Poverty Must be Tackled But Never Used as an Excuse

Poverty Must be Tackled But Never Used as an Excuse

by Michelle Rhee

A recent ad campaign we launched at Students First to raise awareness around the weak academic performance of U.S. students compared to their global peers drew all kinds of reactions. Many people were shocked to learn we’re among the worst performing nations in the world in math and said they wanted to help bring about change. But some said our lagging scores weren’t all that surprising, or even terribly disappointing, given high poverty levels in America. I find that response so troubling. Poverty presents huge challenges in our schools. But expectations of academic success for a child should never hinge on the circumstances of his or her birth. Our schools can’t fix all of society’s problems, but what happens in classrooms everyday can make a huge difference in the life outcomes of all children. As such, our schools can and should be held accountable for ensuring all students are learning.

As a former teacher in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools, where about 70 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of poverty. It’s not easy to complete your homework if your electricity has been cut off, you don’t have a safe place to stay, you’re hungry, or your eyes are drooping because there isn’t an adult around most evenings to ensure you get adequate sleep. These are challenges most of us have never had to deal with, and there is no doubt principals and teachers in communities struck by poverty have much more difficult jobs than those who educate wealthier children. These educators absolutely need our support and deserve our respect and appreciation for the uphill climb they have chosen to take daily.

These challenges speak to the significant need for economic reform and for social programs and policies that better address economic gaps and inequities. We must do much more as a society, broadly, to address poverty. In my experience, schools can and must be an important part of that by providing educational opportunities to low-income kids that can help break cycles of generational poverty. America is far behind other developed countries in social mobility, meaning if you’re a child born into poverty here, it’s far more difficult to move out of poverty later on than in other countries. It’s a terrible problem that goes against our ideals as a nation and which we have to solve.

Our schools and educators can play a key role, but they must be supported. In other words, we have to make sure poor children are getting some of their basic needs met at school, so they can focus on learning during class time. When I was in D.C., we made sure many schools provided kids in need with three meals a day. Schools also must have skilled nurses, counselors and social workers on staff and should offer high-quality wraparound services, so kids have safe places to do homework or get extra help before or after school. Since the achievement gap starts well before kids enter kindergarten, it’s also important to make strong public pre-k programs available to low-income families.

But the truth is that these efforts alone won’t propel our students from the bottom to the top of the international rankings in key subjects, nor will they close the huge and unconscionable academic achievement gaps between low-income kids in our schools and their wealthier peers. To solve those problems, we also have to rethink how instruction is delivered and how our schools are led.

Unfortunately, the effects of poverty are exacerbated by structural disadvantages that plague our high-needs schools. Schools that serve poor kids are much more likely than other schools to have high teacher-turnover rates, out-of-field teachers or long-term substitutes in their classrooms, and inequitable resource allocations. All of these factors contribute to lower student achievement levels, and often they’re the result of obscure bureaucratic policies like last-in-first-out, seniority-based layoffs that force great teachers out of the classrooms in which they want to teach.

As a nation, we have to address these injustices, and we have to give the parents of children stuck in these schools the tools and authority to demand change. Their educational choices are unfairly limited by the nature of our neighborhood-based public school system and a lack of other economic options. While a middle-class family might move in order to send their kids to better schools, a family in poverty can rarely make that choice. So, it’s imperative that we empower low-income parents to turn around their kids’ schools and help with that effort. And we should embrace common-sense solutions that can improve our schools as a whole.

To begin with, low-income schools and districts should tackle the issue of attracting and keeping top teaching talent by offering higher salaries to effective educators willing to teach in and lead high-needs schools. Principals also must be freed from bureaucratic rules that prevent them from hiring and rewarding their own team. Too often, principals in low-income schools are forced to fill their vacancies with teachers excessed from other schools regardless of whether they are a good fit. These teachers may not be performing particularly well but have to be retained by the system because of seniority-based job protections. Principals in high-needs schools also must be allowed to reward their top-performing teachers with leadership roles and performance-based pay increases to help ensure they stay on the job. We allowed this in Washington, and many teachers told me the recognition and extra pay encouraged them to stick with teaching.

We also need strong evaluation systems to ensure that we’re recognizing high-performing teachers and helping others improve. A growing number of schools and districts are developing more robust evaluations to help build a talented and effective teaching force. In Washington, new evaluations linked to better feedback and professional development have led to an increase in the number of highly effective teachers working in the system. Now, a quarter of all teachers in D.C. have earned that top rating. In schools, districts, and states across the country, we’re starting to do what works, and starting to make a difference. It’s common sense, so why aren’t we doing this everywhere?

Too often, what is keeping us from replicating such success isn’t a lack of know-how. It’s a lack of faith. We can do better by our kids, but first we must believe in all of them and in our ability to help. If we do that, we can fix so much of what is wrong with our education system and what is keeping all of our children from reaching their potential.

Are Great Teachers Born or Made?

Are great teachers born or made?

by Dan Brown

Until I actually joined the profession, I thought about the teachers I had as a student and figured they were born talented or clueless. Now I know otherwise.

I learned my lesson the hard way in 2003 when, straight out of NYU Film School, I joined an alternative certification teaching program. After seven weeks of summer training I found myself in charge of a fourth grade class at the Bronx’s P.S. 85.

