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"What Teachers Know,"

by Mark Simon For teachers, the most disheartening aspect of the Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” agenda is the dishonesty in the goals and supposed success stories. No responsible educator disagrees with the stated purpose of leaving no child behind and closing the achievement gap, but we must begin with the truth.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

For teachers, the most disheartening aspect of the Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” agenda is the dishonesty in the goals and supposed success stories. No responsible educator disagrees with the stated purpose of leaving no child behind and closing the achievement gap, but we must begin with the truth.

The myth perpetrated by conservative education reformers is that we can abandon the war on poverty while expecting the children of the poor to achieve middle-class success in school simply by “raising expectations.” NCLB has provided cover for growing social inequality, de-funding of the public sector, a privatization agenda increasingly unjustified by any research, and a blame game that scapegoats the teacher work force. The liberal-conservative compromise that created the NCLB act seems premised on an assumption that teachers aren’t really trying. The most talented teachers particularly resent the message. Rothstein’s book provides ammunition for teachers and principals to respond to the hype.

I recently gathered a group of accomplished teachers to discuss Class and Schools. They agreed that the book helped them to articulate what teachers already know – that teaching lower-class kids well is tougher than teaching middle-class kids. The book doesn’t lessen their commitment to closing the achievement gap. It did lead them to want to personally take new steps – walking tours of their school community and other strategies to get to know their students and families better; political activism to fight for expansion of Head Start and other pre-school programs that help prepare students and families for school; and initiating school- and district-wide conversations to reconsider decisions which had narrowed the focus of education to what is tested – de-valuing important non-cognitive aspects. (This is not covered in Rothstein’s summary here, but was an important point in the book.) Most importantly, they talked of the weight it lifted from their shoulders, allowing them to celebrate human-scale improvement rather than perpetually feeling bad about their work.

It is surprising how little we know about teaching practices that cause students to succeed, particularly in high-poverty schools. Ironically, the hyped myth-making success stories promoted by The Education Trust, Heritage Foundation and purveyors of 90-90-90 schools (90% poverty, 90% minority and 90% meeting high academic standards), by making it sound so easy, have actually distracted educators from recognizing the more nuanced successes that need to be documented and replicated. Class and Schools should allow us to more realistically analyze what teacher behaviors, beliefs and school practices actually improve student achievement and expand student potential.

Rothstein makes clear (not in his summary here but in the last pages of the book) that part of his intent is to provide an antidote to the demoralizing atmosphere that is driving the most creative, accomplished teachers out of teaching, particularly fleeing schools with high-poverty students. This is a significant issue. The class/race disparities represented by vastly different teacher working and student learning conditions have widened to crisis proportions. Rather than dismissing the need to correct the unequal distribution of teacher talent as “politically and financially fanciful,” as he does in the book, Rothstein should have included it under “Helpful Policies.” In all other respects, Class and Schools brings the realities of what teachers instinctively know to the policy-making table, hopefully before it’s too late.

Mark Simon was a high school teacher for 16 years and president of the teachers union in Montgomery County, MD. He serves as National Coordinator of the Mooney Inst. and as Education Policy Analyst at the Economic Policy Inst. in Wash., DC.

This article was written as part of a project for the Ford Foundation, “Secondary Education and Racial Justice Collaborative,” and presented in October 2010. It grew out of the Mooney Institute’s work with the MITUL locals (Cleveland, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Omaha, DeKalb County [GA], Prince Georges County [MD], and Elgin, Springfield and Decatur, Illinois (www.mitul.org). It also grew out of his experience working as an activist in Washington, DC with “Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform.” www.realeducationreformdc.blogspot.com Thanks to CUNY Prof. Michelle Fine for initiating the Ford project and bringing the community-based organizations together. msimon@epi.org
 
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