Poverty & Accountability

“I decided to become a teacher because I knew what it was like to grow up poor, and I wanted to help kids in similar…

Posted by Humans of New York on Thursday, November 26, 2015

During my many hours on the Internet over Thanksgiving break, I came across an interesting post from Humans of New York, which, if you don’t know, is a page that posts photographs and quotes from random people in New York City. This post from Thanksgiving day features a picture of a woman in a subway station who has, according to her quote, been a teacher for 13 years. She says she grew up poor and became a teacher to help people, but it is more exhausting than she ever realized and she is looking for a new career. She also brings up the topic of teacher evaluations:

Forty percent of my job rating is based on standardized testing. It’s the only job I know where your performance is based on how other people behave. I can’t control what’s going on outside my classroom. I can’t control if my kids are from abusive households, or don’t eat breakfast, or can’t get to school on time. But those things affect my rating when they show up in test scores. I need to find a new career where my performance is based on me.

Not only do all students take the same test, but all schools are expected to have high scores and teachers are evaluated on the scores of their students.  Source: Mike Konopacki Cartoons

The discussion around teacher evaluations based on standardized testing is extremely controversial. In my experience, every teacher I have talked to is 100 percent against being judged by the test scores of their students, while decision-makers cite the need for teachers to be held accountable. Regardless, this woman, whose post has been “liked” nearly half a million times, is just one example of how bureaucracy is pushing people out of the teaching profession. It is impossible to tell how “good” a teacher this woman is or what type of school she teaches at, but I think it’s safe enough to assume that she’s a decent teacher if she’s been teaching for 13 years; now her school is at risk of losing her. Additionally, she is clearly aware that some of her students come from difficult, poor and/or abusive households, yet does not feel able to address these students’ needs. Why are we placing additional burdens on schools and teachers such as test-based evaluations rather than empowering them to fight the effects of poverty?

Teacher evaluations are part of a larger issue of where our priorities lie in education. Teacher accountability has become more important than students’ needs, while the reality should be the exact opposite; if students’ needs are being met, then teachers will be more successful without the extra oversight. When people such as the teacher featured in the Human of New York post bring up the poverty of their students, they are said to be using poverty as an excuse. And, obviously, this is not unique to New York City.

Professors, teachers, scholars and administrators debate the merits of the Common Core at a recent event at Colgate University. Source: The Colgate Maroon-News

At a recent debate/open forum/discussion about the Common Core at Colgate, a mother from a wealthy suburb of Syracuse asked how the Syracuse City Schools, which are heavily affected by poverty, are expected to perform at the same level as her local well-funded school. The Superintendent from the local rural school district responded by saying that any student can achieve at a high-level – poverty is not an excuse. The mother responded by saying, “Of course all students can achieve. That’s not what I meant” and further questioning how we can demand the same thing, meaning high test scores, from schools with very different resources and student bodies. It completely ignores the effects of poverty.

Diane Ravitch, a controversial but well-informed figure in education, sums up this conversation very frankly in her 2013 book Reign of Error: The Hoax of The Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools:

Reformers frequently say that poverty is just an excuse, that poverty is not destiny, and that a child’s education should not be determined by his or her zip code. Poverty is not an excuse. It is a harsh reality…Schools fail when they lack the resources to provide equal educational opportunity. And they fail not because of lack of will but because poverty often overwhelms the best of intentions. (pp. 224)

The Human of New York teacher does not lack the will to help her students, but rather lacks the ability to sufficiently help by being consumed by standardized tests. And to those who say that a good teacher can help his/her students and get good test scores – how does test preparation help a student who hasn’t eaten anything today or is abused at home? If it’s necessary to hold teachers accountable, do it fairly. If the high-needs teacher’s test scores are lower than the suburban teacher’s, ask why. Is this teacher lazy, unmotivated and unsuccessful, or does this teacher and her students need more support and services? Then, maybe teachers will be more inclined to stay in the profession, rather than feeling worn out and unable to make a difference.

Bringing this conversation back to myself, I try to think about where I will be in five, 10, 15 years. I know I want to teach when I’m finished with college, but do I see this as a long-term profession? I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely sure, especially if my lofty goals of making a difference are unrealized due to bureaucracy. Perhaps I could work in a private or public charter school which has less regulations, but do I want to ignore the needs of public school students? (This is another controversial discussion that Ravitch addresses). As I have done my fieldwork and observed teachers in schools near Colgate, I have heard a lot of teachers say, “Well, the reality of teaching is…” especially when it comes to standardized testing and teacher evaluations. In the short term I can see myself accepting the realities of testing and common core because I will be (hopefully) young, energetic and willing to go the extra mile to help students succeed despite bureaucratic barriers. However, at what point does one become worn out? Hopefully I never reach that level, or, even better, education policy-makers will change how they think about poverty and accoutnability.


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a not-so-popular figure among teachers, has recently reversed his opinion on teacher evaluations based on students’ test scores. Source: www.edvotes.org

In a way, this has already begun. According to a recent New York Times article, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is always thinking about his own popularity, has shifted away from using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers amid extreme backlash over the last couple years. This is, of course, a step in the right direction, but does not mean that the individual needs of students and schools are going to be addressed. Perhaps this reversal of opinion by Cuomo will keep more teachers in the profession, but steps also need to be taken to address poverty as the “harsh reality” that it is.



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