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.