Haspel: The Right Conversation, But Wrong Conclusion

By Elliot Haspel | February 10, 2016

Washington State Teacher of the Year Nate Gibbs-Bowling made waves in the education world recently with his essay, “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having.” Gibbs-Bowling bluntly called out the lack of political will and urgency around educational equity, writing up front, “I want to tell you a secret: America really doesn’t care what happens to poor people and most black people.”
He’s right — but goes on to draw an incomplete conclusion.
As someone who has engaged in education reform work for a decade, I applaud Gibbs-Bowling for using his voice to tell this hard truth. In a country where a child born in poverty still has but a 10% chance of graduating college — where the very school buildings look and feel different — we regard these “savage inequalities” as an unfortunate reality instead of a national crisis (similarly, it’s hard to imagine the drinking water in the Upper East Side or Beverly Hills becoming contaminated with lead).
I even wholeheartedly concur with Gibbs-Bowling that many of the current education “hot topics” — charters, standards, technology — are mostly shiny objects that don’t link up with the sea change our students need. Where I diverge from Gibbs-Bowling is in where his argument lands. He writes:
If you ain't talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain't listening. Teacher quality matters. Too many in the profession are quick to awfulize students in poverty to rationalize poor results. Better teaching inspires students and gets better results. Better teaching engages students and keeps them in classrooms, rather than the streets. Better teaching is the one thing we never really talk about. Better teaching is the only mechanism we have left.”
Yes, teacher quality matters. And yes, by any measure, the American teaching force as a whole is not where it needs to be. But better teaching is not the only mechanism we have left — simultaneously fighting the effects of poverty on the brain is a far more promising one.
The common line about the impact of teachers was laid out plainly in the 2010 op-ed “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto,” written by a group of reform-minded leaders headlined by then-New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein: “The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school,” they wrote, “is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income — it is the quality of their teacher.”
This is not strictly true. Research certainly bears out that teacher quality is the largest in-school factor related to student outcomes, and no one would argue that great teachers don’t change lives. But going back to the 1966 Coleman Report, no reputable study I'm aware of has ever found that in-school factors outweigh out-of-school factors. Even by the most optimistic estimates, teaching quality can explain about a third of student achievement.
Experience bears this out as well: As the Center for Reinventing Public Education found looking at 50 major U.S. cities, though there has been some progress, not a single system is excelling across multiple measures of student performance.
Or, as the Fordham Institute’s Andy Smarick puts it more frankly regarding city-based NAEP data, “We’ve been trying to improve urban districts for half a century. These are the results. No district is able to get even one in five black kids up to proficiency in eighth-grade math or reading.”
This is a tension that demands attention, because this is where most reformers jump ship and see nothing but low expectations and victim blaming. We have to be able to hold two ideas at once: That teachers, in the aggregate, are not effective enough and their quality must be improved; AND, if we want to actually accomplish our aim of educational equity for all students, that we have to reckon with specific learning effects of poverty. Otherwise, students are either not stepping into classrooms fully able to engage with those better teachers, or are stepping fully ready into classrooms with teachers unable to engage with them.
Indeed, education reformers need to take back the poverty-fighting stance that has somehow become disconnected from our efforts. There’s a way of saying that the neurological consequences of poverty and teaching quality are an inextricable both-and while rejecting the half-equation put forth by people like Diane Ravitch who argue that “the ‘crisis’ in American education is a cynical fiction.” Down that path lies new alliances and new potential.
I keep referring to the impacts of poverty on the brain because we now have enough scientific knowledge to call the question on its poisonous cognitive effects. Briefly, chronic levels of extreme stress (what doctors call “toxic stress”) wreak havoc on a child’s developing brain. As Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has detailed, this omnipresent stress, coupled with higher probabilities of trauma, neglect, insecure emotional attachments and poor sleep, disrupts cognitive functioning in areas specifically tied to learning, such as memory, concentration, and behavioral regulation. Poverty creates so much mental noise that it requires herculean effort for educational interventions to break through (and, in individual cases, they can); high expectations actually demand that we first tamp down the cacophony.
I do not believe this is necessarily “awfulizing” students in poverty — I know firsthand that these children are brilliant and creative, defined by so much more than their income levels or their challenges, and that they demonstrate heroic levels of resilience on daily basis. Moreover, so much of poverty as an economic condition can be traced back to racism, classism, and a broken and rigged economic system. That said, it is an untenable position to accept the existence of toxic stress, trauma, insomnia and the host of issues known as Adverse Childhood Experiences and imagine that spending seven hours a day inside a school building for just 180 days a year will be enough to reliably and systematically give children the opportunities they need and deserve. It is akin to accepting the truth of man-made climate change and then presuming we should focus solely on better and cleaner power plants. A critical part of the solution? Absolutely. Enough on its own to cause a tectonic shift? Not a chance.
So yes, education reformers need to focus school improvement efforts on teaching quality. But we also need to focus on things like ensuring all low-income mothers have access to a nurse home visiting program. That there are adequate parental leave policies in place, and affordable childcare options. That our schools are havens of trauma-informed practice and there are a bevy of psychological supports and support personnel in place. Perhaps it’s even time to take a look at bolder ideas like a guaranteed basic income.
These are every bit as much educational equity mechanisms as curriculum or technology. Education reformers — who, really, are everyone who believes there must be a fundamental shift in the opportunities for poor children and children of color — need to seize the mantle of being against the effects of poverty on the brain as much being for excellence in teaching and learning. They are two sides of the same coin, etched inseparably into a single piece of metal.
If we refuse this paradigm shift, then, to be as blunt as Gibbs-Bowling, we have no path forward to accomplishing our ultimate goals for students.
That’s the conversation I’m tired of not having.
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