To salvage the “bottom of the bottom” schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposes four models that would qualify for federal funding, writes Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. All require changing the school operator and/or the principal and/or the teachers. Educators have a different idea: Instead of firing teachers or principals, fire the students.
Downey quotes Metro Association of Classroom Educators chairman John Trotter, who says the children in failing schools are the main problem.
“They are unmotivated and lazy. Yes, there are many incompetent and idiotic and mean administrators who need to go,” Trotter says. “There are even some bad teachers, but these are really rare. The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”
It reminds me of Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox’s comment about the horrible state prisons: “What we need is a better class of prisoner!” However, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg makes a more persuasive argument in Education Week. It’s impossible to change a bad school without changing the mix of students, he argues.
Changing the principal and teachers in a school isn’t enough, in part because many years of research have confirmed what all parents know: Kids learn from one another as well as from the teacher. In high-poverty schools, a child is surrounded by classmates who are less likely to have big dreams and, accordingly, are less academically engaged and more prone to acting out and cutting class.
Low-income parents are less likely to volunteer in the classroom and “know how to hold school officials accountable when things go wrong,” Kahlenberg writes.
The student and parent makeup of a school, in turn, profoundly affects the type of teacher who can be recruited. Polls consistently find that teachers care more about “work environment” than they do about salary. They care about school safety, whether they will have to spend large portions of their time on classroom management, and whether parents will make sure kids do their homework. That’s why it’s so difficult to attract and keep great teachers in high-poverty schools, even when bonuses are offered.
Kahlenberg suggests turning high-poverty schools into magnet schools good enough to “attract new teachers and a mix of middle-class and low-income students.” That’s worked in Raleigh and its suburbs, he writes, citing Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.
Economic segregation drives failure, he writes.
It congregates the kids with the smallest dreams, the parents who are most pressed, and burnt-out teachers who often cannot get hired elsewhere.
I don’t think there are enough middle-class urban pioneers to change high-poverty schools in most cities. (And I’d be interested in feedback on Raleigh.) Magnet schools, which have been around for a long time, haven’t proven to be game changers in most places.
Some high-poverty schools are safe, orderly places that concentrate on figuring out how to educate the class of children they’ve got. It’s hard to do, but not impossible.