More than two decades teaching in hardscrabble Oakland public schools have taught Anthony Cody to view urban kids with pity.
That’s my assessment after reading his recently recycled blog post that lathers readers in a wellspring of negative statistics and damning studies. When you’re done reading it, the only logical conclusion is our children are so horribly battered that they are no longer kids. They are sociological objects for study who deserve condolences.
I have a name for this sort of overly gratuitous writing that aging white liberals seem so fond of producing. It’s poverty porn.
In Cody’s case it comes with props. Every possible chart, graph, study and statistic to paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally or intellectually unfit.
One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.
Even worse, “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”
If you feel helpless now to the point of apathy, join the club. I spent over a decade working with families in poverty through government and faith-based services. If I read you some of my case notes, they could probably make you cry.
But I never became a fatalist. I didn’t see people as an assumed set of diagnoses. Reading Cody’s post tells me he feels the need to prove kids are irreparably broken as a device for managing expectations of teachers.
He says, “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems. It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”
It’s a great diversion, but why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and successful teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and learning?
For Cody, it’s all a pretense. Why do “reformers” pretend poor people are capable when evidence says they are not?
Our education reformers want teachers to come into the schools like knights on white horses, plaster the walls with college logos, and push students to new heights with our high expectations. I have seen this in dozens of classrooms of novice teachers, often associated with programs like Teach For America. We are pretending that there is some sort of level playing field here, but we are failing to create such a field. Instead, we just pretend these students are going to be able to compete with their well-heeled counterparts in the suburbs for shrinking higher educational opportunity. For most of them it is an empty promise.
The idea that education can contribute to social parity is a ruse. Further, thinking teachers can make a difference is unscientific.
…teachers only account for at most 20% of the variance in student test scores, and more than 60% of score variance correlates to out-of-school factors. We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.
What is it like to believe, as Cody does, that the only viable path to classroom learning is shifting focus to building “a well-functioning democratic welfare state.” How does it feel to be a “teacher” who sees teaching as futile?
I imagine that if you truly believe you have no agency as a classroom teacher, and that your best efforts will only yield a minor impact on the academic achievement of your students, your results might live up to that expectation.
A Powerful Disbelief
If his point is that poor people of color in urban centers have caught hell in America, I agree. Oppression, racism and structural injustice are real. But my people are more than our struggles. We are not defined by deficits. Only strangers and cultural tourist see us that way. We are never more pathetic than when well-meaning liberals describe us to their friends in blogs and tweets.
Educators shouldn’t awfulize black children because it sets in motion systemic belief systems that form the basis of institutionalized racism. It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones. You possibly know this as the Pygmalion effect.
Maybe you’ve heard of this research story from 1968:
Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher.
Belief can be powerfully positive when kids are seen as amazing, but unmercifully negative when kids are seen through Cody’s lens.
Maybe that’s why American girls do less well in math. Research suggests math teachers are more “generous” to boys and have lower expectations for girls. That, by the way, isn’t a race or income problem. That is a long standing bit of institutional sexism.
In other cases, boys get lower letter grades from their teachers than girls, even when their achievement on standardized tests is higher than girls.
While Cody & Co. want us to obsess about the correlation between poverty and educational results (as if that is new or unbreakable), they are less willing to talk about research that shows a correlation between teacher attitudes, expectations of students and student achievement.
I Am a Believer
When we raise expectations in classrooms for students, they do better. I believe that as much as fatalists on the left believe the opposite.
I am fascinated by great schools and enlivened by doing school visits. Seeing schools where children are honored, and affirmed, and where very smart people give of themselves in a way that has the look of being on fire—it’s fuel for a life less cynical.
In all of my stops I have never encountered a school where children of color who lived in needy neighborhoods were doing well if teachers talked like Cody. Focusing on the deficits of children is a loser’s strategy. It helps no one. The reflex of some educators when I say this is to ask if I have ever taught. It is intended to invalidate my thoughts and firm up their position as an authority on my community.
I pray for them.
For the record, I only teach my own five kids. Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists. They are running schools on ingenuity, hard work and humility, so they are often tired and highly stimulated. Sometimes they win. Sometimes there are setbacks. Either way, they always seem in the process of learning something new. They are students of success, not experts on failure.
The last great school I visited had teachers that seemed to believe their kids were all gifted. When I asked one teacher about the challenges of poverty in their neighborhood she said, “We don’t buy into all that. We do our job.”
That echoed a Finnish teacher in Amand Ripley’s The Smartest Kids In The World. When she asked him about educating poor students, he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded, “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”
That couldn’t be more precious, or more real.
What he says next is the line I have remembered most from Ripley’s book: “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”
That teacher and Cody should talk.
In the end we should agree that if you are not capable of getting results in classrooms with children of color who live with poverty, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
It just means you shouldn’t blog or teach.