Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What Is Our Duty?

Okay, before you get into this, consider yourself warned - this is not a short post!

Over at The Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio touches on a topic all teachers ponder from time to time, especially in the current climate of "high stakes" and "accountability" fostered by NCLB and the conversations and expectations it has (to some degree) created.

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews tells the story of a young teacher who was rejected by the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, apparently for questioning the orthodoxy that good teachers should be able to raise the achievement of even the poorest kids.
I think this is an overstatement of Mathews' point; at no point does the article state or imply that Erika Owens, the candidate in question, said that good teachers cannot raise the achievement of even the poorest kids at all, or that they should not be expected to do so.

(It's also important to note that there doesn't seem to be any response from the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows; it's unclear if this was what kept her out of the program.)

In an email to Mathews, Owens wrote:

During the group interview there was a hypothetical situation -- pretend you are a teacher at a cash-strapped urban school who just found out, a week before school starts, that you're going to use a curriculum the rich suburban district has been using. I said I would probably be really frustrated because I would not have the resources that the suburban district has to implement the curriculum and not only that, but that my students probably wouldn't be starting at the same place so they would need even more resources and time just to catch up.
Now, my English-slash-journalism-teacher-spinfinder immediately focuses on the word 'frustrated' as the source of the problem. I would guess that the issue isn't whether or not Owens has a low opinion of, or expectations for, urban schools or students. Clearly, the interviewers see the hypothetical situation as a challenging one - that's why it was an interview question!

But rather than acknowledging the challenge and responding with "hopeful" or "excited," which have a positive connotation, Owens acknowledged the challenge, but then responded with "frustrated," which has a negative connotation.

However, the article, "Should Teachers Ignore Poverty's Impact," ends up as mostly a collection of responses from different individuals about how teachers should deal with "the poorest kids."

What I'd like to focus on is one of Mathews' concluding statements (emphasis mine):
The prevailing view that impoverished children cannot be expected to learn as much as affluent children is poison in any classroom.
Okay, first of all, is this the prevailing view? Really? Because our culture is replete with stories like A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy and Ragged Dick that say that personal wealth is not a primary determining factor of an individual's educability. However, I think there are other factors that do affect education and achievement, ones that are often lumped in with economic status - the main ones being certain ethnic identities or cultures, and social/class status. I'll touch on this a little later.

But before I get to that point, I'd like to ask what Mathews means by as much as. I think by examining this overly simplistic statement, we reach the heart of the debate - limited resources.

In a classroom that has a mixture of students whose parents are willing and able to spend time going over homework together, stay in touch with the teacher and follow up with discipline and encouragement at home, etc. and students whose parents have less one-on-one time with them and are difficult to contact, which students are more likely to complete work? to participate effectively in class? to visit the public library?

Given that EVERY school system has limited resources, how should those resources be focused? How much should a school dedicate to making sure that students who are falling behind have the additional materials and training they need so that they can stay on grade-level? Keep in mind that those funds are by definition being taken away from other groups - all students are, to some degree, educated at the expense of others!

Is it more important to have lower-achieving students be at least marginally successful, or to enable more talented students to excel? to encourage girls in math and science, or to encourage boys in reading? or vice versa on both counts??

When we spend time and money training instructors to be more effective in teaching "gifted/talented" students (three teachers in my department alone are taking a course this semester; there are also teachers from other departments in the same course) that is time and money that is not being spent training instructors to be more effective in teaching "at risk" students.

Possibly more controversial is my final question: What is our duty to students whose families do not fully support our model of education? What, if anything, is our duty to those families?

To what degree are public schools (or schools in general) responsible for indoctrinating their students? For turning out "productive members of society," to quote the Hunk (to whom I read this section as I was working on it)? And just whose definition of "productive member of society" should we use?

And to what degree do we leave people the freedom to choose the "wrong" option? What about when we're dealing with parents, whose choices affect not only their own lives, but the lives of their children?

I think most people - though perhaps not all - would agree that all children can learn. I'll go farther: all children will learn.

In fact, farther yet: all children do learn.

It's just that sometimes - usually more often than we'd like! - they learn things besides or beyond what we're attempting to teach.

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see and learn.
Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn how to be.
Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen.

- Stephen Sondheim, from Into the Woods

PS: The internet is a wonderful thing: Pondiscio links to an article in the Washington Post; I got to the Core Knowledge Blog from Mamacita's fantastic Carnival of Education!

Images thanks to and and


Crimson Wife said...

To receive a state teaching credential here in California, coursework is required in teaching special education students, English-language learners, and "multicultural" education. NO coursework is required on teaching intellectually gifted students.

In fact, out of the eighty-four state-approved teacher preparation programs in California, only ONE offers ANY coursework on the educational needs of intellectually gifted students. That is Cal State-Sacramento; it offers a grand total of two courses, both of which are electives.

What that means is that extremely few of the teachers in California's government-run schools will have ever received any meaningful amount of preparation for teaching gifted children before setting foot in a classroom.

And you're worried about a handful of the teachers in your school voluntarily doing some training in GATE?

Clix said...

I'm not sure where you got the idea that I was "worried" about the training. Learning is good! yay! I did try to provide a variety of contrasting examples.

I'll admit, I'm surprised to hear that all prospective teachers are required to take special ed methodology courses. I think that's a step forward, but we're not at the finish line yet!

I tend to be a very careful consumer; when I choose to use my money, I try to be aware of what I'm choosing NOT to do with it as well as what I'm choosing to use it on. I hope that those who're in charge of spending for schools take such things into consideration as well.

Lightly Seasoned said...

She probably should have said something like she would need to figure out what skills are missing and shore up the curriculum. She sounds a little self-defeating before she even starts.

That said, ideally, we'd have the resources to address all the kids. With teacher training, one would hope you run through the cycle of all kids, from SPED to GATE; we don't all know everything right out of the box -- that's why we're better teachers after 10 years (in theory). I had very little knowledge of SPED, GATE, or ED kids when I started; now, I'm comfortable teaching all of them.

HOWEVER, I do not think, as a profession, institution, whatever, that we are fully doing our duty towards all kids. There are myriad reasons for this, but I think there are things we could be doing that are not linked to huge amounts of money. Do parents and poverty, and video games, and kids who blow off assignments totally suck? You bet, and they always will. But so do teachers who don't do what they're supposed to, bitch instead of learning how to teach better, and building politics that interfere with classroom teaching. There are things we don't control, but we can still improve the things we DO control, and I don't see a whole lot of that happening.

Lightly Seasoned said...

Crimson: I don't think Clix teaches in California. She doesn't teach in my state either, but in my region, I can tell you that several universities offer entire graduate degrees in GATE. I've been encouraged to pursue one, but can't be bothered.

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