June 27th, 2011 by Jane Van Galen

At first glance, I thought that  it was just  another article about disappointing test scores.

I almost didn’t click through to read it, in part because I spend so much time in my teacher education courses trying to contextualize the rhetoric about “the achievement gap” and testing and my students’ role as teachers in closing real and formidable gaps between poor and working class children and their more privileged peers.

We talk about how in the United States, they, as teachers, are framed as the primary players in leveling very uneven economic playing fields.   I explain that  in other countries (especially many of those with  high test scores),  children spend their early years in high-quality child care  and can see a doctor when they’re sick. I explain about social safety nets in other countries that attempt to buffer vulnerable children from insecure  housing, the stresses of parental unemployment, inadequate nutrition, and inconsistent access to basic medical care.

We consider whether some of these things might matter in how children engage in school.

We then talk about how  in the US,  policy makers have instead deemed that they, as teachers will  be responsible for negating  vast  differences in life circumstances — within the four walls of their classrooms.    And if they do not, they can expect to be publicly vilified and will  lose what little remains of their professional dignity and autonomy.

Because, in policy rhetoric about achievement gaps,  achievement is entirely about what teachers do within the four walls of their classrooms.

And eventually we talk, also, about  the deep and fatal flaw in all of this rhetoric about closing the “achievement gap” :  the assumption that at the landing place at the far edge of the gap,  privileged parents will warmly welcome newcomers who now achieve on par with their own children.

Given how much we’ve talked about all of those things in my classes this year,  I wasn’t really surprised when I finally read  that article that I’d almost skipped because it seemed to be just one more account of disappointing test scores.  Because there,  I  read a vivid account of how the teachers I’m working with are being set up to chase an ever-moving target.

The article describes how in elite schools in New York City, wealthy parents anxious about grades and college admissions  are investing tens of thousands of dollars in  private tutors  to sustain their children’s competitive edge.  One parent concedes that her children’s tutoring bill climbed to six figures in a recent year.  The schools are discouraging this for multiple reasons, but the parents will not be dissuaded from hiring “stealth” outside support for their own children.  As one of the tutoring providers explains:

It’s no longer O.K. to have one-on-one coaching for sailing but not academics.

The teachers with whom I work are not preparing children for recreational sailing.

They’re charged with preparing diverse children for a productive place in the raveling economic fabric in their communities, to be confident and vocal citizens, to be ready to go on to whatever forms of higher education they choose.  And increasingly, they are preparing children for cruel competition for access to any of these things.

And if these children do not eventually find productive and dignified work, find their voices in the public square, or thrive in college, blame will fall on the shoulders of their weary teachers, as blame is falling on them now when test scores predict the odds against their students doing any of these things.

Yet as this article illustrates so vividly, academic achievement is not, and never has been, primarily about what teachers do within the four walls of their classrooms.

Many of my teacher education students will start internships in the fall in schools in which families  move mid-week because the eviction notice has been posted,  multiple languages are spoken at home,  parents struggle to sustain dignity after years of unemployment,  and ever-more crowded classrooms are taught be ever-more exhausted teachers.

Imagine what might happen if each of those children in those public school classrooms had unlimited access to  one-to-one support outside of school by highly qualified tutors who are paid more than their full-time teachers.

And if we can’t imagine all children having the same access to whatever supports they need to succeed in school, perhaps  we can at least insist that policy makers imagine poverty reduction programs than entail much more than publicly vilifying the teachers of poor children?

Surely, the 23% percent of the children in this country who are poor deserve much more?

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Jane Van Galen, a first –generation college student, is Professor of Education at the University of Washington Bothell. Her work focuses on social class, education, social mobility, and teacher education. She also  teaches courses on Digital Storytelling and other forms of digital media.

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