Equal Opportunity In Education

Here is an interesting new study on educational inequality. From the introduction:

Every year, a large number of children enter school substantially behind. Sometimes that’s because of poverty. Sometimes it’s because they speak a language other than English. Sometimes there are other issues. But regardless of the reason, many children – especially low-income and minority children – are entering the classroom without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, rather than organizing our educational system to pair these children with our most expert teachers, who can help “catch them up” with their more advantaged peers, we actually do just the opposite. The very children who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education, and less skill than those who teach other children. . . .

Of course, teacher quality cannot be measured only by years of experience and knowledge of basic skills and subject matter. At some time in our lives, almost all of us have heard about a brand-new teacher who was remarkable or a veteran teacher who was ineffective. And nobody who has spent much time in higher education would argue that deep knowledge of subject matter necessarily translates into quality teaching.

But substantial bodies of research show that these proxies for teacher effectiveness, though imperfect, do matter to teachers’ ability to produce student learning. So when all of the proxies tilt one way – away from low-income and minority students – what we have is a system of distributing teacher quality that produces exactly the opposite of what fairness would dictate and what we need to close achievement gaps. This system, quite simply, enlarges achievement gaps.

In short: On average, rich white kids get good teachers, poor black kids get lousy teachers. The cause of the problem, at least around these parts, is simple economics. All the incentives draw teachers towards the rich white schools.

On the one hand, you have, oh let’s say B’ham City schools. As a teacher in one of those schools, you will teach in a building that leaks, is surrounded by weeds, has a tempermental (at best) heating and cooling system, and does not have so much as a functioning fridge in the teacher’s lounge. There are no working copiers or other office equipment. You must supply your own paper, pens, staplers, and similar products. You even have to supply your own toilet paper. The classroom in which you teach was designed for twenty students, but has thirty-five students sharing thirty desks. Computers? Ha. And even though you are a salaried professional, you must clock in on one of these every day.

On the other hand, you have, for example, Hoover High School. The building is brand new and is better equipped than some colleges. Your cavernous classroom has its own thermostat, and even empty desks. The teacher’s lounge is nicer than your first apartment. The school has an employee whose only job is making copies for the teachers. All your record keeping is done on your computer in your classroom. HHS even provides tp. Finally, far from requiring you to clock in, you are treated like the professional you are.

Now, how much more money would B’ham have to pay you to get you to teach there instead of Hoover? Probably a lot; maybe no amount would be sufficient. Unfortunately, B’ham pays less than Hoover. So, who ends up in B’ham? Teachers who can’t get a job anywhere else: The inexperienced, ill educated, and unskilled.

Fixing this problem means increasing the incentives to teach in B’ham. That may mean more pay for teachers, but it certainly means improving the environment at the schools. It is not just the pay that drives teachers away from B’ham. Who is going to teach at a school where you have to provide your own toilet paper? The entire system is broken. It needs some serious TLC.

But, of course, that requires money. I certainly do not want to pay any more taxes for education in B’ham. Mostly because our local officials will fritter it away long before it does any actual good. So, maybe we ought to consider structural changes, like this suggestion in the study:

take a cue from professional sports and start using a “draft strategy.” That is, put high-poverty, struggling schools at the head of the hiring line, allowing them to have the first pick of teaching talent. If we can give struggling sports teams first dibs on talented new players, can’t we do the same for low-performing schools and provide these schools a decent shot at giving good teachers to the students who need the most help?

That would be a radical change, but if we want to call this society a meritocracy, something needs to be done.

