Monday, August 07, 2006

The Paradox of Professionalism in Inner-City Schools

Darling-Hammond and Youngs (2002) show fairly conclusively that there is a clear relationship between the rigor of teacher training and student achievement. Alternative programs designed to get teachers quickly into classrooms and that "provide less training and support" are much less effective than traditional programs (p. 23). Similarly—and not particularly surprisingly—the more coursework one has in one’s teaching area, the better one’s students will do. In fact, the well-known STAR study of the effect of classroom size on achievement showed that a classroom with a certified teacher and an uncertified aide has the same achievement as a teacher without an aide after first grade.

At the same time, the teaching population in urban public schools has become disproportionately suburban and white. With few exceptions, middle-class teachers park in gated school lots surrounded by hurricane fencing, returning home without having to rub too closely on the blighted arenas beyond their schools. Partly as a result, staff in high-poverty urban schools tend to hold deficit views of students and their communities. "While studying teachers in poor and middle class schools," for example, Warren (cited in Thompson, Warren, & Carter, 2004) "found that 70 percent of teachers held negative beliefs about . . . [students in urban schools] and their families" (p. 6). And there is broad evidence that this disconnect (and sometimes disdain) has a significant effect on student achievement and, probably, on the number of students who actually remain in school and finish a high school degree. Certainly "foundations" and other professors seek to contest these ideas, but our success often seems quite limited.

In contrast, low-level, low-paid staff in inner-city schools—aides, secretaries, etc.—are drawn disproportionately from groups whose life experiences and cultures are similar in many ways to those of students. But though they tend to embody key characteristics important for student success, they generally lack the academic background necessary for effective teaching. (Of course, having the same background, alone, does not automatically make one supportive of students or their communities, but it seems like an important prerequisite.)

A simple answer to these challenges of cultural distance and academic background would be to find ways to move low-level school employees through rigorous training programs into teaching positions. But the barriers facing older students of color from impoverished backgrounds, frequently with their own families to take care of, often seem insurmountable. The only realistic option, for many, are alternative programs that have courses at night and on weekends, but it can still be incredibly difficult to balance life and work and school, slowing down advancement and limiting the time that can be spent on learning. And regular teacher-education programs are often not designed for working adults. In response, many of these older students interested in teaching receive degrees in other areas and then seek post-bacc training towards certification. And, of course, the less rigorous alternative programs are the ones that seem the most doable for people who aren’t getting any younger and who are already exhausted from gaining a college degree in the first place.

Thus the paradox: the only people who seem likely, on a broad scale, to achieve the kind of training most likely to promote student achievement are those same people who seem to have the most difficulty relating to inner-city students, communities, and families. On the other hand, those who would seem most likely to connect on a personal and cultural level with these students face enormous barriers in achieving the kind of academic rigor so easily accessed by more privileged members of our society. These limitations block the ability of both groups to fully nurture student success, although for significantly different reasons.

What this seems to imply is that we need to develop an approach to teacher training that carefully selects the key academic components absolutely necessary for effective teaching, while eliminating aspects of traditional higher education that seem of only tangential importance. Is it really necessary for students to complete a 120 credit BA/BS (with significantly more for post-bacc students)? Is 120 really a “magic” number? Could we imagine developing a teacher training program that addresses the concerns raised by Darling-Hammond and her colleagues, among others, while still allowing the creation of much more pragmatically doable alternative programs? I don't know.

Of course, a more flexible solution like this brings its own dangers with it. For example, by opening the door to the idea that a college degree is actually not necessary for teaching, we may create even more opportunities for conservative policy-makers and political leaders to attack the importance of teacher certification in the first place. This vision could easily provide the cover for the development of just what it is meant to overcome. It may not be possible to develop less-standard alternatives that do not, in too many cases, end up looking much like the problematic alternative programs already scattered across the nation.

Nonetheless, I believe there is little hope that we will be able to develop a more balanced teaching population in inner-city schools with the ability to reach students across academic, cultural, personal, and community levels unless we find creative solutions to the paradox of professionalism.

Darling-Hammond, L., and Youngs, P. (2002). Defining “highly qualified teachers”: What does “scientifically-based research” actually tell us? Educational Researcher, 31(9). See:

Thompson, G. L., Warren, S., & Carter, L. (2004). Its not my fault: Predicting high school teachers who blame parents and students for students' low achievement. High School Journal, 87(3), 5-15.

For information about the STAR study, see:


Barbara Stengel said...

“American schools” are not failing. (See Biddle and Berliner and Gerald Bracey for strong arguments and supporting data.) What is true is that most schools in American urban areas (and some rural areas) are facing a substantively different task than schools in suburban settings and the students in those schools are, by and large, not hitting the same educational marks as their suburban peers. This is not a simple matter of better teachers or more diligent students or more instructional resources or better physical plants or early educational intervention or greater parental support or raised societal expectations or defeated patterns of discrimination; it is a complex matter of all of these. And socio-cultural and socio-economic realities are both cause and effect of this fact.

