Federal Opinion

Sarah Rubenstein: When Will Impoverished Students Get What They Need?

By Anthony Cody — April 20, 2011 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Three years ago I started serving as a mentor for a young teacher at an alternative middle school in Oakland. This school was for special cases - students who had been pushed out of regular middle schools, usually because they were having behavior issues or getting in fights with other students. You can imagine the kind of environment you get when you gather all these students under one roof. The next year she landed a new position, this time at one of the wealthiest elementary schools in the hills of Oakland, surrounded by million dollar homes. She has left Oakland, but she reflects on this experience here:

by Sarah Rubenstein

It’s been awhile...but I’ve been reading blog posts by Anthony Cody who is a former Oakland science teacher, and was my new teacher coach for two years in Oakland. He, along with many other educators, is questioning Obama’s Department of Education policies. He asks if the high stakes testing model that results in the poorest schools having teachers and principals fired when they “fail,” is actually a model that will create positive change in poor schools. Cody argues that our current system works to punish the students at those schools rather then help them.

So what does a (poor minority) student think when their school is labeled as failing, and teacher are fired? They think the teachers were bad. They think the school failed. They think they failed. But I think they already knew all that. I think that not just their school culture, but also the culture in general has already told many students in poverty that their schools are no good. So NCLB is just helping to reinforce that idea. NCLB is just helping to perpetuate the status quo and helping keep poor students under educated.

What I don’t know is how a school system or the federal government can turn that culture around. I’m sure the words “culture of success” are in NCLB somewhere, but to really overcome the cultural norms of poverty and school failure, a much larger cultural shift will need to happen.

I taught at two “alternative” schools in Oakland. They were falling apart. The buildings were dingy and old. The portables had long since out lived their usefulness, and sometimes were now repurposed as classrooms. The computers were refurbished, the furniture mismatched and beaten up. The custodians came and went and so did the cleanliness of the school. Some quit, others reassigned, some were just temps anyway. The yard was asphalt full of pebbles and one piece of playground equipment was stuck next to a very busy street. The other school had some picnic tables. We had paper, pencils, and decent condition textbooks. The teachers were all first or second year teachers or “problem” teachers who didn’t show up to work all the time. Teachers taught “elective” classes such as art or gym depending on the needs of the school. My principal regularly told me I was a good teacher, but it might have just been because I stayed late and showed up to work. One year my principal made us each cookies for Christmas. Another year two parents said thank you to me at the end of the year for all the calls home and hard work. More than 80% of the school was eligible for free or reduced lunch, and were all minority students. The schools were in program improvement or would soon find themselves there.

The “hills” school I taught at was still a public school in the same district, but received a large sum of supplemental funding from the PTA. Not everything was perfect. The main building was of the same vintage, but with slightly better upkeep. The furniture was in good condition and replaced by the PTA as needed. The portables had mostly been replaced with a new building that the PTA raised a large amount of capital to have built. The custodian had worked there for a number of years. He kept the buildings cleaned on a regular basis. I believe he missed work once the whole school year, and genuinely seemed satisfied with his job. The yard was mostly new asphalt with a new cool play structure. A nature area was fenced off; there were classroom gardens, and general landscaping overseen by parent volunteers. I had a small supply budget from the PTA in addition to the supplies supplied by the principal from the district. Most teachers were experienced and had been at the school for more than 10 years. The PTA supplemented the district staff with classroom aids, language, gym, art, and music teachers. My principal regularly told me I was a good teacher, and I always assumed that was because there were parents who told her they liked me a lot better than the “teach to the test” science teacher they had they year before. For teacher appreciation week the parents organized flowers for all the teachers. The PTA hosted a few lunches for the teachers during the year. Individual parents, and the PTA gave me, and all the other teachers, Christmas, and end of year gifts and thank yous. Less than 2% of the school was eligible for free or reduced lunch, and about 25% minority. The school had higher test scores then any other near by school and was a CA Distinguished School.

So, what’s the difference? Why do some schools in Oakland fail while others thrive? I certainly experienced the extremes in the district. I do not think the kids at the “alternative” schools were being given even a fair shot to score well on the high stakes tests, even if you do not even take into account the poverty level. My students at the alternative schools did not meet the standards on the high stakes test, my students at the “hills” school did. I know for sure they were not being provided with an equal school or education. I know that separate but equal schools were ruled unconstitutional over 50 years ago, but how did that lead us back to separate and unequal?

