Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement

We got the scores from the state yesterday, for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).  Most of my students are juniors, so this is a big deal.  If they pass these tests, in mathematics, science, English language arts and social studies.

Preliminary results gave me a 100% pass rate with 41% commended, out of  134 students whose scores counted (don’t ask about those formulae).  Considering that our students’ poverty rate, as measured by school lunches, is well north of 85%, that’s good.

It doesn’t mean all these kids are ready for the Ivy League, though.

I know the preliminary results err somewhere.  I can find two students in special education categories who did not muster the scores I had hoped, and to me, it looks like they may need to retake.  Two failures wouldn’t be bad, either.  I’ll let the state and our administrators fight that out.

So, I’ve done an okay job of teaching our kids bubble guessing.   That’ what the TAKS test does, focus teaching on bubble guessing.  Are we getting these kids ready for life and college?  I have more doubts.  The TAKS curriculum is limited, and shallow.  Dallas District has two other tests, but again the curriculum tested is limited and shallow.

Each year I discover most students don’t remember what they studied of Paul Revere, and almost none know the famous Longfellow poem about him.  They don’t know about Joyce Kilmer, either his poem or the sacrifice of his life.

Reading political cartoons proves difficult for many students, because they don’t understand the symbolism, sometimes of easy stuff like, “who does the Statue of  Liberty represent?” or “why is that guy dressed in a star-spangled coat, striped pants and striped top hat?”

They don’t know about Route 66.  They don’t know the National Parks.  They don’t know Broadway, nor Stephen Foster.  They are convinced Utah has some big river that led the Mormons to settle there, “on or near a waterway,” instead of the real reasons the Mormons settled there, for religious freedom in a desert.

Despite their remarkable test achievements, their teachers are all on the chopping block this year.  The Texas Lege still quibbles over whether to lay off 10,000 or 100,000 teachers over the summer.  We leave the academic year knowing only that the legislature as a collective hates teachers and teaching and schools, and they probably don’t like the students much, either, but they can’t say that because they want the students’ parents’ votes.

Jonathan at JD 2718 sent me a note a couple of weeks ago alerting me to a story in the online Texas Tribune, by Reeve Hamilton.  Hamilton interviewed Dr. Michael Marder, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin who in his spare times runs UT’s UTeach Program, which encourages the best students in science and math to consider teaching elementary and secondary classes.  Marder has a strong case to make that it’s not the teacher’s fault when students in some schools do not measure up to the standards promulgated by the state tests, inadequate and inappropriate as those standards are.

(Personal note:  Reeve Hamilton is a very good reporter who often does great work on otherwise mundane issues; he’s also the son of a woman I met in graduate school at the University of Arizona, the first woman who ever gave me a highly contingent proposal of marriage, which as you see we did not carry out — probably much to the benefit of all of us, with Reeve doing such great work, and all our kids being basically sane and sound.  I smiled when Jonathan said such good things about Reeve’s work, and the subject of the story.  Nice to hear unasked-for compliments about people you know and like.)

Marder knows numbers.  Marder got the statistics on schools and their preparation of students for college, as well as we can get those numbers without an expensive and expansive study.

Michael Marder’s numbers show that it’s not the teachers’ fault that so many students are not ready for college, and not learning the stuff we think they should know.

Texas Tribune said:

In the popular 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee said, “But even in the toughest of neighborhoods and circumstances, children excel when the right adults are doing the right things for them.”

After looking at the data, Marder has yet to be convinced that any teaching solution has been found that can overcome the detrimental effects of poverty on a large scale — and that we may be looking for solutions in the wrong place.

Hamilton’s interview of Marder takes up three YouTube segments — you should watch all three.

Marder indicts those who blame teachers first, with the data.  By implication, he also indicts the state legislatures who appear bent on continuing the daily flogging of teachers until teacher morale improves.

In Part I of the interview with Hamilton, Marder shows the statistics that demonstrate poverty of the student is a greater influence on student achievement than the teacher:

6 Responses to Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    A decade later, what’s changed?

    In Texas, legislators and especially our Lite Gubernator now blame teachers AND the schools, and tell the parents they are not at fault because teachers are all pre-occupied by gay sex and transgender issues.

    If you’ve followed the news, you know it’s the Republicans who are pre-occupied by gay sex and transgender issues. It’s all vague.

    Are Republicans not getting enough gay sex, or too much? They won’t say. Privacy, you know.

    Vote Democratic. In your school board elections, vote for the people who worry about busses, leaky roofs and raising teacher pay, if you don’t have partisan labels to make it easy to figure out. Anyone challenging books in the library or fretting about critical race theory, which is not taught in any elementary or secondary school, should be voted out.


  2. All most of us want to do is inspire. That is why we become a teacher.

    Eric Bloom


  3. […] Teachers can make a difference, but they can’t make up for all of the effects of poverty. Here is one teacher’s take. Here a video interview at the site (UT […]


  4. […] Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement Uncategorized […]


  5. blueollie says:

    Nice article. A good teacher can help a student reach their potential, but their potential is limited by a combination of genetics and their home life.


  6. Kate says:

    and now states are more and more turning to shifting blame to parents, including laws fining parents for poor performance in schools. This just seems to further the burden on the impoverished, parents who may be working extra jobs or may themselves be uneducated.

    We know that parents who are supportive of their children’s education tend to have children who perform better, but “support” often means more than some parents have the intellectual or financial means to provide: trips to zoos, aquariums, travel, discussions at home, and so on. Parents who cannot provide the same educational advantages in the home and after school hours that the well off can should not be further punished for that inability.

    Schools can’t be the sole institutions of social change. The rest of society has to support and value education for everyone, regardless of social/economic class. This involves more than adopting punitive actions against teachers and parents (or students for that matter) but fundamentally changing our society to promote economic and educational mobility rather than focusing on placing blame on those who are the most powerless.


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