Are teachers the root of the poverty problem in America?

Kati Haycock, CEO, The Education Trust, delivered a rather scathing report titled, “Achievement and Opportunity in America: What Can We Do?” at the Texas State Board of Education Learning Roundtable: Educating the Children of Poverty in Austin alongside the Texas Education Agency. Although my seatmate, a Professional Service Provider for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Texas Center for District and School Support (TCDSS), interpreted the conversation differently finding much of what was said to be true, I saw extensive finger-pointing and heard excessive teacher bashing from the lectern. At the 2 hour and 45-minute mark, things got heated when a recently retired middle school teacher and current school board member had enough.

edtrustComing on the heels of the research of Haycock showing “fewer than 4 in 10 middle grade assignments are targeted at a grade-appropriate standard;” Haycock stated, “In high poverty schools, that four in 10 drops to about three in 10. Even of the three in 10, four in 10, almost all of them were sort of rote, recall, right? So they’re arguably aimed at a standard not at the high ends of that standard. So none of the analysis you would expect of kids at standard. That was actually better than what we saw. There were a lot of efforts for engagement and cultural relevance; and you wanted to shoot yourself when you saw that.” Continuing, she added high performing schools and districts “understand that standards themselves are not clear enough, so they drop several levels before below that and give teachers lots of guidance on very specific goals on what kids should learn. They don’t make teachers make all of their lessons up for themselves. Frankly, our teachers don’t want to do it all. They’re not very good at it. So they provide some common lessons that teachers who teach…” And that’s where the fireworks began.

The former teacher and current board member stood. “Stop right there! I’m going to stop you right now! You are telling something that is not true! You are insulting me as a teacher and every teacher in here. I will leave this room and I not put up with this anymore. Read the Horace Mann Foundation. [Inaudible] Bullshit! All of your stuff up there. Were you ever a teacher or principal?” she quizzed.

“Excuse…”

“Were you ever a teacher or principal?” the board member pressed. (Frankly, I’d been wondering the same.)

[Haycock guffawing with a smirk] “I have spent…”

khaycock

“Were you ever a teacher or principal?” the former teacher demanded.

“No, ma’am,” Haycock confessed.

“That right there tells me what you know. This is [inaudible] insulting to all educators” the audience member concluded while making her way to the door. Haycock laughed under her breath saying that most educators did not find [the research insulting] at all to which the attendee ended the kerfuffle saying, “Don’t be condescending anymore!”

Like the other hundred plus attendees, I was caught off guard. While her response is barely audible in the video, she sat one row back and over from me near the back of the room far from the mic; but trust me, in the room, it was loud. I was considering applauding, but like everyone  else, I was still stunned at how quickly it escalated. One of my seatmates leaned in and asked if I thought it was staged. While I don’t live in Austin and do not understand the politics that exist as a result of the close proximity of the local districts and the state government and its entities, I don’t believe it was staged. In fact, I wondered the opposite.

As the morning progressed, I wondered if the speakers selected were chose to represent the beliefs of the hosts. The morning messages emphasized a few high poverty schools that were performing at high levels across the nation backed by the message, “If they can do it, you can do it too.” And maybe it’s true. I don’t know. What I do know is the fact that there are a lot of mitigating factors in a complex system made up of an extraordinary number of individuals all seeking a common goal through their own perspective of what is most important. Parents want the best for their child, teachers want the best for all of the children in their classes, principals want the best for all of the children in their school, superintendents want what is best for all of the children in their district, commissioners want what is best for all of the children in the state, and so on. For now, I’ll stick with the focus on the session, teaching children of poverty. In no way do I hold teachers responsible for the root problem of poverty.

