I have always had a potent and unspoken fear I chalked up to insecurity and a penchant for fatalistic thinking: What if, despite my best intentions and efforts as a teacher, I have little to no impact on the lives of my students? A spate of new scholarship and findings suggests the role of teachers in the lives of their students is, at best, minimal, and the determinants of students’ classroom successes and failures are decisive long before they sit in a teacher’s classroom.
In short, perhaps my fear is more than suspicion.
Indeed, a deeper and more nuanced body of scholarship is confirming my worst fears.
As far back as the 1960’s The Coleman Report—a report commissioned by the United States Office of Education at the direction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—argued that the quality of schools and teachers matter less than the social composition of the schools and the family structure of the students.
Now Harvard professor Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame is making waves with his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by confirming the real opportunity gap in America does not run along a racial or gender divide, but is a social schism rooted in the reality that children reared in the midst of socioeconomic strife are far less likely to enjoy the benefits of America’s famed social mobility.
The manner in which our students are raised by their families and communities is much more consequential to their eventual successes and failures than classroom idealists have ever wanted to admit, myself included. My optimism and passion for the classroom is spawned by the conviction that a powerful teacher or cadre of teachers can overcome the highest of hurdles—poverty, a violent culture, a medley of social pathologies manifesting themselves in students with no family record of educational ambition, much less success.
My optimism is not blind optimism, is it? What about the dozens, if not hundreds, of students I have encountered in my own career who seem to stand tall amongst a background of impoverishment?
Anecdotes are only anecdotes. As school reform expert Pasi Sahlberg has written, “a commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs in the classroom, i.e. teachers and teaching.” Translation: we teachers are not as important as we think we are. The image of the “teacher-as-savior” promoted by many in the educational reform movement is dangerous to both schools and the broader society. For schools it wrongly suggests that external realities need not intrude upon the educational outcomes we wish to achieve. To the broader society, the notion of monolithic teaching excellence as a social panacea obscures the intricate web of social dysfunction manifesting itself in our students’ struggles.
Conservatives are correct to assert that the inheritance of poverty is largely the consequence of learned habits transmitted from one impoverished generation to the next. Parents that do not read to their children, inculcate proper restraint in their progeny, or closely monitor their offspring’s behavior are likely to find as students they do not possess the necessary battery of skills and values that must exist if social mobility is to materialize, no matter how extraordinary their teachers may be. After all, even the greatest pitcher in the world can’t throw strikes without a catcher positioned to catch the ball.
Liberals would be right to counter that America’s education system is one of only three in the world in which spending is more robust for affluent students than impoverished ones. After all, America was created under the banner of earned success and a strong Jeffersonian disdain for inherited rather than earned prosperity. If our students, through no fault of their own, are born into familial circumstances virtually guaranteeing their educational failure, then our political response must be more than incremental in scope.
The recently honored “Global Teacher of the Year,” Nancie Atwell, counseled young people: “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.” We public school teachers might not make as much of a difference as we wish we could, or that we thought we did, and the hurdles we face might be insurmountable, but I for one will not stop jumping as high as I can—even if my students come from profound disadvantages, even if the research proves my feet are encased in cement. It is only when I stop jumping altogether that I am certain my worst fear has come to fruition.
There are outliers and I will teach in the hopes of creating more.