Thursday, April 02, 2009

Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher

Former President Bush once said that he wanted to "liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools". These kinds of statements are often directed toward inner city schools by politicians trying to look like they are doing something about education. If kids are failing, it must be something to do with the school.

I always knew intuitively that this was bogus even when I taught in a wealthy suburban school. I knew you could swap all the teachers in my Rochester district with all the teachers in Detroit... and in 5 years you would pretty much have the same results.

So why do kids in inner city schools do less well typically? Well, I have only been teaching in an inner city school for 5 years, but here are some of my observations (my present school has a large immigrant and refugee population, English is the second language for most of my kids):

Inner-city students are not taught at their learning level.
Grade level content is arbitrary. For the majority of my suburban students, content and reading level were appropriate for where they were at. My fifth grade students could read at a fifth grade level or better. They had deep English vocabularies. When tested at the end of the year, the standardized tests are within range of of their reading abilities.

Most of my present students read many years below grade level. Content texts tend to be too advanced. Though the students cannot read the end of the year tests adequately, they are still expected to pass them.

Every child has a learning edge, and most suburban schools follow that edge. Inner city schools are expected to follow the same direction, programs, and plans... even though the learning is too advanced for their learning edge. This effect snowballs over time. Because we have a "ready or not, here you go" approach to grade advancement, many students fall behind more each year. Students are advanced regardless of whether or not they have acquired the pre-requisite skills for what comes next. For example, I am expected to follow the 6th grade math core for Utah, even though most of my students do not have the numeration skills necessary to make the 6th grade core meaningful. The emphasis is not on what skill should come next based on where the student is, but what is supposed to be taught based on the students' age.

In the end, most suburban students are being instructed at their learning level, while most inner-city students are being instructed at their frustration level. I do not find it surprising that nearly one third of my students will drop out of high school someday. If they find themselves overwhelmed by sixth grade material they are not ready for, what will 11th grade material look like?

Equality is not Equitable
Many school districts and states provide equal resources to schools regardless of need. It is not uncommon to find that schools who have hundreds of ESL students receive the same amount of support as a school that has a handful. Each school is given one ESL instructor. In many cases, Title 1 money is used to pay for things that other schools are given as part of their budget.

Speaking English is not the same as knowing English
People assume that someone who can speak English is ready for academic vocabulary. The truth is that most of my students have a fraction of the usable vocabulary of their suburban counterparts. Imagine learning to speak German and you can carry on casual conversation in German after a year or two. Now picture being dropped into a German University in a level 200 biology class. Lectures and text are using advanced German. Still feel that your German is solid?

But even in this example you would be at a tremendous advantage. Since you are already educated in your native language, you have tremendous knowledge that only requires transfer. Most of my students' Spanish is not much further along than their English.

Student text will often elaborate to help the students with meaning. For example, our reading text restated the word bicker a sentence later as quarrel. The problem is, not one of my students knew what EITHER word meant; whereas my 10 year old knew both and my 7 year old knew one. Inner-city students tend to have more limited life experiences and live in homes where simpler English is spoken. This has no small effect of their ability to grasp textual meaning.

Suburban Parental Involvement
This key element cannot be overestimated. Show me a parent who is engaged in their child's education, and I will show you a student who is doing well. There are exceptions in either direction, but this is truth the majority of time.

Do not feel that inner-city parents are more neglectful. In many cases, these parents are working multiple jobs to keep house and home together. Also, though most of my students are behind, many have more education than their parents. Their parents simply do not know what they should be doing to help their child.

This also plays out at the school itself. Go to a suburban school, and you will see a myriad of parent volunteers helping with everything from running copies, doing recess duty, or teaching art class - not so in inner-city schools.

Even field trips are more beneficial in a suburban school. When I taught in Rochester, I could divide my students so that there was one parent with every 4-6 kids. The parents were enormously beneficial in terms of keeping the learning at the forefront of the field trip. Nowadays, it is just me and the class... a bit more like crowd control.

Parent involvement also affects advocacy. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Suburban parent involvement got over the top sometimes, but overall it was a good benefit for kids.

Lack of school stability
If you asked my suburban class how many of them at 5th grade had also attended our school in Kindergarten, most hands would have gone up. If you ask my present 6th grade class, you would get only a few.

Many of my students bounce from school to school as their parents follow jobs, or work out apartment deals, or need to move in with family. Going back to parent involvement, if a parent has had their children do their elementary career at the same school, they tend to feel it is "their" school. However, many inner city parents never stay long enough to develop that connection. Why invest if we will be gone in 7 months? Compare the PTA membership at an inner-city school with a suburban school.

So what?
I don't write this to make excuses, but rather to point out the factors that really contribute to student outcomes. Politicians focus on tests, and merit pay, and blaming schools... none of which, I believe, have any real effect.

What do I propose?
I think there are two main things we need to do:

First, quit advancing students based on age. I know the common wisdom says this would damage self-esteem, but I see this as only putting off that blow. It will be much worse when he or she drops out of high school. Besides if everyone were truly leveled, you would have such a mix that no one would stand out. So why don't we do it? It is expensive.

Second, schools and politicians need to start preaching the message of parental involvement. I often hear in meetings "Well, we can't control parental involvement, so let's focus on what we can control." I believe this attitude has encouraged many parents to see schools as baby sitting rather than partners. If we don't say it, who will?

More on this topic: Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher - State Testing


Bruce said...


Good post.

We operated a Christian school in SE Ohio (Appalachia region) back in the late 1980's-90's.

Many of the kids were years behind in some subjects. Our school was small, an over glorified, one room school house.

We were able to put kids in grade appropriate classes. My wife taught reading and English. She had a few high schoolers in 3 grade reading. I taught math. I had more than one high schooler upset at me because they had to master the same math tables as the first graders. I was shocked at how many of the kids could not do basic math.

We took the approach that mastery was the standard.

Personally, I am not a "grade" fan. I prefer a pass/fail system where the only criteria is mastery of the subject.

While I wouldn't want to see children held back (for social reasons) putting them in grade appropriate, rather than skill appropriate classes, makes no sense. (and it frustrates the child)

The same problem exists on the other end too. All of my children are superb readers. What little time my two oldest boys spent in public school was frustrating. They were only allowed to read books at their grade level. Their reading level was 3-5 grades beyond their grade level. So they read "see spot run" for school and we took them to the library to get REAL books to read.

I commend you for your work as an inner-city teacher. It is a noble calling, and one, I am sure, filled with frustration.


WES ELLIS said...

Really great thoughts... I especially relate to the parental involvement stuff. As a youth pastor, I see that spiritual growth correlates with parental involvement as well.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts... I think more people need to read this post.

patti said...

Great Post I comiserate with you, I too teach grade 6 in an inner city school,,,it is the hardest job in the world because the whole onus of learning falls upon the teacher ,, we feel alone,,, really,,,and you are sooo right when you say that you could take all the teachers in the suburban schools and swap them with the ones in the inner city and the results would be the same or worse,,,

Anonymous said...

Very well written and well thought out analysis of what is hampering the kids at inner-city schools. I teach in the inner-city in Chicago and agree with a lot of what you say. Believe me, you are not making excuses, I know exactly what you are talking about.

Anonymous said...

I have used humor and basketball to reach the students in my inner-city school with the blog that I created ( It has worked miracles for behavioral problems in my class.

young2grown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
high school teacher said...

Great post! Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience as a teacher. It's great hearing stories from other people like me. Keep up the good work!

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