Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

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  1. I think they are asking too much of teachers for what’s likely to be too little reward. Would you give up your job where you are apparently a successful employee and have predictable working conditions and exchange it for much harder conditions for the opportunity to each 3,500 extra dollars a year but are really only guaranteed 1,000? How eager are you to do this if it involved leaving all your seniority and security behind by going to a new district, particularly to a school known for high levels of family dysfunction and perhaps incompetent administration? I don’t think most of us pursue that offer. You’d really have to make the risk worth it in pay.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    A teacher like Casie Jones may well be able to make a substantial difference, just as some teachers can successfully “differentiate instruction” across a wide range of skill and preparation. However, I am fairly sure teachers like her are rare–and probably require a special personality.

    Teachers who can reach chronically failing students should be sought out and paid really well. If you can take chronically failing high school students and get half of them up to a reasonable proficient level, a 50% bonus seems like a minimum to me.

    • Exactly, Roger. $3,500 doesn’t begin to cover what that skill is actually worth.

      • Well, it’s a step in the right direction but it’s a faltering step and likely to fail in its stated intent.

        If the principal has no more stake in student achievement then they do now, which is to say there’s no incentive pay for the principal, then what are the principals motivations likely to be?

        Will the principal be inclined to try to help his hot-shot teachers to even greater achievement or undercut them? Not at all clear but at the very least it’ll keep the pot boiling under the public education issue which is not the situation favored by the defenders of the public education status quo. A graceful slide, once again, into apathy by the public is what’s favored. Teacher bonus pay is a sufficiently contentious issue to work against that.

    • A teacher like Casie Jones may not be as rare as we think. I took the trouble to look up the Parent/Student Handbook for her school, and she has some big guns backing her up. The school’s uniform and jewelry policy alone would make teaching and discipline much more effective.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I would love to find out that “A teacher like Casie Jones [is not] as rare as we think.” However, we will never find out until we seek out people specifically to reach high-risk-of-failure students and then keep good records on how successful they are.

        Speaking of rare, I suspect it’s a pretty rare public school that can develop and enforce a uniform and jewelry policy like that.

        • Exactly, Roger. And so we wish to replicate Casie Jones’ success without replicating the conditions of her success.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    Tennessee standards are low. I don’t see how this will work for the teachers…

  4. If one were a farmer with fields of land of different fertilities the most rational plan to follow would be to first devote one’s efforts to the fields with the best soil and only after that devote effort to the poorer fields.
    We seem to follow the exact opposite approach in our educational policy. We worry most about low ability students and seem to almost totally ignore more talented students.
    Having the best teachers instructing the least able students is a huge waste of the teaching ability of the best teachers.

    • The logical extension of that idea is that the least able students should be excluded from public school since they use up valuable resources to no societal benefit. Your farmer, for instance, wouldn’t bother planting a field from which he’ll never see a profit.

      For a farmer the tool by which he decides whether to plant or not is the profit potential of the acreage so if he plants enough non-profitable acres he stops being a farmer. But what’s the metric by which to determine which kids are worth educating and which kids aren’t? Or to determine what the budget differential ought to be between smart and dumb kids?

      To your last point, what makes you think the smartest kids need a teacher at all? Perhaps the greatest payoff for society is to assign the best teachers to the dumbest kids and let the smartest kids soar with the eagles untroubled by teachers who are almost certainly dumber then those kids.

      • CarolineSF says:

        Very often (I bet a teacher would say “most often”), the issue isn’t that the kid is “dumb” (aka low cognitive skills or whatever eduspeak term). The biggest challenges are students who are oppositional, defiant, non-compliant, disruptive — “intentional non-learner” is eduspeak for THAT.

        I’m not sure about the notion of just “assigning” the best teachers. In the marketplace, don’t we want to reward the best? How does forcing them to do the hardest and least pleasant jobs jibe with that concept? The more successful teachers, over the long haul, tend to get themselves into more rewarding, more pleasant teaching situations. Should that change, and can it?

        • And the problem is that it only takes 2 or 3 disruptive students to ruin a whole class’s ability to learn.

          Maybe a better investment would be ex-marines in every classroom?

          • CarolineSF says:

            A friend who worked in a high-poverty school once did her own survey of many teachers and found that they all seemed to agree — 10% disruptive students is the tipping point for a school or a classroom, the point at which the school or classroom become far less functional. “Dumb” students truly aren’t the problem.

          • Better yet, put all the disruptives in a separate class, with Marine(s) SAA, and let the rest of the kids get on with their education.

        • Bickaneye Honey Pot says:

          I’m willing to bet that within 10 years the government will force that to change. You’re a good teacher? Then you either go teach where you’re needed the most, or lose your access to Obamacare.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Do surgeons look for the simplest surgeries? Do lawyers seek out the least complex cases? No. Professionals at the top of their game look for ways to challenge themselves. They’re competitive people who look to continue to learn. They also are respected and admired by their peers. But the current structure of the profession called teaching discourages distinctions between teachers. Unions don’t like it.

