Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm Not Sure What Awesome Things People Believe Are Happening Inside Suburban Classrooms

Erika Owens, applicant to teach in Philadelphia:

During the group interview there was a hypothetical situation -- pretend you are a teacher at a cash-strapped urban school who just found out, a week before school starts, that you're going to use a curriculum the rich suburban district has been using. I said I would probably be really frustrated because I would not have the resources that the suburban district has to implement the curriculum and not only that, but that my students probably wouldn't be starting at the same place so they would need even more resources and time just to catch up. I didn't say that because urban kids are stupid, but because I worked with urban teenagers who couldn't read or add and who needed tremendous help to increase a grade level never mind get to grade level.

Given a moment to collect my thoughts, I'd say "The curriculum the rich suburban district uses probably sucks."

Questions like this make less sense in the particular disciplines than the handwavy abstract. Is the Algebra II curriculum different in the suburbs? In what sense? Does it not matter if one school actually has lab facilities for science class and another doesn't? Do they actually do science labs in the suburbs? Or do they just memorize way more stuff? Do we just have to read the same books in 11th grade English, or do I also have to give the same crappy assignments? The biggest challenge there is that suburban kids are much better at writing and talking about books they haven't read than city kids. If I can tell the suburban kids to come back on Monday with a six-page research paper, and they do, and I do the same thing in the city, and they don't, then what? Is it the same curriculum if they need more support? Do I still have to cover as much?

Actually, Ms. Rhee and I are sort of on the same page with this one. She says:

Those teachers should teach in Fairfax County or somewhere where the challenges are not as great. And they'll do good things for those kids. No issues with that. But we need people with a different mindset for our kids.

Is it "no excuses" to say that about about personnel but "low expectations" to think it about curriculum? Suburban schools slide by with lousy curricula just as much as they do with mediocre teachers.


Unknown said...

But is it really a zero-sum game, or might there be different kinds of teachers (and different kinds of curricula) that work for different sets of kids?

Specifically, might it not be true that the teacher who is best at inspiring students who already have a baseline of success is not necessarily the same as the teacher who is the best at not giving up on students who are coming from behind?

Thinking of curriculum, there's always the question of where in the class you're aiming. Innovative projects can help you differentiate, but if there's any direct instruction, you have to make a choice as to whether you bore the fastest moving kids or keep the slowest moving kids with you. It's not clear to me that any one decision is more just than another, especially when you're not working with a population that's been particularly underserved.

"Not giving up" sounds easy, but it's incredibly challenging in practice to work with students who don't meet you half way. Obviously no teacher wants to say they've given up on a student, but I'd venture to say all teachers have taught students they couldn't reach.

I don't think that there's a good reason that someone who's "given up" on the students who have checked out can't be an excellent teacher for those who do engage. Specifically, nearly all college professors work on this model (since college professors don't even engage with those students who don't bother showing up).

On the other side of the coin, I can imagine that there may well be teachers who work very well to bring students up to grade level who would struggle to inspire students already working a level or two above.

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Tom,

The larger point here is that people are increasingly asking the wrong questions, framing the problem in the wrong terms, and apparently starting to believe that schools in the suburbs get higher scores than in the city because they've got better curriculum and teachers, which then leads to these comment threads pointing out that the dichotomy in question is not really an either/or, etc...

But yes, you're right.