Mike the Mad Biologist

Confusing Teachers, Teaching, and Poverty

When I read articles like this and this, it seems that educational ‘reformers’ are dwelling in a world utterly divorced from reality. If teachers unions and their ‘sweetheart deals’ are the problem, then why does Massachusetts excel? The teachers unions are very strong, and teachers are well compensated. For that matter, if teachers are so incredibly important, should we then conclude that Massachusetts’ teachers are far ‘better’ than Alabama’s?

It seems the reformers confuse bad teachers (which do exist in terms of motivation or personality) with poor teaching. The latter stems from poor pedagogyhow one teaches–and poorly designed curriculumwhat one teaches. Reformers seem to have built up this shibboleth of bad teachers and rarely specify what bad teaching entails. If they did they would face three problems. First, the natural history, the facts on the ground would force them to recognize that many problems are bureaucratic and administrative (i.e., prinicipals and districts), and so-called reformers love their technocrats. They could never be the problem.

Second, they would have to talk about instruction and curricula which are much harder to quantify. They also are much harder to institute (you can’t demonize teachers, for instance).

The final thing, reformers would have to confront is the context in which teachers perform–that is, the baggage students enter the school with. In other words, poverty. Proponents of educational reform seem to intentionally redefine the problem in such a way that they can claim schools are mediocre. For instance, Matthew Yglesias (italics mine):

To put this point my own way, apocalyptic talk about “failing” schools and intense elite focus on the problems of the least-privileged students tends to obscure the more banal reality that most schools are non-optimal in lots of ways. And this is bad. It’s bad even though most middle class white kids do basically okay. It’s bad not just because many kids aren’t middle class white kids. It’s bad, fundamentally, because in the aggregate the K-12 education system in the United States is really big. Its comprised of a millions-strong workforce, countless buildings and buses, lots of money, etc. and consequently its various inefficiencies and pathologies are, in the aggregate, a big wastage of national potential.

Actually, “basically okay” is incorrect–when compared internationally, schools that don’t have excessive poverty do extremely well:

A more accurate assessment of the performance of U.S. students would be obtained by comparing the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.

Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.

In the next category (10-24.9%) the U.S. average of 527 placed first out of the ten comparable nations….

For the remaining U.S. schools, their poverty rates over 25% far exceed any other country tested. However, when the U.S. average of 502 for poverty rates between 25-49.9% is compared with other countries it is still in the upper half of the scores.

And here are some conclusions:

Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours.

•U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world.

•U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland.

•U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.

•U.S. students in schools with greater than 50% poverty are near the bottom.

•There were other surprises. Germany with less than half our poverty, scored below the U.S. as did France with less than a third our poverty and Sweden with a low 3.6% poverty rate.

Sure, schools could do better (they always could), but the claim that schools are mediocre just isn’t supported by the data. Student bodies in schools with lots of poor students don’t perform well, but that’s not the same thing.

I would take the ‘reformers’ more seriously if they described the problem more accurately. Because if they do that, then we realize there are specific things that need to be done, within and outside of, some of our schools.

Or we can bust teachers unions.

The willful ignorance rivals that of creationism.


  1. #1 Onkel Bob
    February 7, 2011

    I will agree with you that the public school system is more complex than many of the deriders admit. (Critic assumes the intent is to improve or evaluate, while derision is simply that, a negative comment.)
    One thing that is overlooked is that education is a right that has inherent responsibilities. The VV did a recent piece on charter schools in NYC. The one thing that the author notes, and that I also observed in my brief teaching fellows assignment, is the imposition of discipline, or more correctly self discipline. By not allowing single students to disrupt the classroom, much can be accomplished. I know if there’s not an easy solution to that problem. (Or at least not an easy legal one. Relegating disruptive students to stint on a factory floor might teach them that doing school work is better than making license plates.) However, poor or rich, self-discipline comes from within, and the requirement for such behavior matter little on social class. While “Spare the rod, spoil the child” may be taking it too far, is it too much to ask that children behave in a manner we expect of ourselves?

  2. #2 becca
    February 7, 2011

    Actually, students who are scoring two levels above their grade and have no serious discipline problems can *still* represent a lot of wasted potential. You can’t simply point to test scores of well-off students and say their school experience is more than mediocore.
    These days, I tend to stay silent on this point, because the fact K-12 schools failed me is pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things- I got by fine without them. There are lots of people who don’t, and we demand our schools cover an awful lot of ground.

    But add in enough people like me… maybe the vast majority of bright, passionate students felt let down by school. And those are the very ones that grow up to vote on school funding. I suspect that, in part, is where reformers gain traction. That, and the fact that as a parent I suspect it’s no consolation to be told your school does ‘extremely well’ if your child is suffering.

    You can *say* “we know how to do education right (provided we aren’t starting with students in poverty)”… but if you are only pointing to test scores to demonstrate it, you are still doing it wrong.
    I know we’re on the same page that one of the most meaningful educational reforms we could make would actually be at lifting families out of poverty… but what then? Do Massachusetts schools have less bureaucratic problems than Alabama? Do they have better curricula (ok, yeah, that one is probably true)? And then, after those issues, what about Massachusetts schools needs to be fixed? Hint: the answer isn’t “absolutely nothing because our test scores are awesome”.

  3. #3 A little common sense
    February 7, 2011

    Realizing that poverty is an eternal problem – it has always been part of the human condition and it always will be – how much negative effect should poverty be allowed to have on those not so categorized?

    How far down should normal and gifted students be forced to accomodate poor (in all its meanings) students? How much suppression of their abilities and needs is “fair” to the other students?

    Would it be feasible to establish charter schools soley for “poor” students?

  4. #4 joem
    February 20, 2011

    Massachusetts excel ?????
    Have you taken a look at Boston schools lately? They were better when I spent time in them 50 years ago.

    Otherwise you make many good points.