Thus it is not even fair to say that “urban schools” are failing, because the failure is systemic, a function of a social system constructed (think segregation, property taxes, individual prejudice, formal and informal social stratification, networking), though perhaps unwittingly, to keep people in their place. Any effort to truly succeed in urban schools (i.e. that students will emerge with roughly the same “life chances” as students from suburban schools) must take into account the fact that relationships are at the heart of students’ development. Schools must create and enable strong, substantive personal relationships between students and the adults who staff the school in any capacity. Schools must staffed by adults who can enable students to construct relationships with each other and with persons in the world beyond the school walls. (A focus on relationship is not a focus on emotion, nor on interpersonal dynamics. Relationships are always triadic; i.e. two or more persons communicate about a “third”, a matter of substance. This matter of substance might be course content, a practical problem, the care of another, or any of a host of other alternatives.)

Aaron Schutz’s recent post on The Wall recognizes this and considers the teacher shortage/teacher preparation question from the narrowed focus of the urban educator. He explores the difficulty in finding teachers who themselves are prepared to communicate with urban students in ways that see, encourage and challenge the students while also, always remaining focused on the “subject matter” of the communication. He recognizes that persons with the background to “see” urban students are often persons without the background (see systemic issues highlighted above!) to focus on subject matter. In other words, those who “get” urban students’ lived experience don’t usually have college degrees.

The teacher shortage issue Aaron is dealing with here is the flip side of the “let the retired engineer teach physics without a license” debate. He’s suggesting that the ability to see and encourage students is at least as important as the subject matter competence issue -- and that we should at least consider how important a college degree is in this equation. Aaron’s not comfortable dispensing with college degrees – and neither am I for reasons of social legitimation as much as for purposes of real qualifications.

Still, let’s sit a while in the space Aaron has created here with his willingness to verbalize the notion that a teacher may not need a college degree, let along an education degree, let alone a state license. Let’s start with the notion above that productive personal relationships are at the heart of good schooling. Let’s imagine what kind of person can see, encourage and challenge urban students in matters of educational import. Let’s ask how we could tell if we had such a person before us (and who is the “we” who’s allowed to decide??? Ah, there’s the rub . . . ) . Let’s ask how we could educate candidates to develop into such persons.

And then let’s put the former into teaching positions posthaste, and let’s create partnerships (between universities and urban school systems and teachers associations at a minimum) to educate the latter.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Barb Stengel wrote: "Let’s start with the notion above that productive personal relationships are at the heart of good schooling." This is a very important and often neglected aspect of discussions about the improvement of education. "Productive personal relationships." And Barb is correct to remind us that this isn't (only) about "emotion" or "interpersonal dynamics," because relationships always involve communication "about" something else.

The "paradox" that Aaron Schutz points out in his post is that the people who are most likely to form productive personal relationships with some urban, poor, children are not the same as the people most likely to get the kind of teacher preparation that has been shown to increase academic achievement. Aaron suggests somewhat offhandedly that being of the same or similar cultural background is a "prerequisite" to being supportive of students and their communities.

This begins to sound suspicious to me. Isn't it classist (at best) and racist (at worst) to claim that only teachers with the same economic background and/or skin color can "connect" with poor, urban students in an appropriate fashion to provide the foudation of academic achievement? I think we ought to step decisively BACK from this slippery slope, and explore, rather, whether it is possible to take well-educated teachers (of whatever cultural and economic background) and teach them to develop productive personal relationships with children of whatever cultural and economic background. Because only THAT strategy holds any hope for overcoming the increasingly intractable divide in our society between rich and poor.

Let me put it simply: can we find a way to educate teachers to be effective even with kids who look different, talk different, and live different than the teacher? It is true that this is NOT about content but about something else. Perhaps it's humanity we're looking for?

Aaron Schutz said...

Well, of course there isn't some kind of simple binary that says some people can and others can't understand the position of others. However, while it would be nice if we could somehow "educate" people about these complex life issues, the evidence indicates that we haven't done a very good job. And I'm not convinced that it is realistic that we will do much better in the future. Because what we can teach in classrooms, for many of these students, is almost entirely unconnected with their personal experience. My point is not that we should stop trying, but that we should acknowledge that it would be good if more teachers in inner-city schools shared some similar life history with their students. It may even be critical. Until, as Craig says, we actually gain the capacity "to educate teachers to be effective even with kids who look different, talk different, and live different than the teacher" (and I'm not holding my breath) I think we can't avoid grappling with this paradox.