When I think about the high stakes testing, taken by all my students, which lead to the punishment and reorganization of the schools with high poverty students, I just wonder why. Were my very hard working principals at the “alternative” schools ineffective? Was I? Yes, and yes. They were brand-new principals, I was a new teacher; our students were some of the highest need students in the country. But why were we the ones there in the first place? Because no one else was, because no one else would want to work in that kind of environment, for that kind of pay, and work so hard, and then just know at the end of the year that you will be told you are failing. Even if we did an amazing job, and our students got really high test scores, what would it matter? We still would be working so much harder and for less pay then our colleagues with more years teaching experience and tenure who would never again take the harder job for no additional pay. So we all worked there until we became demoralized and then moved on to slightly easier jobs in the district, and with each year we make a little bit more money too as we moved along in the pay schedule, but we don’t have to work quite as hard as when we worked with those really high need students.

I had a few coaches and advisers who were retired teachers and I heard them all say that they thought experienced teachers should be offered more money to work in those really hard schools. We all know that those kids need experienced teachers in that classroom, but not very many people can figure out how to negotiate to get them there, and I honestly think the pay difference has to be quite big. I will say that the current contract between teachers unions and school districts generally do not include a way to pay more for experienced teachers working in high needs schools, but I see no other way around this problem.

A number of those retired teachers also remarked on how there are other things besides pay that might entice teachers to teach at high need schools, like more prep time, and fewer students. I had fewer students, so perhaps that helped. No more than 15 students were ever enrolled in my class, so usually 5-10 were in attendance. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have made it through the year with 30 students in a class at the “alternative” schools.

I never heard any of the retired teachers talk about the facilities, but I’ll tell you it makes a big difference. My third year teaching I applied for a transfer and looked at two schools. One would be another high need school with a staff I liked, and a mission I believed in. The whole school, but especially the classroom I would have, was dark, dank, and falling apart. The “hills” school had new desks and chairs and felt like a science lab. I had cabinets and counters for science experiments. It was light and had lots of windows. I just couldn’t teach another year in a dank room. Most good teachers I know spend 8-12 hours a day in their classroom. Many don’t even leave the room for lunch because they are tutoring students or grading papers. Where would you want to work? Where would you want to go to school? All I know is the longer I am a teacher the less I want to work in a dark, room in disrepair, working long hours with little recognition, and with high need students for no additional pay and with the label of “failure” looming over me, the school, and my students. A nice school, with a clean room, decent hours, lots of recognition, average students, average pay and the label “success” for me, the school and my students just sounds like a better job.

So that gets me back to my question of how you get experienced teachers into those highest need classrooms.

1. Pay More for the Experience
Certainly a pay difference will help, but it will have to be big. I would guess that it needs to be more than $10,000 above what they would be making in an average school, perhaps even much more. Teachers are generally paid for slightly less than 40 hours a week, but I would estimate good teachers work at least 60 hours. So the pay difference may need to be as much as an additional 50% of their salary.

2. Better Facilities

If a school is “failing” build a new one. Literally. Maybe just a good renovation will do, but make sure it is clean bright and is someplace you would want to spend 8-12 hours a day. Ensure the worst schools have the best maintenance staff, maybe pay them better too. Make sure things are clean and in good repair. Make sure all the teachers have computers, projectors, and all the supplies they need.

3. Positive Recognition

No one wants to work somewhere were they are told they are bad at their job. Teachers are teachers because they want to make a difference. Figure out some kind of systems to recognize good teachers publicly and privately and do it often. This might sound different then the current trend of reporting bad teachers test scores in the newspaper, and that is because it is the exact opposite.

While getting good, experienced teachers into the “failing” classrooms will not change the entire culture of failure it will certainly help the cultural shift. Kids know the difference between a quality experienced teacher and a new teacher, and that combined with the excellent new facilities will send a strong cultural message about the value of the school. I’m sure some similar measures need to be taken to bring in experienced administrative staff as well. I’ve never met a principal who didn’t work hard long hours, but the experienced ones just do better at a hard and complex job, and every teacher will tell you that good leadership is important to the success of a school. Probably the high stakes testing won’t really be needed in the same way since the only goal of the tests would be to identify the highest need schools that would get more money for teachers pay and better facilities.

Of course, doing what I have proposed will cost money. And it will be clear and explicit that the money is going into poor schools to help poor communities. Your tax dollars will be helping to educate the poor, and rewarding teachers who work, and maybe even live in those high poverty communities. Perhaps the unspoken classism (and racism) in NCLB is really the problem and the reason why no politician is ready to step up and do what is necessary to really make sure that no child is left behind.

Sarah Rubenstein taught for three years in the Oakland Unified School District. She began teaching as an intern teacher and Oakland Teaching Fellow. Sarah worked in three different schools, teaching math and science in grades 4-12. Last year she moved with her family to Washington State and is a full time mother. This post ran as the first entry in her new blog, Teacher’s Ed.

What do you think? Should we pay teachers more to work at high needs schools? How much would it take? Should we fight for more investments in buildings and equipment? And how about positive recognition for a job well done?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.