It is important to read stories like Joe Mozingo’s piece, San Bernardino: Broken City, or listen to the NPR broadcast based on Mozingo’s reporting. The subject is desperation and family homelessness among the destitute in a faded California city where many children reside in cheap motels. I watched children, ready for school, come out of a strip of such places one morning in Phoenix, and I once watched a school bus drop off children at such a motel in Florida. It’s a jarring sight, partly because of what it says about America these days and partly because most of us, far more privileged, imagine going to school in the context of our own school days or the educational setting we intentionally provided for our children.
I suppose this place in our own more privileged imaginations is why, for many of us, blaming teachers makes sense. If students in our poorest communities can’t realize our expectations for rising test scores, we are willing to accept it when someone says we have to hold teachers accountable. As Mozingo paints the picture—meth addiction, homelessness, grueling employment for parents in the huge distribution warehouses out in the desert—San Bernardino is a place where median household income has fallen from $56,278 in 1970 to $37,440 today in inflation-adjusted dollars. While Mozingo reports on neither the schools nor the test scores, I am certain the schools are caught in the same kind of vicious cycle. I live in the Northeast Rust Belt, and I don’t get to California very often, but when I drive through downtown Gary, Indiana or the devastated neighborhoods of Youngstown, Ohio, I have created a discipline for myself. To parrot society’s message, I say to myself, “The children’s test scores here are because of the school teachers,” and then I consider the implications of that statement.
There is a whole shelf of sociology books—Karl Alexander’s The Long Shadow, about Baltimore—Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect—Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality—about the concept of neighborhood ecology—all the factors that come together to shape people’s experience of where they live. Sharkey defines the ecology of neighborhoods very clearly: “To truly understand inequality in America… it is necessary to move beyond a focus on income, occupation, and education, the traditional markers of socioeconomic status, and to consider the ways in which inequality is organized in space. In doing so, we find that the neighborhood is an independent dimension of stratification, meaning the residential patterning of American neighborhoods is not explained by these other dimensions of stratification—income, occupation, or education… By studying neighborhoods and communities we see a different dimension of inequality, and a more severe brand of racial inequality.” “(T)he spatial clustering of social phenomena, economic opportunities, environmental resources and hazards, and public institutions has important implications for the life chances of individuals.”(Stuck in Place, p. 15)
Instead of considering something as complicated and nuanced as the ecology of neighborhoods, the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind, which set out to blame somebody and punish the school-perpetrators of low test scores, and the No Child Left Behind Waivers granted to states by the Obama Department of Education, which demanded that states evaluate school teachers in part by their students’ standardized test scores, have given us an easy target: the teachers in public schools serving low-income neighborhoods, teachers who serve our society’s most vulnerable children. All the blame, wielded through data collection and published rankings of teachers—and the hoops that teachers must now jump through to prove they are effective (including submission of reams of goals and plans that fills up teachers’ evenings and weekends), has not raised the test scores. But it seems to be making the career of teaching far less appealing. There is a significant drop in the number of people who want to become school teachers.
Motoko Rich reported last week for the NY Times: “Across the country, districts are struggling with shortages of teachers, particularly in math, science and special education… At the same time, a growing number of English language learners are entering public schools, yet it is increasingly difficult to find bilingual teachers. So schools are looking for applicants everywhere they can—whether out of state or out of country—and wooing candidates earlier and quicker… In California, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2012…. Nationally, the drop was 30 percent between 2010 and 2014….” Rich ties the drop in the number of candidates training to be teachers to several factors including the long impact of the Great Recession and the intimidating prospect of college debt.
An Associated Press report last week also examined teacher shortages in Oklahoma, Kansas and Indiana. Noting that in Oklahoma per-pupil funding has continued to fall and teachers have not had a pay raise in a decade, the report also examines the impact of widespread teacher bashing on college students’ interest in the profession: “Some former teachers say an increase in mandatory testing and a sense of hostility from lawmakers has crushed morale. Recent Oklahoma measures are designed to increase rigor as well as imposing a grading system for schools that many teachers and administrators felt was unfair.”
The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin interviewed Timothy Slekar, the dean of Edgewood College’s School of Education, who reports that applications to his department have fallen by a third: “At a time when we supposedly are saying we want our best people to be stepping up to become teachers, we are pushing those people away more and more and more…. People never went into teaching for the money. They went because there was this sense of wanting to make a difference and change the world—very idealistic, right? Why are people not doing that anymore? That’s where you have to ask the real question… On top of me not making enough money, you mean I’m not going to have autonomy, I’m not going to have respect and everybody in the country thinks it’s my fault that kids are failing in schools? It’s the qualitative part of being a teacher that is driving people away from the field.”