saving a couple of teachers their jobs).

    We were not highly qualified. We were just clear about our mission, and used the resources of our neighborhood. We acted on something that is now called “job embedded” professional development. We also failed sometimes. We lost the local branch bank. Union workers lost a bid to buy a plant that was closing. Annual attempts to save various funding streams sometimes went nowhere.

    But, we had behavioral expectations of children–alongside the mission driven expectation that we would not “expel” children. Some were more successful than others–however, the inexperienced and unskilled were not abandoned to their worst efforts. It was not considered “unprofessional” to call a meeting that included misbehaving children alongside their overwhelmed adult and lay-out and commit to a solution. Adults were expected to examine their behavior just as we expected that of children. Slugging someone was absolutely not acceptable–however, it was viewed in the context of a problem that needed a solution. I never hear that from teachers when they recount how they have been hurt.

    I understand that teachers have less freedom than we had to change focus to deal with problems. Yet, a school like KIPP, or HCZ, may be succeeding because they re-order their day to include time for such things, and because they build structures that support solutions and avoid problems. Adding extra social workers and outreach workers and onsite clinics is not likely to bring about any change if the structure of school remains one in which a first year teacher is able to observe that a class is in trouble because their teacher left, but no one is able to solve that problem.

  3. Kids used to conform to reasonable standards of conduct in public schools. Both parents and schools taught and enforced civility, before the 60s mindset destroyed both the family and common standards.

  4. Miller Smith says:

    The biggest mistake that assaulted teachers make is to sit back an wait for the system to do the right thing.

    Always take control of the legal situation. Let your principal know that you are going to a lawyer and filing crimminal charges against he child along with a protective order forbidding the child to be in the building with you.

    Start civil suits against the parents (especially if they are poor!) and the school system. Make sure to list in the civil suit agiant the school system every fight and injury that occured in your school over the last year and what was done with the offending students. Have every teacher who is “assaulted” to post on a public webpage the date, time, siuation, etc. of their assault so it is available for everyone to see and use for their lawsuits against the system.

    And when (not if) an admin type makes any threat against you for going legal, charge them with crimminal obsruction of justice and sue them as well.

    Get some balls teachers! Stop being wimps.

  5. Catholic schools do an excellent job educating low-income, minority students and I don’t think they have unusually talented teachers. It’s not about hiring Ivy League graduates to teach, it’s about having a rigorous curriculum and a strict disciplinary code.

  6. Margo/Mom–how long ago was your after-school experience? I ask because you reference Rotary/Kiwanis which are both dying from lack of new members. Running an after school program and teaching kids who’ve been passed along from year to year are rather different things.

    I wouldn’t return to a job that refused to fire my assailant, and I wouldn’t expect any teacher to have to put up with a kid who hit him or her.

    Yes, some urban parents are overwhelmed and too busy working bad jobs. Some are crackheads. Some don’t care. Involving parents who can’t/won’t work with the school seems a waste of time–better to work with the kids who do want to learn and salvage what they can.

  7. Miller Smith,

    I would think the teacher’s union would do this automatically for its members. If not why bother having a union? A union that will not protect the safety of its members is worthless.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    Kate–my reference to Rotary/Kiwanis mostly reflects my lack of social capital in the ways of the upper middle class. My one professional stint in the ‘burbs, however, was very revealing with regard to the potency of networking and the sense of entitlement and the ownership of publicly financed personnel. It may not be Rotary/Kiwanis in your area–although I am aware of at least one Rotary club locally that wields considerable financial clout. In addition, there is still a fairly well-established hierarchy of “clubs” a la Junior League and the Opera Supporters, etc (in fact, one step in that direction is through the PTA or various booster clubs in some areas).

    I have never yet met a teacher who accepted the validity of my experience outside of their own particular classroom. This is why I so seldom bring it into discussions here. While it has been some years since I worked with that agency, I continue to work with kids of varying backgrounds–including a fine group of kids who attend public school whose parents are recovering addicts. Some are minimally housed (that means that they are in some kind of “shelter”). Some have various “offical” disabilities and attend “special” schools or go to “special” classrooms. I have not observed that there has been any great change in kids over time. But I am far better versed than I once was to recognize an environment with room to improve. Most (urban) schools that I set foot in fall into that category.

  9. Still so much work to be done.

  10. Being assaulted and threatened is just part of the job even idyllic suburbia.

    As far as impoverished children and schools go, if, as a society, we really cared about children, we’d have had this all figured out long ago. Actually, I suspect we do have it figured out, but lack the will to implement the solutions. Americans are a hard people.

  11. Lightly Seasoned, what would you propose as the solutions?

  12. I don’t personally know all the solutions, but it doesn’t seem so far out of our reach to at least feed them, does it?

  13. These stories are always so overblown. I have been an educator for thirty years… including 5 years in the Juvenile Court and Community Schools of San Diego County. I’ve never been assaulted… and never known of a teacher who has been assaulted. Maybe it has to do with our core values… of how we treat children. I have always been convinced that the people that leave the profession as a result of one or two run-ins with kids… NEED to leave. Even the most violent kids that I have worked with– juvenile felons convicted of assault and even murder… conduct themselves in an appropriate way for adults that genuinely respect and appreciate them.

  14. Anyone trying to break up a fight should expect to receive a few wild punches. Doesn’t sound like a deliberate assault on the teacher to me, so it doesn’t rate expulsion. Suspension, maybe even for more than 5 days, might be warranted, but not expulsion.

  15. It might be interesting to see how a charter school in Manhattan does with a new program to bring in the best and brightest teachers, paying them six figure salaries, to see how it impacts academic achievement among low-achieving young people. The theory is that high salaries will attract the best quality people, just as high salaries attract the best and brightest to fields like medicine and law, and that these superior teachers will produce superior educations for young people.

    For mor information, see: