Obama's Flawed Thinking on Education

Only People Helped by Blaming Teachers for Poverty? The Wealthy

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he repeated a familiar refrain about the importance of teachers.

A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.

But it seems that it is those in power who are actually using teachers to escape from the realities of poverty these days.

President Obama offered as evidence a citation from a recent Harvard report:

We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.

He went on to say,

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn.

There are several problems with this. As others have pointed out, if you take a classroom of 25 students, and spread $250,000 over their 40 years of earnings, this amount comes to a grand total of $250 a year per student. This is unlikely to represent an escape from poverty. (see more thorough responses to the Chetty report here, and here.)

The second problem is a glaring contradiction, a logical flaw so huge it has been overlooked by almost every journalist apparently too polite to challenge the administration on it. If you do not wish teachers to teach to the test, if you want them to be passionate and creative, then how can you insist that their performance be measured by the use of test scores?

Let us be crystal clear. The Obama administration has made the use of test scores to evaluate principals and teachers a pre-condition for federal aid. Both Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers require that states develop evaluation processes that incorporate this data. Furthermore, the administration proposes to continue to identify and target for closure or "turnaround" the bottom 5% of schools, once again based on these same test scores we are told should not be taught to.

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot tell teachers to be creative, you cannot pretend you are "flexible," when you mandate the use of test scores for teacher and principal evaluations, and continue to use them as the basis by which schools are condemned as failures.

But the biggest burn is this. Everyone now knows that many of the wealthy have abandoned any pretense of caring about the poor in this country. They use every device to cling not only to their privilege, but to obscene levels of enrichment. The answer to poverty ought to be clear to us, as it was to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. more than fifty years ago. Poor people need a living wage. People need opportunities to work. We need a tax structure that rewards people for working and producing, not investing billions in tax havens overseas.

Of course teachers make a difference. But the idea that teachers will somehow elevate the one in four children in this country from poverty is not only wrong, it is a distraction from the real sources of poverty and inequality. In short, it lets the billionaires off the hook.

To his credit, President Obama discussed a number of measures that could result in a fairer tax structure, and encourage investment in our infrastructure and manufacturing base. These things could create jobs and opportunities.

Teachers have already chosen to put our shoulders to the wheel of inequality. Those of us who work with children in poverty are making tremendous sacrifices to meet their needs. The reason child poverty has expanded over the past two decades has nothing to do with "bad teachers," and everything to do with the huge concentration of wealth, and the devastation of America's manufacturing base, as millions of jobs have been shipped overseas in pursuit of higher profits.

The drive to get rid of bad teachers for the benefit of the poor is a phony crusade. The use of test scores for this purpose ensures that students in high poverty schools will continue to wallow in year-round test preparation, even while Arne Duncan sails around telling everyone he is opposed to teaching to the test..

The only people who are escaping poverty as a result of this charade are the wealthy. By making teachers the source of salvation, the rest of society is off the hook. By claiming that "bad teachers" are the reason our students lag, we can, as a society, ignore the enormous opportunity and resource gap that condemns millions of our children to poor futures.


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