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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 21 2012

Flipping the Script: “Destiny Is Not Poverty”

We all fail when we focus on blaming teachers on the one hand and blaming poor students and their families on the other. As reformers, “Rheeformers,” anti-reformers, unionists, etc continue to fight amongst ourselves, we neglect to answer one important question: who are we letting off the hook?

The Law of the Excluded Middle states: “everything must either be or not be.” In other words, there is no gray area. In my classroom, I like to say that if my girls think I’m picking on them and the boys think I’m being hard on their group, then I’m actually being a quite balanced disciplinarian; however, I’ve learned that the true ideal scenario is to have both sides agree that I am being fair with everyone- having feelings hurt on both sides doesn’t cancel out as I once assumed. Likewise, Teach For America is criticized for focusing on the long-term systemic change whole simultaneously taking heat for emphasizing the significance of classroom teachers’ impact on student achievement. Why? This education radio show seems to have all the answers, but I have major issues with the way the education reform is being framed.

Perhaps TFA’s issue is that it deprioritized supporting traditional public schools and viewed charters as a quicker fix. I wrote in a previous post that promoting charters was the logical next step in TFA’s evolution, and I do not believe the organization is maliciously out to destroy teachers; rather, it’s agenda is to provide all children with an excellent education. Currently, the organization has reason to believe it’s easier to do this through charters because they can circumvent bureaucracy. As much as Americans despise “big government,” one would think this is a noble goal.

Perhaps the actual issue is the increasing amount of evidence showing TFA may cause collateral damage as politicians and other stakeholders usurp its mission in order to fulfill their own agendas. To be fair, non-profits cannot survive by biting the hand that feeds them. Would critics have TFA close up shop? Probably. To its credit, TFA has figured out one way to retain teachers, but sending them to charter schools. While teacher turnover is a major problem, especially in middle school, these charters benefit from getting corps members who are in their third year of teaching a.k.a reaching their stride.  I used to think this was a problem, and I still am concerned about the traditional schools that are “left behind,” but can you truly fault an ambitious, goal-oriented young adult for staying in the classroom, but going somewhere with more involved parents, more resources, more support, more pay, etc. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues who really want to stay around for their children but to do so would be considered by others to be an irrational decision. We really ought to focus our energies on providing greater resources and incentives to keep such young teachers (and skilled veterans) in those disadvantaged schools that need them most.

A few weeks ago, Gary Rubinstein asked: ‘what does “Poverty Is Not Destiny” mean to you?’

The implication here is that by championing the mantra, “Poverty Is Not Destiny,” TFA backs critics into a corner by implying that if you’re against the movement then you are against poor children and believe that “Poverty is Destiny.” By framing the argument in this way, advocates of quality education end up, again, fighting amongst ourselves. “Poverty is not destiny” means a low-income child can go to college and earn a well-paying career. Okay, I get that.

On the other side, critics resent this assertion because it seemingly washes away the detrimental effects of poverty on a child’s opportunities in life. Okay, I understand that perspective as well. Again, we are trapped by the Law of the Excluded Middle.  We get tripped up by and wrapped up in grammar and syntax. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let us reframe the ever-escalating debate into an actual dialogue. Let’s flip it on its head: “Destiny Is Not Poverty.”  That’s where my mindset is.

Try that phrase out: “Destiny Is Not Poverty.”

That’s not too scary. Regardless of where a children begins in life, I think we can all agree that we don’t want them to end up living in poverty. Okay, good. Now, what can be done to make sure this new vision comes to fruition? Why can’t we start there? What once began as an allegedly divisive assertion can now be reborn as an empowering, collective vision for a better future for all children.

I will pick this up again at a later date, but I wanted to A.) share my thoughts and B.) post some relevant links that I’ve had saved for quite some time:

Who’s Fault Is It Anyway?

*Poverty Matters:

- “But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he’s going to wait until you get better before he treats you.  Education is the path out of poverty, not the consolation prize offered to children whose families have managed to dig their way out on their own.”

-“Study after study has demonstrated that children from disadvantaged households perform less well in school on average than those from more advantaged households.” So why not address that directly?

*What Works In Education: a listing of factors that seem to be more significant than student SES background

*Using Parent’s Tax Return to Predict SAT scores:

-SAT scores seem kind of low overall. Why can’t we analyze low-performing rich kids and high-performing poor kids.

*Charter School Recipe:

-“The whole point of charters was to be a laboratory where ideas could be developed and the good ones could then be shared with everyone else, and the thought of that actually happening is an exciting one for education.” YES!

-“Yet I don’t see many public school administrators in on these conversations, and you don’t see most public schools jumping on the models that the High Performing Charter Schools seem so obsessed with. Why not?”
Now, THAT, is the type of question we need to be asking ourselves! Great post!

One Response

  1. Thanks a ton for stating your opinions. Being a writer, I am always in need of unique and different solutions to think about a topic. I actually uncover fantastic creativity in doing this. Many thanks

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

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