If poor kids are unteachable, why teach?

Do teachers think low-income students are hopeless? That’s the message Derrell Bradford gets from a Duluth News Tribune commentary and graphic that was retweeted by American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten.

In response to a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s teacher tenure law, the cartoon shows a seating chart filled with losers.

“Weingarten’s retweet shows what she and perhaps many of her members believe about our kids — that their entire identities can be reduced to the challenges they bring to the classroom, and that those challenges obviate and absolve the teacher’s responsibility in the learning equation,” writes Bradford.

Poor kids from tough places are no longer the outlier in America’s schools — they’re the majority of students.
 . . . Teaching is at a crossroads in this country but the issue isn’t which way we proceed with value-added scores or licensure and certification. It’s whether you’re up to the challenge of teaching poor kids or you’re not. There are no “better kids” waiting in the wings.

Bradford grew up poor. He could have been have been trapped in a “below poverty line” square, but he rode buses to get to better schools where teachers worked hard to educate him.

At #ThisTeacher Sees, teachers are making their own seating charts:

Apparently, some teachers have nothing but victims in their classes and others don’t have a single kid who rates “royal pain,” “never shuts up” or “cellphone addict.”

Social services alone won’t improve learning

Cincinnati has piloted community schools, which “wrap health, dental, therapeutic, and family support services around existing schools” to “improve students’ learning and life prospects,” writes Paul Hill of University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea has spread to New York City and Philadelphia.

However, social services along won’t improve student outcomes, he warns. Students from poor families need a high-quality academic education in addition to social supports.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services -- at a high cost.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services, but costs are high and the effect on achievement is not clear.

Oyler School, Cincinnati’s model community school, provides an array of health services, including vision and dental care and mental health counseling.

However,  “the links between even intensive services and student learning are weak and tough to find,” Hill writes. “In Cincinnati, the strongest link between wrap-around services and outcomes like normal progress in school comes from attendance gains: on-site health services mean a parent or guardian no longer needs to take children out of school to wait all day to be seen at an emergency ward.”

“Careful studies” have found that students’ learning growth in the Harlem Children’s Zone “is a result of improvements in the schools,” rather than improved social and health services, he writes.

“Despite enormous support from Cincinnati hospitals and businesses, only Oyler has the full menu of services,” Hill notes. Community schools are expensive.

Ed Next’s top stories of 2015

Starting in pre–K, children at Hoover School talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Children who aren't proficient in English can learn well in English or their native language -- if they're taught well.

Children at Hoover School in Redwood City, California talk, sing, chant, move, explore, experiment, and play in language-rich, text-rich, and information-rich environments. Good teaching is more important than the language of instruction.

Learning English, my story on how “accountability, Common Core and the college-for-all movement are transforming instruction” of students from immigrant families, ranks 10th in Ed Next’s list of the top 20 Education Next Articles of 2015.

That’s not bad considering it didn’t come out till late November.

Overall, readers went for stories on poverty and inequality, say editors. “Five of the articles in the top 20 are from a special issue . .  . on the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report which examined the rise in the number of children growing up in single-parent families.”

Feds run the worst schools in America


Navajo students ride home from Lukachukai Community School in Arizona. Credit: M. Scott Mahaskey

The Bureau of Indian Education’s network of schools for Native American children is “arguably the worst school system in the United States,” writes Maggie Severns on Politico. Reports have detailed its failures for 80 years. “It’s just the epitome of broken,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Politico. “Just utterly bankrupt.”

Tucked into the desert hills on a Navajo reservation 150 miles east of the Grand Canyon, Crystal (Boarding School) has cracks running several feet down the walls, leaky pipes in the floors and asbestos in the basement. Students come from extremely troubled backgrounds, but there is no full-time counselor. Last year, a new reading coach took one look at the rundown cinder block housing and left the next day. Science and social studies have been cut to put more attention on the abysmal reading and math scores, but even so, in 2013 only 5 percent of students were considered to have grade-level math skills.

. . . The 48,000 students unfortunate enough to attend BIE schools have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country — even as the education they’re getting is among the nation’s most expensive: At $15,000 per pupil, the system costs 56 percent more than the national average.

“Frankly, we spend an enormous amount per student relative to other school systems for terrible results,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said.

After a visit to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota last year, President Obama called for “a pathway that leads to change.”
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The Interior Department wants to replace bureaucrats with education experts, improve teacher training and allow more tribal control. However, the proposal has many critics who “warn that paring back the federal government’s role will only make it easier to under-invest in schools that, by almost any measure, need money and resources the most,” writes Severns.

Corruption and mismanagement have plagued BIE schools. Often located in isolated and very poor areas, the schools have trouble attracting and retaining competent teachers. However, I think the greatest problem is that so many students come from “extremely troubled” families with high rates of alcoholism.

Students in Department of Defense schools outperform the average public school student. Black kids do especially well in DoD schools. Why? I think it’s the parents.

Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue.  Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude.  The U.S. is not an outlier.

Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report  by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,”  countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”

Does money matter?

“Increased school spending is linked to improved outcomes for students, and for low-income students in particular, argue Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico in Boosting Educational Attainment and Adult Earnings

Previous research has shown no link between school spending and learning.

This study correlated spending increases with “large improvements in educational attainment, wages, and family income, and reductions in the annual incidence of adult poverty for children from low-income families.”  However, “how the money is spent matters,” the authors write in Education Next.

Ric Hanushek questions the analysis. School spending has increased significantly, he writes.

If a ten percent increase yields the results calculated by Jackson, Johnson, and Persico, shouldn’t we have found all gaps gone (and even reversed) by now due to the actual funding increases?  And, even with small effects on the non-poor, shouldn’t we have seen fairly dramatic improvements in overall educational and labor market outcomes? In reality, in the face of dramatic past increases in school funding, the gaps in attainment, high school graduation, and family poverty have remained significant, largely resisting any major improvement.