Interestingly enough, in a recent book Iris Marion Young cites a range of studies that show that people are not very good at placing themselves into the shoes of other people whose experience they do not share. Another study of "caring" in urban schools found that the caring of middle-class professionals for middle-class kids involved engaging kids around quite specific experiences they shared, and with central-city kids involved vague chats about "sports" and the like. These and other studies indicate that it is not just about "humanity." I fully believe that most of the 70 percent of teachers that Warren found held deficit views of their students did, in fact, care deeply for their students. Again, of course, people who share others' life experiences are also quite capable of holding deficit views of them. It's not a simple panacea.

This is a "slippery slope" only in a very abstract sense. In reality, the problem is that currently inner-city schools overwhelmingly lack professionals who share significant experiences with the children they teach. Can we really afford to ignore this because the implications make us uncomfortable?

Taking whatever "educated" teachers that show up at our door, without actually trying to reach out and expand this pool for the reasons I have laid out seems enormously problematic to me. Because we already know who will show up at our doors, and we haven't been very successful with them.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

I agree, Aaron. We cannot simply ignore the issue of who shows up at our door; and what we need to teach them isn't "just about humanity." We need to attract more teacher candidates of color and from lower SES backgrounds. But we *can* teach our teacher candidates some alternatives to "deficit views of tehir students," and we *can* teach our teacher candidates how to care without falling into stereotypical patterns. We need, as I think Barb implied, to look at these problems from all possible angles.

Aaron Schutz said...

One more comment about the slippery slope argument. The real question, I think, is, what characteristics matter for teachers and how much do they matter? And if they matter a great deal, and if we cannot effectively train most others to take on these characteristics, then how do we help make sure they are significantly represented among professional personnel in inner-city schools? Some have made a similar argument about teachers of color, but the argument about life experience seems somewhat different, at least to me. It does seem, at least partly, an issue of the "content" teachers can contribute.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

But also, let's remember that teachers cannot be "all things to all people," and as long as we expect them to be "soul-mates" with all of their students (I'm exaggerating for effect here), we may continue to ignore the fact that it is the students' OUT OF SCHOOL personal relationships that actually affect their achievement more than how cuddley they feel with their teachers.

Aaron Schutz said...

Craig, you are right, of course, about out of school relationships and the limits of school-based relationships. But I wonder if you are slipping down a reverse slippery slope (is that possible? :) here? Teachers can't do much about students' out of school relationships. And a focus on the fact that these are what matter most may be part of what leads them to hold deficit views about impoverished communities, and to limit the responsiblity they take for their students' achievement. I know your point was somewhat different, but there is a real tension, here, in how we arrive at our understanding of the challenges facing inner-city schools.

tjmertz said...

An important issue and a very thoughtful post and discussion.

I don't know much about the program, but the Milwaukee Teacher Education Center seems to be trying to provide training and certification for exactly the population Aaron thinks could be effective teachers in urban schools. (see: and

I would like to pick up on the "can't be all things to all people" observation and ask about the type of training needed for teachers in diverse classrooms. Although we are all familiar with the trends in resegregation (by race, class...) there are still many places that are trying to make diverse classromms work (I point to the MSAN for examples: In these places the threats and realities of (what they now call) "Bright Flight" are increasing. If this continues, support for public education will diminish. I know there are no easy answers to this, but would like to read other's thoughts.

Unknown said...

How long does it take to train the teacher how to be caring and communicative with his or her students? I didn't see anything aoubt this issue since we are certainly concerned about coursework in general.

Is there some reason this can't be a site-based training since it should properly be an ongoing group discussion focused on specific students and helping them to improve individually? It seems that the spread of compassionate teaching methods should properly be part of the small learning community execution since it is already dealing with discipline and thematic issues as a corpus.

Barbara's remark about complexity should ring a bell. Particularly with Craig if he has spoken with Leon Lederman in Chicago. The fine division of labor may hurt more than help in training as well as practice. Why worry about just what to talk about? It sounds like Mr. Monk writing down his party chat on index cards. Just too highly parametized while there are hundreds of contributing variables that haven't even been described. Chaos isn't chaos of course. People who successfully predict chaotic systems just go places the rest of us never thought of.

Anonymous said...

It seems as if the focus could be slightly redirected. It is true that people from different socio-economic levels tend to have a difficult time relating to one another. Physical appearance also has a large effect on the way people respond to one another. It is not always because a suburbanite simply hasn't experienced that of an urban counterpart. It has a lot to do with how much they really care about getting to know the culture versus how much they are teaching in an inner city school because they can go home at the end of the day and feel as if they did their good deed for the day. Yes, it seems as if a higher-class student is going to be able to achieve more educationally than a student who is not as privileged. It is not so much the college training that needs to be changed, but rather the intention of the teacher in what, how, and why they are teaching.