Some teachers, including Passaic County Education Association President Joseph Cheff, argue that in schools with high concentrations of very poor students, poverty has to be alleviated before achievement can improve. New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, says that’s a cop-out.
“Of course poverty and circumstances play a very significant role in academic outcomes,” Cerf said. “But the standard is, can we do better?”
Teacher quality is the biggest in-school factor affecting achievement, many studies say. That motivates a key requirement of the School Improvement Grant: replacing half the staff. That wasn’t easy. Nobody outside the district applied last summer to work there, only two Paterson teachers asked to transfer in, and the district had to find spots for School 10 teachers who lost positions. When school opened, there were still 16 vacancies among 65 positions. It took months to fill them.I am being serious when I ask: what the hell does Cerf mean? That teachers have to do better no matter what the realities of a child's life are? Why can't we deal with both sides of the problem?
I've made this analogy before: if I scarf a dozen donuts every morning, I'm not going to lose weight, no matter how much I increase the milage on my daily runs. Yes, we should work to improve instruction, teacher quality, and school environments, but that will never be enough.
Here's a key part of the research this article doesn't mention: even though teachers are the biggest in-school factor in student achievement, they still only count for 10-15% of the total effect. Important? Sure. The most important factor? No way. 60% of the total is student and family background characteristics.
Further, funding differences between schools can account for more than half of the difference in performance. It's worth pointing out that ACTING Commissioner Cerf serves at the pleasure of a governor who is looking to cut funding for at-risk children by at least $400 million. That may well explain why it was so hard to find teachers willing to serve these beautiful and deserving children.
It's not a cop-out to point out these facts; the real cop-out is wagging a finger at teachers while refusing to do anything meaningful about the problems at-risk children face every day.
ADDING: A much more comprehensive view of the relationship between funding and student achievement, authored by Bruce Baker, is found in this brief published the Shanker Institute.