Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
A decade later, Sturt has written about the experience in her provocative memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag. I spoke with her about how her time in the classroom affected her views on education today.
You got into teaching at the age of 46, which is later than most. What spurred you to make the big life change?
I had always been a social activist and felt there was a responsibility for the “haves” to help the “have-nots.” I used to fulfill that obligation by tutoring inner-city kids, but my actual career was in fashion design and illustration. I remember thinking: When someone’s on their deathbed, are they really going to think about the dress I designed for them? Not to put down fashion design, but it’s just not enough. I decided to flip the equation and instead of doing social activism part-time, make it a full time job.
You began teaching just as No Child Left Behind took effect. How did you see it affecting your school?
I saw a lot of problems with all the testing, with all the slogans everywhere, as if you were in North Korea or something. It was very strange. … It was all about achievement through test scores. I resented the fact that we were test-prepping them all the time and we couldn’t give them a rich, authentic education.
But if not testing, how should we be measuring a school’s success?
We should do it the way they do in Finland, which is the gold standard for the world. You have high-quality teachers, pay them well, and have a lot of community social support. Finland has the lowest socio-economic segregation out of the 57 countries that take the international test. There’s a correlation between low socio-economic segregation and success. The kids don’t take high-stakes tests in Finland, and the teachers are never evaluated on that.
It’s absurd to tie a test score to a teacher. The kids we teach face so many variables at home, many negative. Tests are used to vilify and get rid of teachers so you can make money from a privatized school. It makes you think of the Hippocratic Oath doctors take: first, do no harm. We feel like we’re harming the kids. It feels like education malpractice. It’s not education, it’s torture.
You taught in an area affected by poverty. How did the environment affect the students’ performance in school?
It was a very poor neighborhood with a lot of English-language learners who knew little or no English. With poverty comes this condition called Toxic Stress. It explains why the children were so difficult to handle, needy, and so behind in learning. When your dad is in prison or your mom is on drugs, or your mom drank alcohol when you were a fetus, if you didn’t sleep the night before because you were allowed to play video games all night, or maybe there was a shooting, your cognitive ability is harmed. It rewires their brain so they’re unable to employ working memory, which is what you use when you’re learning. We’re charged with being the parents of these kids, being the friends, the mentors. Teachers are given all these social responsibility towards children that aren’t ours. It’s a failure of the system to address the poverty that creates the achievement gap.
Has the poverty gap changed over time?
The gap between poor and wealthy kids has grown by 50 percent since 1980. In 1963, a poor child was one year behind a wealthier child in school, in terms of learning. Now they’re four years behind. There hasn’t been money invested in eradicating poverty since the ‘60s, with President Johnson’s Great Society.
How do you think schools can overcome this achievement gap?
Experiments around the country show it’s not about racial desegregation anymore—it’s about socio-economic desegregation. There’s something called inclusionary-zoning where they’ve forced developers to build affordable housing for the poor, mixed right in the neighborhood with the wealthier people. Right now they’re doing that with four million kids in 80 districts. Those kids are doing great. You could say to a wealthy school district, “We’ll give you this subsidy if you take this number of poor kids.” It has to be less than 50 percent, or else it’ll create the same conditions that exist in the high-needs community. But it would take away crowding in the poor school which would help with lower class sizes. It would benefit everybody. The wealthy schools benefit from the diversity.
You’ve been critical of Mayor Bloomberg’s role in the New York Public School System. What do you think about de Blasio?
Bill de Blasio’s whole focus on early childhood is so great. He’s getting on board with a national trend now. Even President Obama is called for it in the next budget. In Minnesota, they’re implementing it widely. Unfortunately, it’s not everywhere. And we don’t know if de Blasio can get the money from Albany to do that. But Albany’s split in half, politically. The idea of de Blasio using the “tale of two cities” thing and talking about inequality is great.
Why is early childhood education so important?
It’s a goldmine in terms of what it does for kids and what it does for society. For every dollar you invest in early childhood education, you get a seven-to-ten yield on your investment, in terms of lower incarceration cost, higher graduation rate, lower usage of welfare. It all comes back.
How did your attitude towards teaching evolve over your ten years in the Bronx?
I went in as an idealist. I’d seen all the movies, seen all the poor kids and heroic teachers. But those movies were fake. They started out with a real story but turned it into a happy ending when there wasn’t one. It was grueling. You had to save these kids, but if one was running around the room or dancing on the tables or beating another kid up, you had to deal with it yourself. They’re unhappy kids and they’re going to look for fights to express their frustration. We need legions of psychologists in the school to get the kids the therapy they need. We need wraparound services, community services that give mothers prenatal care, home-visits, teaching parents to read to kids, health services, food. It has reached an emergency level. Almost one out of two kids in public school now is in poverty.
Why did you eventually leave?
I saw that no matter what I wanted for the kids, it wasn’t going to happen. The system purported to be supporting students just wasn’t there. They need remediation, tiny class sizes, one-on-one attention—they need parenting, basically. Their parents are affected by the same Toxic Stress that they are, and it repeats itself in a cycle from parent to child. In America, the wealthiest school is going to get ten times more funding than the lowest one. For every dollar my school was getting, one in the suburbs was getting ten dollars. That’s huge. The kids come in disadvantaged, and they’re subjected to this disadvantaged school. My school was completely third-world. And through it all, it completely negated your life outside school. It was so exhausting. To teach anyway means to be giving, to deliver something. You’re giving out, giving out, giving out. And when you come up against these natural obstructions because of poverty, and then the lack of support from the administration, it’s just too much.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.