Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So
Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).
In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.
It is tiring to make this point over and over again. The usual rebuttal is that determining exactly how much teachers matter is irrelevant, because they are one of the only levers in a poor child’s life over which school systems exert some control. This is true, and it’s a fine argument for focusing education policy efforts on sustainable teacher quality reforms, such as recruiting more academically talented young people into the profession, requiring new teachers to undergo significant apprenticeship periods working alongside master educators, and creating career ladders that reward excellent teachers who agree to stay in the classroom long-term and mentor their peers. This is what such high-performing nations as China and Finland do; they don’t, à la Teach for America, encourage 21-year-olds with five weeks of summer training to swoop into the classroom and swoop out again.
But because we know, without a doubt, that family poverty exerts a crushing influence over children’s lives, it is no small thing when standards-and-accountability education reformers repeat, ad nauseam, that poverty can be totally “overcome” by dedicated teachers. Of course, we all know people who grew up poor and went on to lead successful, financially remunerative lives. Many of them feel grateful to educators who eased their paths. But the fact remains that in the United States in 2011, beating the odds of poverty has become far less likely than ever, and teacher quality has less to do with it than does economic inequality—a dearth of good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare and higher education.
Advances in cognitive science have made it possible to pinpoint how these disadvantages hinder children academically. One-fifth of the middle schoolers in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, entered kindergarten in 2003 suffering from some level of lead poisoning, which disproportionately affects the poor and is associated with intellectual delays and behavioral problems such as ADHD. “It is now understood that there is no safe level of lead in the human body,” writes education researcher David Berliner, “and that lead at any level has an impact on IQ.”
Food insecurity is similarly correlated with cognitive delays, and rising in incidence across the country—more than 17 million American children consistently lack access to healthy, nutritious meals. Here’s how a team of Harvard School of Public Health researchers describe the relationship between hunger and student achievement:
When children attend school inadequately nourished, their bodies conserve the limited food energy that is available. Energy is first reserved for critical organ functions. If sufficient energy remains, it then is allocated for growth. The last priority is for social activity and learning. As a result, undernourished children become more apathetic and have impaired cognitive capacity. Letting schoolchildren go hungry means that the nation’s investments in public education are jeopardized by childhood malnutrition.
Acknowledging connections between the economy, poverty, health and brain function is not an attempt to “excuse” failing school bureaucracies and classroom teachers; rather, it is a necessary prerequisite for authentic school reform, which must be based on a realistic assessment of the whole child—not just a child’s test scores. Successful education reform efforts—such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides “wraparound” social and health services alongside charter schools, or California’s Linked Learning schools, which connect teenagers to meaningful on-the-job training—are built on this more holistic understanding of the forces that shape a child’s life and determine her future.
Brill and the accountability crowd are correct to note that high-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test scores of even the poorest children. Research shows that an improvement of one standard deviation in teacher quality leads to approximately two to four points of gain for a student on a 100-point test in reading or math. Five years of great teachers in a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to twenty points.
Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a candidate for selective colleges. Unfortunately, as Paul Tough demonstrated in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, at far too many “miracle” inner-city schools, the vast majority of students—despite impressive test-score growth—continue to score below proficiency in reading and math. These students may graduate from high school, but they are unprepared for college or work beyond the service sector.
Honest reformers are all too aware of this problem. As KIPP charter school co-founder Dave Levin tells Brill, “I’m still failing.” Indeed, only one-third of the KIPP network’s high school graduates are able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This is a remarkable achievement in a country where only 30 percent of all young adults—regardless of family background—hold a college degree. It’s also a reminder of how very difficult it is to make huge leaps and bounds in closing the achievement gap. After all, a full 75 percent of the highest-income high school graduates are able to earn that BA by age 24.
* * *
Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.
The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them.