Our federal government is now attempting to have us believe that the problem in our high poverty communities is our teachers. The US Department of Education is directing school districts to ensure equity in teacher assignment by adding a requirement for "state educator equity plans" to Title I grant applications. Each state that accepts the funding will be required to submit a plan that shows how it will ensure "poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.” The theory of action that guides this mandate goes something like this. If we could just get better teachers to work in these places, the kids would learn more. Wow. I have worked in lots of different places, including some high poverty communities and I can tell you from experience, there are really GREAT teachers in these places. These teachers overcome what others see as insurmountable odds to reach their kids. In addition to tirelessly teaching every day and working to improve their own skills, they provide food, clothing and sometimes even shelter to kids in need. They work long hours in sometimes terrible conditions and have their hearts broken on a daily basis. The reason we have less experienced teachers in our tough schools is because this work is really hard. Most teachers know if they don't want to leave the profession, they will have to switch to schools where they won't get burnt out as quickly. So, after just a few years, that is what typically happens. If a teacher still wants to teach (many don't and leave the profession), she will move to a place where she can feel more supported and more readily see the results of her work. Stating that our problems in high poverty districts stem from less effective teachers is about the most insulting thing you could say about the teaching profession.
Secondly, simply looking at experience and credentials (the current proposal) does not tell the whole story. There are incredibly effective beginning teachers who only have bachelor's degrees. There are some amazing teachers who come into the field through alternative routes and others who do incredible work "out of field." Conversely, there are some teachers with more experience and traditional credentials who may not be as good. Since we still lack an accurate way to measure teacher effectiveness, we really don't know how to sort teachers in a way that tells us which teacher is more effective. This is the very heart of the current debate over standardized testing and teacher evaluation.
The third flaw in this thinking is that you can somehow improve how local districts and schools select their teachers by making the process more complicated. This process is already cumbersome, filled with regulations, certifications, background checks, politics, school district policies and union rules. Adding yet another layer of complexity will just slow down the process and prevent high poverty districts from getting the teachers they need, when they need them. The result will be larger class sizes and more substitutes when schools are unable to move through the process and hire enough teachers.
If we want our kids in high poverty communities to do better academically, it is time we truly supported the teachers who work with them instead of insulting and blaming them for all of society's ills.
Beginning this week, I will be devoting every Tuesday to providing new content to support the teaching of reading. I hope you will join me in spreading the word of new, helpful tools designed to improve reading instruction, and make teachers' work easier.
Janine Walker Caffrey writes about reading, education and a few other topics related to happiness and life in general.