Sunday, August 6, 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:

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