In Defense of Facing Reality

We will have to learn to hold two ideas at the same time: We must both reduce poverty and improve our schools. We cannot fix our schools without strengthening the teaching profession and addressing the social conditions that shape their outcomes.
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I recently wrote two review articles for the New York Review of Books about the teaching profession. The first was a review of Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons, about the exceptional school system of Finland, which owes much to the high professionalism of its teachers.

The second of the two articles was a review of Wendy Kopp's A Chance to Make History, and it focused on her organization, Teach for America.

I expressed my admiration for the young people who agree to teach for two years, with only five weeks of training. But I worried that TFA was now seen -- and promoting itself -- as the answer to the serious problems of American education. Even by naming her book A Chance to Make History, Wendy Kopp reinforced the idea that TFA was the very mechanism that American society could rely upon to lift up the children of poverty and close the achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups.

Wendy Kopp responded to my review of her book with a blog called "In Defense of Optimism." She wrote that:

... over the last twenty years we in the United States have discovered that we don't have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there's strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities and put enormous energy into providing children with the extra time and support they need to reach their potential.

Now I certainly agree with Kopp that schools are enormously important, and that it's vital to have talented educators working in them. We both want to see the day when every child has access to an excellent education. She believes that the teachers and the leaders produced by TFA have figured this out. I disagree. I think that the lesson of Finland and other high-performing nations is that we must improve the teaching profession, so that career educators receive the respect and working conditions they need to succeed, and we must also reduce poverty.

If it were true that we now know how to break the cycle of poverty, poverty would be declining. But poverty is growing in the United States; child poverty is more than 20 percent and rising. Among the world's advanced nations, we are number one in child poverty. It's facile to blame schools and teachers, but more realistic to recognize that poverty is a reflection of economic conditions. Schools cannot create jobs, provide homes for the homeless, or change the economy.

Kopp is right that TFA has become a training ground for leaders. Some of its alumni have moved into high-level positions, like Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the public schools of the District of Columbia, who now works closely with the nation's most conservative governors to strip teachers of due process rights and to promote charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit education corporations. Another TFA alum, John White, Commissioner of Education in Louisiana, advances the same hard-right agenda for Governor Bobby Jindal.

In my reviews, I contrasted the five-year preparation of teachers in Finland with the American hodge-podge approach to the recruitment and training of teachers. In the U.S., states offer many ways to become a teacher, and our non-system has produced low standards for entry and a revolving door, with 40-50 percent leaving in their first five years of teaching. Finnish teachers are highly respected and seldom leave their profession.

Kopp dismisses Finland as a model because less than 4 percent of its children are poor. But that's part of the story of their success and should not be waved aside as unimportant. Teacher professionalism is also part of Finnish success. In this country, our public school teachers are constantly criticized and disrespected, and few are recognized for their dedication and hard work despite budget cuts, growing class sizes, and a hostile media. So long as the attacks on teachers continue, so long as the politicians continue defunding the schools, and so long as our society continues to tolerate high levels of child poverty and intense racial segregation, we will continue to have low-performing students and "failing" schools.

We will have to learn to hold two ideas in our heads at the same time: We must both reduce poverty and improve our schools. We cannot fix our schools without strengthening the teaching profession and addressing the social conditions that shape their outcomes.

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