How money is spent matters a great deal more than the number of dollars available, Hanushek concludes.

The authors responded to the critique and Hanushek responded to the response.

Can schools build social capital?

Children growing up in poverty live in communities with little “social capital,” writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Can schools provide social capital? asks Mike Petrilli. Can anything?

He suggests inviting “poor children into schools with social capital to spare” and building on the social capital that still exists in low-income communities, such as churches, neighborhood groups and sports programs.

. . . as the important book Lost Classroom, Lost Community argues, urban Catholic schools have been in the social-capital business for a century, to great effect. We must do everything we can to stem their demise.

Finally,  create new schools that “import loads of financial, human, and social capital into an impoverished neighborhood,” such as no-excuses charter.  But it’s not clear “whether these brand-new schools can create true social capital beyond their four walls,” concedes Petrilli.

Putnam, President Obama and others support “investing in pre-school and creating ‘wrap-around’ services at poor schools, à la the Harlem Children’s Zone — which, in addition to providing schooling, also provides health care, meals, and after-school activities for students and their families.”

Does that create social capital?

SEED creates a free five-days-a-week boarding school to get poor kids out of tough neighborhoods — and away from families in turmoil.

Seven years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman attended a lottery to choose the first 80 sixth graders to attend the new SEED School of Maryland, in Baltimore.  Last Saturday, he saw the 29 students who stayed with SEED receive their diplomas.

Graduates are going to the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, U.S.C., Villanova and others; one is joining the Coast Guard.

When I asked Devin Tingle, who’s going to the Illinois Institute of Technology, what he took most from SEED, he cited the summer science internships and the fact that “this school teaches eight core values,” which he then ticked off: “respect, responsibility, self-determination, self-discipline, empathy, compassion, perseverance and integrity.”

Friedman asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the model, which is expensive. Some students need a “24/7” environment, said Duncan.

“I went to Baltimore and talked to teachers after the riots,” Duncan added. “The number of kids living with no family member is stunning. But who is there 24/7? The gangs. At a certain point, you need love and structure, and either traditional societal institutions provide that or somebody else does.”

A study of SEED’s first boarding school, in Washington D.C., found it cost nearly $40,000 per student, but produced significant gains in achievement that are likely to lead to significant earnings gains.

Who’s poor? School lunch data is ‘muddy’

Schools should gather accurate data on the income, education and English fluency of students’ parents, instead of using eligibility for a free or reduced-price school lunch as a not-very-accurate measure of family poverty. 

School lunch data’s validity has been “diluted” even further now that many schools have been allowed to serve a free lunch to all students, regardless of their family income, reports Jill Barshay in U.S. News.

More than half of public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch because their parents’ earnings are no more than 85 percent above the federal poverty line. For a single mother with two children, that’s up to $36,612 per year.

Lunch eligibility undercounts poverty, especially at the high school level, because some students won’t eat school food. But it overestimates poverty too. Lunch eligibility is “rising far faster than the actual poverty rate,” writes Barshay.

Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch increased from 38 percent to 50 percent, an increase of 12 percentage points. In contrast, the percentage of public school children who lived in poverty increased from 17 percent to 23 percent, an increase of 6 percentage points.

Billions of dollars in federal aid for disadvantaged students and philanthropic grants are tied to lunch statistics, writes Barshay. Why not get accurate data?

Out of Sandtown


A CVS Pharmacy burned in Baltimore when rioters cut the firefighters’ hose.

Derrell Bradford grew up in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood that’s exploded in anger at the death of Freddy Gray in police custody. School choice got him out of Sandtown, Bradford writes on The Catalyst.

That corner where the CVS was burned and looted? That’s where he caught buses to better schools in other parts of town. It’s why he now runs the New York Campaign for Achievement Now.

. . . it’s exactly because you grow up in Sandtown that you know the value of an excellent school which you get to attend regardless of who your parents are, how much money they make, or where you live. While watching students of Frederick Douglass High School throw rocks at police across the Gwynns Falls Parkway, all I could remember was my first trip to that school. I arrived as a visitor and an athlete—not a student—at what would have been my zoned public school. There was glass in the grass of the end zone; I was the only one of my classmates who knew to look for it.

. . . but for the right school, and the shining fingertip of providence, you are Freddie Gray.

“Choice is the most powerful way to create new worlds of possible for kids who are destined to have so little possible for themselves,” Bradford concludes.

Liberals, stop ‘awfulizing’ my kids

Schools can’t defeat poverty by ignoring it, writes Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland, in an exchange with the Gates Foundation. “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems,” he writes. “It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”

Dear Lord, Stop These Liberals From Awfulizing My Kids, responds Chris Stewart on Education Post.

Every possible chart, graph, study and statistic paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally or intellectually unfit.

One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.

The numbers “receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly,”  “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”

All this encourages teachers to lower expectations, writes Stewart. “Why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and successful teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and learning?”girl_englewood-716x320

Cody slams “education reformers” for pretending that teachers can “push students to new heights with our high expectations.”

Teachers account for no more than 20 percent of the variance in student test scores, writes Cody, while more than 60 percent correlates to out-of-school factors. “We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.”

Stewart wonders: “How does it feel to be a ‘teacher’ who sees teaching as futile?”

It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones.

Stewart teaches only his own five children, he writes. “Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists . . . They are students of success, not experts on failure.”

In The Smartest Kids In The World, Amanda Ripley recounts a conversation with a Finnish teacher.

When she asked him about educating poor students, he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded, “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”

. . . “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

That attitude does more to help children who live in poverty than “awfulizing” them, concludes Stewart.