The achievement gap and the teaching gap
Yesterday I posted about the slight improvement that has taken place on the ACT over the last few years, but I left out the bad news. The bad news was that the achievement gap persists. Asians actually do better than anyone, but African-Americans, Hispanics, and Indians lag behind. In Minnesota, the average score for African-Americans was five points below the average score for whites, and that seems to be reflective of the rest of the nation.
I don't think too many people would argue with me when I say that the achievement gap has an awful lot to do with the fact that a disproportionate number of minority kids attend tough inner-city schools. About a week ago, Joanne Jacobs posted about an article in the Village Voice that dealt with the Teaching Fellows program. Joanne's post and the article focused on the teaching program, but the article described a number of horrible classroom situations the teachers were thrown into. Here are two of them:
"The year before I came, the kids set three or four fires in the school," recalls one fellow about to enter her fifth year of teaching first and second graders. "You're prepared that some of the kids aren't going to listen, but not for the things they're going to do—like throwing desks across the room. I had a kid taken away in an ambulance my first year because he just flipped out and was ramming into the door."
And then there's this:
"I knew I would be going into a school that needed teachers, but I didn't expect the level of misbehavior in the classroom," (Kimberly) Wand recalls. "I had never dealt with kids throwing things across the classroom. One time, I remember turning my back to write on the blackboard and noticing that the kids who were sitting by the bookshelves had ripped up a book. There were paper shreds all over the floor." One of her peers landed in the hospital after a dispute with a student ended with a door slammed into the teacher's head.
The point of Joanne's post and the Village Voice article was that teachers were not being adequately prepared before being thrust into these situations. If you read the article, it seems clear that there were some problems with the administration of the Teacher Fellows program. But when I read about the classrooms described, I have to wonder if it's possible to prepare anyone for dealing with them.
There have been a number of other articles and posts on blogs lately about the teaching gap--the fact that teachers in the inner-cities tend to have less experience and qualifications than teaches in other schools, especially the affluent suburbs. The point being made is that the achievement gap is a result of the teaching gap, but I really doubt that. While the teaching gap makes it more difficult to do anything meaningful about the achievement gap, I think it's more a result of the achievement gap than a cause of it.
Teachers, like anyone else, want to be successful. They are going to look for situations that give them the best opportunity to do that. While there are some very special people who want to go into the most challenging situations, most teachers are going to try to find jobs in schools that will give them greater opportunities for success. As a result, when it comes to education, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota proposed paying the best teachers huge salaries--upwards of $100,000--to go teach in the toughest inner-city schools. I think that's a good idea, but I'm not at all sure about how effective it would be. I suspect that many of those who are considered "the best" teachers would probably not do well in the classrooms described in the Village Voice article. Because of due process rights that courts have given to unruly students, and limits on suspensions, expulsions and other deterrents that have been imposed on schools by legislatures, even the best teacher will find himself or herself with limited options when faced with a few students who are determined to disrupt a class. Teaching in that environment takes a very special kind of teacher.
In our school, we have a shop teacher who does an amazing job with our toughest kids. He is a self-described former hell-raiser, and he understands those kids, and is able to get them to behave and perform in ways that none of the rest of us can. I don't know if he could do some of the things that some of our other good teachers do, but there is no question that no one we have can do what he does. If we could find enough teachers like him to run our inner-city schools, I'm sure that we could do a lot to narrow the achievement gap, but from my experience, I'd have to say that there aren't too many teachers like him.
When we read about classrooms such as those described in the Village Voice article, it's natural to focus on the unruly students and the teachers trying to cope. But there is someone we tend to forget about. In each of those classrooms there undoubtedly were some students who wanted to get an education. They are being cheated, and they are the people that we should be focusing on. We need to find a decent learning environment for those kids, and in order to do that they have to be separated from the those who throw desks and rip up books. I'm not sure whether it's a matter of pulling out a few unruly students from the mass of students who would do fine if they weren't there, or if it's taking out the few students who care from a classroom that has become a mob. One way or another, we have to focus on those kids, and give them a real chance to learn. And we can't wait until we find enough teachers to work effectively in those situations, because that is a goal that may never be achieved.