In Texas, 59% of its school children live in poverty. To suggest it is a problem that can be overcome at the micro level (i.e. the classroom or school) is naïve at best. Poverty is a national crisis. Yesterday, it was said the United States of America has the second greatest economic disparity in the developed world. (And worse for Texas children, the state is the third from the bottom in providing equitable funding for its students. #47! Apparently not everything is bigger in Texas.) As a nation, we must have conversation about why this is true. Perhaps George Carlin said it best. (Search YouTube for George Carlin, The American Dream, but viewer beware; this is a very NSFW (not safe for work) video clip.)  Instead of allowing our legislators continue to divert the attention away from policy and onto the teachers, we must hold those responsible for legislation accountable. Instead of reconstituting schools for disparate standardized assessment scores, I suggest if the Texas Legislature or the United States Congress doesn’t reduce the poverty rate, we reconstitute the legislators within one year, the same expectations placed on schools. “Schools cannot do it alone,” said businessman Jamie Vollmer, author of the extraordinary relevant and timely book of the same name. It’s here where I found myself stuck yesterday as I listened to the “experts.” (According to Mark Twain, an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town.”) As Vollmer and others such as David Houle, futurist, and Jeff Cobb, co-authors of Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education; Seth Godin, entrepreneur, author of Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For? (posted online at http://sethgodin.typepad.com/files/stop-stealing-dreams6print.pdf); and the work of a group of Texas school superintendents and participants in the Public Education Visioning Institute (http://www.tasanet.org//site/Default.aspx?PageID=832) who authored the groundbreaking Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas (posted online at http://www.tasanet.org/cms/lib07/TX01923126/Centricity/Domain/111/workinprogress.pdf), school as we know it must be radically changed. All of the work presented at the roundtable only addressed standardized assessments. As the authors noted above work have stated, while there is a place for assessment, the unrelenting obsession with standardized assessment must stop.

For a long period of time, standardization was essential to the growth of the American economy. And it worked. But as Gary Hamel wrote in his book, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, “everything is successful until it’s not.” There are so many correlations to education in his book, which is found in the business section of book retailers. Issues such as deeply ingrained habits (i.e. agricultural calendar, grades, standardized assessments, etc.) and the fact that “once [an organization] crests the peak of industry leadership, its employees, from top to bottom, start to think defensively. The organizational ethos shifts from entrepreneurial to custodial. Executives who once challenged the status quo now defend it. As [an organization] grows, its attention shifts from innovation to improvement. Discipline, focus, and alignment take center stage. As this happens, assets, skills, and processes become more specialized, and change becomes more incremental. All of this is great for efficiency but deadly for adaptability. After a while, all of the components of the system are so tightly interlaced that almost any sort of change is apt to be seen as dangerously disruptive. Change brings both promise and peril, but the proportion facing any particular organization depends on its capacity to adapt. And therein lies the problem: our organizations were never built to be adaptable.” Arguably, this is where schooling finds itself today. In a world of exponential change, schools are operating on a system designed well over 100 years ago. Today, we live in a world where customization is quickly becoming the norm (if it hasn’t already), standardization is outmoded and outdated. In the words of Hamel, “institutional longevity has value, but every organization must continually earn its right to exist.” The institution of education as we know it faces extinction. Yet in the wisdom of Hamel, “organizations don’t die from ‘natural causes;’ they die from predictable causes. When organizations die, it is usually from suicide, from the decisions made and not made, that rendered the institution unfit for the future.” Hamel’s advice for companies applies to education today. “First, be humble. Regard your industry beliefs as mere hypothesis, forever open to disconfirmation. Executives often say, ‘This is how our industry works.’ My stock reply: ‘Yeah, until it doesn’t.’ Second, be honest. Seek out the most discomforting facts you can find and share them with everyone in your organization. A leader has to confront the future, not discredit it. So find the dissident voices* inside your organization and give them a platform.”

I’m on a platform. Is anyone listening?

 

*Also in his book, Hamel notes, “Within any organization, it’s usually the malcontents and rebels who are the first to sense the impending demise of a long-cherished business model, and the first to see the value in wacky, new ideas. Yet these folks are often muzzled rather than encouraged to speak up. The most adaptable [organizations] will be those that encourage folks to voice heretical viewpoints.”

 

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