I have worked in area schools for almost 30 years, and I have come to know many dedicated and hard-working suburban, rural and urban teachers and administrators.
My experience has convinced me that teaching in any school is challenging work especially over the past 15 years as we have adapted to requirements and accountability responsibilities associated with the legislation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), then Race to the Top (RTTT), and now Every Student Succeeds (ESSA) which gives state lawmakers considerably more power over the schools. And now those of us in the field are awaiting the new edicts from a new administration in Washington. The expression, “All politics are local” has a corollary—“All education policy is political.”
And there is no clearer example of the way politics shapes education policy in our region than the way we have segregated our schools by both socio-economics and race. Critics of the Rochester City School District are quick to blame parents, teachers and administrators for low performing schools. But Rochester, like many urban districts, has a unique set of physical and demographic characteristics—not seen in suburban and rural districts. Much has been written about the challenges of urban education but for the sake of discussion I’d like to focus on three areas having to do with teachers and teacher belief systems.
- Inexperienced teaching staff and teacher turnover
Suburban districts in Monroe county have many teachers who “cut their teeth” in the Rochester City School District. And this is not good news for city school district schoolchildren. Study after study has found the turnover rate in urban districts is many times that or suburban districts. In her article, “The Missing Link in School Reform,” author Carrie Leona cites her studies on human and social capital in schools and the findings that student achievement blossoms in schools with high social capital—that is, the relationship of novice teachers learning from and leaning on experienced teachers for help. Indeed there is work that goes back generations showing that even struggling teachers get better when they have strong ties and help from their experienced peers. This is something that private and suburban schools recognize and promote but that many urban schools can never accomplish because the teachers leave.
2. Cultural Competency
More of the teachers in urban settings than in suburban settings struggle with teaching children who are not like them. To be sure teachers everywhere must work on this skill, but teachers who take jobs in the city often have beliefs about the children (Black, Hispanic, disabled, low-socioeconomics) that are difficult to overcome without significant interventions to have them reflect on their biases. They may perceive race and class as limiting factors in learning or see a different learning style as an intellectual deficiency. These stereotypes are hard to overcome and can poison the educative process. For example, last year a student in my Educational Leadership Program, who taught in the city, came to me for advice on how to deal with a principal in a charter school (but it could have just as easily been any school in the city) who announced to her staff that while the school was not one that she would send her own child to, it was good enough for the kids who were attending. That thinking would be unacceptable in almost any other school district in our area.
3. Belief that kids who learn differently are not smart
So you have a class full of poor black kids in front of you, drive into the city from an outlying area where a lot of people you know, and maybe you as well, voted for Trump, a candidate who mocked the handicapped, embraced racist rhetoric, and called the “inner city” the equivalent of a war zone. How intellectually strong do you have to be to put these thoughts aside and not feel that many of these kids are not as smart as yours? Kids often act out when teacher expectations are low. Recent studies indicated that teacher expectations and student self-worth play significant roles in achievement (“How to Nudge Students to Succeed,” NY Times, Oct. 30, 2016). Students who look around and see 23 kids a lot like them and an inexperienced teacher in front of them are doomed before they get started. And make no mistake that is what they see. Because in Rochester, one of the three poorest and most segregated cities in the country, the chances are that 95 percent of the kids are poor, black or brown.
I have little faith that we will see this change in my lifetime and my less optimistic side says that we will nibble away at the edges and celebrate suburban districts that agree to take 5 or 10 kids into their schools in a marginally expanded Urban-Suburban program. And we will add a few more charters while bemoaning the belief that the city cannot get it right and the parents don’t care.
But the optimist in me thinks that over the next few years we can start three or four magnet schools, expand the urban suburban program into the thousands and change the boundaries of our many districts to allow a freer flow of school choice
Because I hear from people who do not live in the city that they are not prejudiced and that the old attitude—“you want good schools, make more money and move to the suburbs”—may have run its course. But in 2016 I know that politics has left 27,000 of the children in our county in sub-par schools with less experienced teachers. And the choices we have made as a city and county feel unethical and racist. And it is hard for many of us to see it in any other way.