          • CarolineSF says:

            I don’t think you’re in touch with reality, Stacy. I restarted a career that for many requires grueling work hours (after taking many years off to raise my kids), and I look forward to working my way back into less grueling hours after I’ve put in some time. That’s the way life works.

            Those lawyers and surgeons aren’t taking cases they don’t want (hopeless ones, boring ones) and they’re also making megabucks.

          • Well there’s more then one reality to be out of touch with then. If teachers don’t have much choice over the “cases” they take they’re not on the hook at all to do a good job.

            And surgeons and lawyers do take tough, even unwinnable cases because when they prove the consensus wrong their reputation improves which attracts a clientele looking for the exceptional performers. Teachers enjoyed no such reward for exceptional behavior and it remains to be seen whether the efforts to remedy that situation will do so.

          • Roger Sweeny says:


            Lots of people like to challenge themselves. They see success at the end of the challenge and figure that they have the power to meet it. On the other hand, the jobs with the least satisfaction, the most unhealthy stress, are those where the employee has little power and a lot of responsibility.

            Teachers do not have a lot of power to force students to do what has to be done to learn, or in many cases, to stop some students from making it difficult for other students to learn.

            Unsurprisingly, teachers often come to feel that it’s not their fault if students don’t learn, and that it would be unfair to base their compensation or retention on their students’ performance.

          • While I see Stacy’s point, one thing that complicates teaching in these environments is that you can’t take ‘easier’ jobs at the same time. Doctors and lawyers (and contractors and engineers) will take challenging cases that, financially, aren’t worth their time or add a lot of stress. They have the option, though, of interspersing ‘normal’ jobs…they know that there will be an end to their hard job. Teachers know that they’ve signed up for at least 9 months, and to be effective they should probably stay in the same place for several years.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            I agree with you, Roger. Teachers to a certain extent lack the power to exert control in a classroom and over their own profession, but that reality is part of the bargain they struck when they became cogs in a union dominated job rather than professionals. Professionals like accountants, doctors, and lawyers self-regulate but don’t collectively bargain. Their professional organizations police and credential with an eye toward maintaining status and reputation. We’re all familiar with the stories about medical interns and heavy case loads of new attorneys. Teachers traded in the rigors of professional training and the prestige that goes with it, and the control over who is credentialed as a teacher for a guaranteed union contract.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            But surgeons DON’T seek out folks who *won’t* follow post-surgery instructions. I can imagine lots of teachers being fine teaching “dumb” kids who are trying. It is attempting to teach the ones who don’t care or are actively fighting against learning (and actively fighting against anyone else in the classroom learning) that is no fun.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          “I’m not sure about the notion of just “assigning” the best teachers. In the marketplace, don’t we want to reward the best? How does forcing them to do the hardest and least pleasant jobs jibe with that concept?”

          It doesn’t. In a market, you pay extra for doing a better job or successfully completing a harder task. Often, you get a refund if the contractor doesn’t perform up to spec.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            lulu, while other professions have more control over what cases they may take, they also suffer income insecurity. After tenure, teachers don’t – guaranteed salary, benefits and pension. I can choose my doctor, accountant, plumber, dentist, landscaper, and housecleaner. I cannot choose my (kids’) school or teacher. Ever notice that the more something is controlled or subsidized by government the less value the end user receives?

    • Bickaneye Honey Pot says:

      You sound like a racist and a eugenicist. You’d probably also enjoy it if all the ‘less lucky’ among us were rounded up and spent their lives in FEMA camps making clothes and license plates for the ‘more lucky’ among us. Terrible.

  5. Many of the students in the public schools do not belong there. They and society would be better off if they were out in the real world growing up into adults instead of having an adolescence endlessly prolonged by a useless effort to “educate” tthem.
    I would assume that the best athletic coaches in our country are probably employed by NFL, NBA etc. teams to coach the most athletic individuals. Should we take all these coaches away from their jobs and put them to work coaching the the least athletic and klutziest spastics in our society? If we did that the performance of the top athletes would decline significantly while the athletic performance of the spastics would hardly improve at all. Should the best piano teachers attempt to instruct tone-deaf individuals with barely enough manual dexterity to tie their shoelaces while ignoring the kid with natural talent at the Tchaikovsky Competition level?
    There is far more social benefit to be achieved by say working with a child with a natural gift for piano playing than by succeeding in getting an unmusical person such as myself to be able to play a few notes of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”

  6. And all of us should be able to sing like angels. Fantasies of what everybody should have and reality are two different things. If we can’t get someone to the 4th grade level in 12 years it is long past time to give up.

    • I agree. A education system that turns out substantial percentages of illiterates, despite vast resources, has failed and should be discarded.

  7. To CarolineSF – The type of student you mentioned, “defiant” and all that, is the type who least belongs in school. In the real world maybe they could be a bouncer. Its an honest job and bars need bouncers. If they can’t figure out how to make an honest living that’s what prisons are for.