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3 Comments on “Equal Opportunity In Education”

  1. jen Says:

    Amen and bravo! As a high school teacher who now has experience in a local Bham school and two over-the-mountain schools, I can attest to the validity of this post. When I started at the Bham school, I expected to pay for my own copies, have overcrowded rooms, and less-than-adequate facilities (that doesn’t make it right – but I knew what I was getting into). However, I was amazed when I walked into the teacher’s lounge to find that I had to supply my own TP. The daily fights, guns that where found on kids, and firecrackers that where set off in the hallways did not make matters better. And even though I started teaching to help these very kind of kids, after just a short time, I took a position in an over-the-mountain school b/c of the lack of effective administration. The kids didn’t bother me…I loved my students and as best I know (I was affectionately known as “that white lady”), they liked me. But when I was told that ALL discipline problems where my problem and when disgruntled parents where routinely sent to my room in the middle of a lesson, I discovered that the problems with the city school system (at least this school) lay with the administration. At the over-the-mtn. school where I taught, a parent never interrupted a class; discipline problems where promtply dealt with; and I knew I was supported in my decisions. This made the difference to me – I can work with unruly kids; I cannot work for a group of people who do not trust or support me.

    The problem lies with the administration. Fix that, and a lot of the problems in the city schools will rectify themselves.

  2. quaoar Says:

    I agree that administrattion is a big problem. The city schools are eaten up with politics and deadheads. But changing that would be harder than getting rid of the insurgents in Iraq.

    Something that is doable, however, would be to create an organization similar to BAP, which has done a great job providing equipment and other things for the city schools’ athletic programs. This non-profit organization could then raise funds from local foundations and corporations and concentrate them in a couple schools in order to make a bigger impact. This group could also function similar to Habitat for Humanity by recruiting the legions of OTM church and high school volunteers (believe me, there is a vast pool out there) and bringing them to the city schools on mission projects to make repairs, tend the grounds, paint the walls, fix the AC, redo the teacher’s lounge, etc. etc. Volunteers might also be recruited to help teachers with projects, arrange field trips, etc. etc. And every volunteer would be asked to bring some supplies — TP, staplers, whatever.

    If you can make enough of an impact, it will draw attention and it might just inspire others to duplicate it elsewhere. Who knows, it might also light a fire under some administrators. Stranger things have happened.

  3. Don Says:

    While recognizing that educational systems that don’t follow a proven method of bringing children who enter the system up to standards as quickly as possible are failing those children, their families, and the community, I also recognize that the basic problem is that the children are not prepared to keep up with their peers in the first place. So, the blame for that must be placed elsewhere, and the cure for it, as well.

    If the children were properly prepared to enter school, there would be no need for establishing special programs to help them catch up with others who were.

    Education should begin before a child enters school and it is the responsibility of the parents (plural – both the mother and the father who created the child with God’s help) to start teaching as much as the child can absorb and retain, IN THE HOME, and then, after their child is in school, to REMAIN INVOLVED in their education process at all times, and in all ways possible.

    Educators who are more interested in the children than anything else have reached the conclusion that parental involvement is one of the most important factors in a child receiving a good education. Then, the question becomes, how to get parents to become and stay involved, and is it a function of government to force, or to in any way encourage them to be involved.

    Military life is a bit different from civilian life (a higher ranking person can ORDER a lower ranking person to do almost anything that doesn’t involve some sort of illegality, for instance) but if a military template could be applied to civilians without infringing on their freedoms we might find a solution to this problem.

    Military volunteers come from all economic, ethnic, and social backgrounds with a large percentage of those in lower ranks coming from economically deprived backgrounds, just as many of the children who enter school unprepared do.

    In some communities where there is a large military presence, for various reasons, the military operates schools for some of their service members, usually, I believe, limited to those who live on the military installation rather than in the rest of the community.

    There is one such school on Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL, and the Maxwell base commander insists on continual parental involvement in that school, and makes damned well sure (as military commanders can do) that the parents comply. As a result, kids in that school are receiving a far better education than those in most other schools in Montgomery, and the parents of those kids consider the school to be one of the paybacks from the federal government for their sacrifices and service to our nation.

    Of course another essential matter to resolve, in civilian schools, is giving teachers and principals the authority, without the threat of being sued, to maintain decorum in classrooms so that it is a place of learning, rather than a place of disruption to the learning process.


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