Uncommon Schools With All Too Common Solutions: how the emphasis on effective teaching undermines justice

I was walking down the hallway during study hall. I shouldn’t have been in the hallways but it was 8th period and I was a senior. In other words, I didn’t give a shit. When I turned the corner I ran into my Street Law teacher. I don’t remember every detail of the conversation, but I do remember him telling me: “You have to turn in something so I can give you a grade!” I shook my head and pretended to go to class. I never turned in anything in that class and got a high grade, I think even an A. I don’t have one memory of ever doing a Turn and Talk, a Think-Pair Share, or of my teachers cold-calling. Most of my classes consisted of lecture and note taking. In fact, the best class I took was entirely lecture. I don’t remember teachers ever being observed, the principal was never a classroom teacher and was in no way qualified to assess best practice. I graduated in 2001, so some of this has to do with being before the education reform extravaganza, some of it, not all of it. Most of it has to do with the fact that I went to DeLaSalle, a “good” school, as such I was expected to be a “good student.” I had to take an entrance exam to get in. If I didn’t act right, or perform to standards, I would simply be put out. If I didn’t make gains nobody looked at the teacher, in fact, nobody looked to see if I made gains, I was not “at risk.” I was not a statistic.

This last summer I sat in an AP training with teachers from schools like De — schools that are full of middle to upper class white kids who come in with little to no “gaps” in their “skills.” I watched in astonishment at the nearly orgasmic reaction they had to the “trainer” introducing graphic organizers and Cornell Notes. I thought about all my colleagues who would teach circles around them, but would be labeled ineffective. I thought about all my students who were dealing with things these grown folks would never have to, all the while being judged and ridiculed by them.


The evidence is overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact that its implications escape analysis: teachers are the single most important school based factor on student achievement.

As a teacher this fills me with incredible pride and motivates me to continuously hone my craft. These are good things, no doubt. But lately these feelings have faded, giving way to a deep sense of trepidation. I know I am a good teacher, and I know that is too simplistic to be the standard by which schools are judged. When we emphasize effective teaching as the root cause of poor student performance we are giving a pass to all the things we know effect performance more than teachers, in a word: oppression. We are placing extra burdens on students that never get placed on students from privilege. We over-test– to make sure we are effective. We extend school days– to make sure we are effective. We require strict discipline codes– to make sure we are effective. We are perpetuating a deficiency model about poor students and students of color and placing ourselves (overwhelmingly middle class and white teachers) as the saviors to these poor helpless students. That is not how relational power is built.

This weekend I spent several hours analyzing the results of a practice ACT my freshmen students just completed. I am two months into the school year and already stressing about how my students will make the necessary gains to compete for college acceptances and scholarships. Many of my students are several grade levels behind, and it is going to take some seriously effective teaching to get this job done. I know that. I accept that. It is the rules to the game we signed up for. But, I think about the teachers at De and other suburban schools– which continuously rank among the best in the country if you are white and wealthy— and what effectiveness looks like for them. The fact is it looks very different. The fact is teacher effectiveness only comes into play when you are teaching poor students and students of color. The research itself betrays this point, and we never deal with it. The research admits teacher effectiveness is the most important school related factor.

What does that mean, school related? What it means is we are simply accepting that schools like De, with shitty teachers like the one that gave me an A for doing literally nothing, get away with being sub-par because the students have the skill set to cover their inadequacies. It means teachers that couldn’t teach their way out of a paper-bag end up being rewarded with student success that they never actually had a hand in facilitating. It means teachers who are working their asses off to get 1.5 or 2 years growth from students will feel like failures, and be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, because their students are still not at grade level. More importantly though, it means that we are accepting a society that is grossly inequitable because, as this RAND report states, societal issues are out of schools control. Instead of addressing the most basic flawed premise, that the ACT actually predicts success, or addressing the actual most important factors influencing student success: poverty, racism, sexism, classism, mass incarceration etcetera,  we focus on teachers. We are more comfortable telling teachers and students to be extraordinary than we are talking about the real issues. Is effective teaching hugely important? Yes. Is it more important than stable housing? No. Is it more important than knowing you will be safe when you leave school? No. Is it more important than knowing you will eat more in a day than the terrible excuse for food they serve at school? No. That is violence we must not accept.


Beyond the rhetorical violence, this frame is an insult to actual effective teaching. Currently, effective teaching is most commonly measured through some iteration of a super-complex matrix of several dozen qualities which are assessed by someone who only observes your classroom for a few fleeting moments and then extrapolates from those observations. It very rarely engages the actual stakeholders in the creation, assessment or analysis of classrooms. As such it never assesses what students actually need, especially in schools that serve poor students and students of color. As Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade points out in this Ted Talk, no teacher is actually assessed based on what we know our students need before they can actually make the gains we want to see from “effective” teaching: the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. My effectiveness is not measured in ACT points. If a student enters my classroom feeling beat down, angry and hopeless but leaves feeling empowered, equip with the necessary tools to change the circumstances that had them feeling beat down, angry and hopeless, I am effective and they are successful. Does that mean they will become better readers? Yes. Does it mean they will become better writers? Yes. Does it mean they will become better thinkers? Yes. But can I be effective and students successful without those things? Yes!!

Why won’t we ever talk about effective teachers being teachers who build up the self-esteem of their students? Why aren’t successful schools the ones that provide housing, healthcare and shelter to its students? When will we understand self-actualization as a prereq for ACT gains? If we are honest with ourselves we know the answer to these questions. We know that if we focus on self-actualization of poor students and students of color that the status quo would be in serious jeopardy. So, we demand assimilation. We demand conformity. We pathologize those that resist this blatantly oppressive agenda and/or act in a manner consistent with being traumatized, hurt, and angry about their oppression.

The reality is fairly obvious: our country is only interested in effective teaching if it furthers the established norms. Effective teaching translates, then, the ability to do well on a biased test and to fit into middle to upper class institutions. However, to truly be effective teachers the fundamental needs of students and the community need to be centered. In schools where the student body is well adjusted, largely trauma free, and has been primed for acceptance and success in the existing systems effective teaching is much less demanding than in schools where the student body is traumatized, marginalized, and oppressed.  Yet, teacher training programs and schools continue to emphasize teachers as the issue. They implement strategies from Teach Like a Champion, drill and kill and test and re-test until students either drop out or conform. None of this is a recipe for a truly healthy society.


If we want to focus on teaching lets do that. Let’s focus on training and hiring teachers who are adept at building relationships and can act as mentors. Let’s train and hire teachers who understand Critical Race Theory and can prepare students to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy. Let’s train and hire teachers who have a background in Radical Feminism and can help build the self-esteem and actualization of both our young women and men. Let’s create schools that refuse to throw their hands up and plead helplessness in the face of homelessness and hunger. Instead of privatization lets turn schools back to the community and make them places of refuge and power building. Until then let’s not pretend we are all on the same field, playing the same game.


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