    • CarolineSF says:

      Jim, I agree that it’s not realistic to assume that teachers and classes can or should cope with those students. Also, anyone who has spent time in high-poverty schools can see that the truly oppositional/defiant kids will lure kids who are kind of borderline into the misbehavior.

      In my opinion, vocational programs in our high schools would serve some of those kids and bring them out of the oppositional/defiant category (while the moronic notion that all kids must be classically educated with a college prep curriculum sets many kids, teachers and schools up for failure. All people who cluelessly espouse that notion should be required to spend about a month in a non-selective high-poverty school, full-time, no breaks.)

      Here’s a report on a Newark school struggling with that very issue. Well, this is a report about the report. Both that and the report itself are worth reading.


  8. Allen – On television lawyers take tough unwinnable cases in order to save humanity. But’s that’s mainly only on television. In real life lawyers generally get paid whether they win or lose. Surgeons also get paid whether the patient lives or dies.

    • Sorry Jim but it isn’t “mainly on television”.

      Challenges, that are overcome, have a delightful effect on one’s career prospects so the ambitious lawyers and doctors take on the tough cases all the time. If they’re ambitious and inept their reputations, and prospects, suffer. If they’re good then their reputations, and prospects, grow.

      It’s only good teachers that get nothing for their talents and skills.

  9. In my area, unclassified middle and high schoolers who are oppositionally defiant are removed from the mainstream population, to alternative school. The basic problem is two-fold: they are angry that they are being blamed for not learning material that was not presented at school. Many were in full inclusion elementary classes that didn’t cover all the grade level material, much less have the staffing to include their initial below-grade level, but not sped, instructional needs.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Hmmm. Maybe we could stop some of these problems before they start by putting kids in classes with other kids who have the same relative level of preparation and skill. Then, be sure to cover all the expected material and do it at a speed that is appropriate for all the students in the class.

      Oops. That sounds a little like tracking. BAD BAD STOP!

      Let’s pretend teachers can “differentiate instruction” across wide levels of skill and preparation instead.

      • CarolineSF says:

        Racial bean-counting makes this a hot potato, to mix metaphors. The right/”reform” voices eagerly engage in the racial bean-counting too, as a way to attack schools and teachers — that is, both sides do it — all ppl who never go into classrooms, needless to say.

  10. Allen – I’ve had a little bit of experience with corporate litigation, not as a lawyer, but as a witness or involved in actuarial settlement calculations. I’ve never seen a case where the lawyers on either side lost any money or were ever at any financial risk. In my experience both lawyers and expert witnesses do great financially whether their clients win or lose.
    In no case in wich my side lost did any law firm ever offer to reduce any legal fees.

    • Jim – maybe not. But what happens to the partner if he keeps losing cases? In finance or consulting at least, you see people get de-partnered for not pulling their weight.

  11. And I’m sure that the other patrners in the law firm are delighted when one of the partners offers to work for free.

    • Sorry – the implication wasn’t that YOU’d get a rebate, but that his future billings would be impacted and he’d have less work and contribute less billable hours. Taking too many risks might impact a career.

      Teachers are expected to educate all the blueberries, other professions can be choosier (to a greater or lesser degree)


  12. palisadesk says:

    “Having the best teachers instructing the least able students is a huge waste of the teaching ability of the best teachers.”

    The assumption here is that the same skillset and knowledge base is needed to teach both high ability students and low-ability students effectively.

    I know of no evidence that this is the case. I can claim to be (on the whole) a very effective teacher of low-ability students, low average students, “difficult” students and bright students with significant challenges. Along with a particular set of skils and knowledge, I happen to have a fascination with figuring out what the obstacles are for students and developing effective ways to overcome them.

    However, I do *not* have any special talent with high-ability , high-achieving students, and when assigned by my district to the Gifted and Talented program (not voluntarily), I certainly liked the students but found my skills and knowledge pretty much useless and I personally was bored by the lack of challenge .These students did not have obstacles to learning; rather,, they needed appropriate stimuli and challenge, effective and accelerated instruction and opportunities in specific things, but were in an entirely different category from kids with limited academic ability or even students with plenty of ability but significant social, emotional, LD or environmental challenges.

    I think I did an OK job teaching the gifted — I worked extra hard, took a few courses and networked with other teachers in the program — but I certainly was not above average, and I got back to the “other” kids as quickly as possible. I strongly suspect that someone who does an outstanding job teaching gifted and high-achieving students might be as lackluster teaching slower learners or “difficult” kids as I was teaching high achievers. The requirements really are very different (of course the occasional individual might be proficient at both, but this would be anomalous).

    Just because someone is a great cardiologist doesn’t mean he or she would make a top-notch obstetrician or psychiatrist. It’s quite poassible to be gifted at some types of teaching and minimally competent at others.

    One pervasive problem in elementary teaching is that people are not encouraged, or even allowed, to specialize. Let’s say one becomes a sensationally effective teacher of beginning reading and math skills — there is nothing to prevent one being arbitrarily assigned to teach completely unrelated subjects at a different level on short notice. Knowing this certainly militates against individuals developing real specialties in meeting students’ learning needs.