Part of me understood that I was taking on a hard job; the program I’d joined existed mainly to fill chronic shortages of fully certified teachers at schools like P.S. 85 in high-poverty neighborhoods. On the other hand, I had always done well as a student and came to teaching with idealism and passion. How badly could it go?

Very badly. My good intentions and resume were little match for the daily grind of leading 26 nine-year-olds.

I stumbled right out of the gate. During my very first lesson boisterous Fausto earned raucous giggles by declaring to class, “That story is wack, yo!” He was testing my authority but I didn’t know how to handle it. I engaged him in an ugly power struggle, throwing gasoline on the flames.

Soon chaos spilled into the hall. My class was noisy in the hallways and my bulletin boards were a mess. Before long, an assistant principal informed me that I was a failure.

As the year wore on, I bonded with students and scratched out minor victories, but after the last day of school I resigned, joining the more than half of urban teachers who bolt the profession within the first five years.

That dysfunctional rookie initiation feels like a lifetime ago. In the years since, I returned to the classroom, earned a master’s degree in education, became a National Board Certified Teacher, and taught English at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C,, a non-selective, tuition-free public boarding school recognized by President Obama as “a true success story.”

At SEED, my eleventh- and twelfth-grade English students who hail mostly from Wards 7 and 8 publish paperback books of their creative writing, perform Shakespeare — most recently The Two Gentlemen of Verona — and lead college-level discussions on rigorous texts like Native Son. AP scores are up. It’s not always pretty, but my students have shown important progress toward college and career readiness — something I could never claim from my rookie misadventure at P.S. 85.

What accounts for the change? If I was born a great teacher I should have immediately rocked it at P.S. 85, and that certainly didn’t happen.

I learned it takes a village to build an accomplished teacher.

Many of the ingredients are within a teacher’s control; some are not. It’s important to unpack the recipe to see how more and more teachers can achieve sustained effectiveness — rather than depart the profession in discouragement, as I once did. And just like a recipe, eliminating key ingredients or counting on inferior-quality replacements is an invitation to disaster.
Here is how great teachers are made:


Fresh from liberal arts education, I should not have been allowed to immediately be entirely responsible for a class of 26 elementary school kids. I just didn’t know what I was doing. As a parent of a preschooler, it terrifies me that someone so unprepared could suddenly hold so much influence over my daughter’s education.

When I returned to teaching, it was through an M.A. program at Teachers College, Columbia University where I gained two semesters of highly structured student-teaching. This experience was invaluable; I had a reduced teaching load, room to experiment with my practice, and access to one-on-one feedback from mentors everyday.

When I took over my first class after grad school, it wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, but it was functional with lows nowhere near as low as my P.S. 85 trial-by-fire. Time to learn the ropes of the craft and to observe a range of veteran educators should be non-negotiable for incoming teachers. Great teachers can’t be built without seeing others in action. This is a given in other professions; it’s a no-brainer that no musician can be great if she has never listened to many other professional musicians’ work.

The cost of graduate school is prohibitive for many, but clinical residency programs offer a relatively new and exciting model. Residents earn a stipend while they work as apprentices and learn the craft. Residency programs in cities Chicago and Denver are producing highly qualified teachers with retention rates significantly above the national average. The model is scalable; more investments in this area are needed.


The other adults in the school building can make or break a teacher. At P.S. 85 the administration was adversarial; in faculty meetings the principal addressed teachers as “you people.” It was no place to develop talent.

The importance of a great principal can’t be overstated. Supportive school leaders who offer constructive feedback and relevant professional development can help raw teachers evolve into expert practitioners.

Collaboration among colleagues is also vital; no great teacher can simply shut her door to the outside world. Learning can’t be confined to the brick and mortar classroom — for students or teachers. It’s crucial that teachers form professional learning communities to share and incorporate best practices.

I didn’t invent the performance-based Shakespeare program that elicited extraordinary achievement in my SEED students; I learned about the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Text Alive! program from a colleague and teamed up with a teaching artist to implement it. And my principal, Kara Stacks, offered her full support.


Great teachers have strong relationships with students’ families and engage in meaningful ways with the larger community. Going to a volleyball game and cheering your face off can sometimes make a world of difference.

Would-be great teachers can also be made or destroyed by district, state, or federal education policies. Education policy has tremendous impact on the ecosystems where teachers and student operate. For teachers in the system, it’s crucial to wage two campaigns. The first is with one’s students, trying to get the most out of them day in and day out. The second is for teachers to take on leadership roles and force their way into the public discourse to advocate for their students and their profession. This stuff matters. Silence is complicity with the status quo.

Right now is a kind of golden moment for teacher leadership. Grassroots organizations are popping up left and right to harness teachers’ voices and skills. And this year the U.S. Department of Education developed with over 3,500 teachers a forward-looking vision statement titled Project RESPECT that illustrates a transformed teaching profession for the new century. The vision of RESPECT could re-shape our school system into one that attracts and develops more great teachers.


Many people possess the dispositions needed to be a great teacher. However, actually becoming one means an embrace of one’s craft, tremendous dedication to the job and continuous improvement, and participation in a healthy system that provides high-quality preparation, robust support, and environments that facilitate powerful student learning.

Great educators are cultivated, not anointed. Since every child deserves a great teacher and only moves through school once, we need to invest now in developing more excellent teachers. They’re not available off the shelf.