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Demoralizing Teachers Won't Fix Schools


March 18, 2012

Although I believe Gov.Dannel P. Malloyand other education reformers are fundamentally concerned with student progress, I don't believe that they understand how much their conversation is ultimately demoralizing to the thousands of educators throughout the state, most particularly city teachers struggling in neighborhood schools.

When the reform conversation is driven by repeated references to "schools that fail our children" and employs simplistic caricatures of incompetent teachers, it demoralizes the spirit of the thousands of capable, dedicated teachers who work against all odds to support the academic, social and emotional growth of children.

To say that student achievement is directly correlated to socioeconomic status is not to say that poor children can't achieve. It is to assert that there are multiple factors involved in student achievement, many of which are beyond the control of the teacher and the school.

As we design school systems based on a competitive, business-like model, we are leaving the most vulnerable children behind. When families compete for spots in "better" schools, those families with greater resources are naturally more able to navigate the process, leaving community schools in the poorest neighborhoods with an increased concentration of at-risk children.

As we measure a school's success or failure primarily on standardized test scores, we ultimately blame, or punish, the victim. At this point in the national educational reform dialogue, it appears that city teachers have become the latest victims in a society characterized by growing economic inequality.

The increased concentration of at-risk children left behind in poor community schools is straining the capacity of its professionals. It is shameful to simply assert that these professionals are failing the children.

The truth is that many poor, under-educated parents (including large numbers of young, single moms) are overwhelmed by the very difficult task of meeting the most basic needs of their children. They are often depleted from the multiple stresses of poverty, leaving little time or energy left to manage discipline issues, let alone monitor student homework.

These same children then face overwhelmed teachers and administrators who are handed more and more problems with fewer and fewer resources. They are forced to devote an inordinate amount of time attending to test data, leaving decreasing amounts of time to attend to increasing student discipline issues.

Having been in the Hartford schools for the past 40 years, it is shocking to me to see, or hear about, the degree of unaddressed student misbehavior, particularly among middle school-age children. While parents, teachers and administrators are desperately trying to survive in our new educational culture of shame and blame, too many children are falling through the cracks.

There is no Superman.

There is no magic pool of gifted, dedicated young people waiting in the wings to replace incompetent, burned-out, tenured (the latest pejorative) teachers. Sadly, in this educational climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain good teachers. We have to stop blaming teachers (or parents) for failing the children.

The teachers need help. The parents need help. The children need help. Unfortunately, real help costs money (more social workers, tutors, etc.), and this is in short supply. The tragedy is that not helping these children now will cost us so much more in the future.

Nancy Winterbottom of West Hartford taught for nearly 38 years at Hartford's M.L. King Elementary School.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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