If We Want Poor Kids to Get an Equal Shot at Learning, We Must Make Hard Choices

Jun 15, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Maureen Kelleher

It’s not every day you see the phrase “supplement, not supplant” make it into The New York Times. But it did. The Washington education world is buzzing over Secretary John King’s effort to push schools and districts to fix a longstanding inequity in schools and districts: where the best teachers are teaching. King’s proposed rule would force districts receiving Title I funds—federal money for high-poverty schools—to spend at least as much local and state money in those schools as they do in schools with more affluent students. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? It spells out what “supplement, not supplant” should mean. But when three-quarters or more of school budgets are tied up in teacher salaries, ensuring that equity becomes tricky. This is because the early years of teaching are a tough rite of passage into the profession. In general, high-poverty schools are tough places to work: high-need children, inadequate resources and, too often, toxic relationships among adults. This means high turnover and lots of job openings, so they are the schools where many teachers begin their careers. But lots of those teachers leave the profession before they reach the five-year mark. Those who make it through by not just surviving, but thriving, become hot commodities. High-performing teachers who successfully withstand the gauntlet of the early years of teaching have their pick of more attractive jobs. Better-resourced suburban districts and more advantaged schools, like magnets or exam-entrance schools in the urban districts where they started teaching, love to hire them. So far, offering high-performing teachers incentives to transfer into high-need schools has shown mixed results. On the one hand, those who agreed to transfer stay put and perform well; however, very few teachers took up the offers. Awarding retention bonuses to keep top performers in needy schools appears to be a more successful strategy, but so far it has only been tested on a small scale. The debate over whether new rules for Title I will actually get more resources to students who need them obscures a deeper reality: almost nobody wants to do the hard stuff to ensure children in poverty get the teachers and school supports they need to succeed. There are a number of ways to go at it, and none are easy answers: Option A: Get the “best” teachers in front of more poor kids. If best means veteran teachers who achieve value-added results, the research above shows it isn’t easy to get them to move into impoverished schools. Option B: Disperse poor and minority kids so there aren’t so many of them in one school. We’ve tried that with both court-ordered and voluntary desegregation programs. In fact, Georgetown University’s Nora Gordon recently argued in The Atlantic that the proposed new rules for Title I could have the unintended consequence of discouraging districts from trying to integrate schools by race and class. Option C: Create programs outside of school to support kids in poverty and their families, particularly preschool and very early interventions. This is a solution that is getting buzz, especially with New York City’s recent move to  universal preschool. Option D: Learn how to teach kids in poverty more effectively. This seems like common sense at first glance, but becomes surprisingly elusive upon deeper examination. For example, teacher residencies show promise in keeping teachers on the job, but they are expensive. And there’s always Option E: Restructure the economy and social programs so we have fewer poor kids in the first place. You might call this the Bernie Sanders solution. But Bernie Sanders didn’t quite make it over the top. So, which hard choice shall we pick?

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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