Is it possible to speak honestly about barriers to student achievement and then ignore all school factors when doing so?
No, it isn’t. Everything we do in school matters.
We Know Poverty’s A Problem
We know that the most important school-based factor in educating a child is the teacher in front of them. We know that many out of school factors can be barriers to student achievement. And we also know that poor children have less access to high quality teaching than their more affluent counterparts.
As the 2013 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, I was excited to read and learn from Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece about a recent survey given to 56 of this year’s Teachers of the Year about their thoughts on the greatest barriers to school success. Truth be told, while I found myself nodding a lot reading her piece as well as the survey in its entirety, I also found myself feeling perplexed.
Where was the option for teachers to choose “in school” factors as barriers to student achievement? Where were the choices regarding school funding, effectiveness of the teacher, strength of the school leader, or a school’s commitment to engaging families in student learning?
Poverty is a factor and despite trillions of anti-poverty investments at the federal, state and local levels, it has not gone away. The challenge is to educate kids despite poverty rather than lament factors teachers don’t control.
MORE from Red Pen: What’s Missing From This Poll?
But the Barriers Aren’t Just Outside
It’s impossible to talk about barriers to student achievement without being honest about the fact that some of these barriers exist inside our school buildings.
As someone who dropped out of high school, I was practically a poster child for family dysfunction. I understand firsthand the impact of family stress; in my case it was the drug addiction and incarceration of my parents. But that in no way meant that the people and programs inside my school weren’t important.
On the contrary, I worked hard to become the kind of teacher that would have kept a kid like me in school and I’m now working towards becoming that kind of school leader. I see educators who succeed at doing this every day; they acknowledge all of the hardships their students face outside of school and still they push them to succeed while loving them along the way and picking them up when they fall.
Big Data, Little Data
When surveyed, a quarter of the 2015 Teachers of the Year said they derive the least satisfaction from analyzing data on student performance.
I’m convinced that this word—data—conjures up an image of stacks of spreadsheets filled with numbers that feel overwhelming or meaningless to a classroom teacher. If that’s the way data is being presented to teachers, I don’t blame them for feeling that way.
Any time a teacher checks for understanding, they are collecting data. If I ask all students to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down based on their understanding of what we’ve gone over so far, I’m collecting data. If I put a possible answer on the board, I can use that same same thumbs up, thumbs down or I can have them grade my answer by holding up the grade they’d give it between 0 and 5, using their fingers.
Schools collect information to better understand the social-emotional health and struggles of students and families and often make changes based on what their answers reveal. I can’t imagine that the teachers surveyed don’t appreciate having that data.
Digging Deeper Into the Poll
On a more positive note, the survey shows almost unanimous support for the higher standards that come with Common Core. Ninety-six percent of the 2015 Teachers of the Year support the standards.
Somehow, that striking consensus around what has become a controversial topic did not make it into Layton’s piece.
On the other hand, I must admit that as a mother of three I was a bit dismayed to see how unsatisfying my colleagues find “emailing, speaking, or meeting with parents.” Connecting with parents is vital, and I’d like to better understand the thinking behind that survey result.
We cannot have an honest conversation or improve outcomes for kids if we aren’t willing to look at ourselves. Yes, family stress is a major factor. It certainly was for me. But so was what was (and wasn’t) happening for me inside my school building day after day.
Let’s listen to these Teachers of the Year but let’s also focus on everything they had to say, not just a small, incomplete piece. In doing that, we misrepresent them and put messages out into the world that do not serve kids or their families.