J. E. Pearce Middle School sits in a part of Austin my students called the Two-Three. Short for 78723, the Two-Three is a ZIP code that better captures the broken spirit of East Saint Louis than the progressive-minded ethos of Austin. In 2002, the year I started teaching at Pearce, many of the faculty had been hand-selected to revive the struggling school. Ron Bolek, our Ecuadorean-American principal, liked to compare our situation to the Peace Corps. If recent college graduates could donate two years to a starving village in Ghana, why not commit a few years to a school in a neglected corner of East Austin?
Seven years later the Texas Education Commissioner would call Pearce the worst-performing school in the state. I would rather not recall the aspects of my stint at Pearce that seem to affirm this assessment: the death threats, the police roaming the hallways, the schoolyard beatings. For all the turmoil, though, the school taught me some powerful lessons that, in their poignancy, not only warrant reflection but potentially hold educational lessons for a brighter future.
In the last decade a new species of educational reformer has captured the public’s attention. Talk show-friendly celebrities like former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and award-winning movies like “Waiting for Superman,” have gained fame by blaming teachers for the achievement gap between poor students and middle-class students.
The appeal of this educational axiom — ascribing student achievement to teacher quality — is understandable. It suggests a silver bullet solution: improve teaching and you improve test scores, especially for poor students. And because test results predict life outcomes — the likelihood of securing a job, getting divorced, going to prison—better teaching can lift students from poverty. Or so the thinking goes.
Some have called this narrative the myth of magical teaching. We yearn to believe it. We yearn to think that caring, hardworking teachers can change the world, or at least their students’ lives. Like American Exceptionalism and Horatio Alger stories, this supposition has become part of our national mythology. As an idealistic young educator I, too, gladly accepted the myth of the magical teacher as reality — that is, before Pearce shattered my naïveté.
* * *
On a warm spring day in 2003 I stood in the middle of the hallway outside my classroom. A row of permanently locked orange lockers lined the cream cinderblock walls. Rumor had it that the administration, fearing students would hide weapons in lockers, barred their use. Being without lockers worked fine for my students. I didn’t have enough books for them to take home anyway.
The bell ending second period rang, and I braced myself against the commotion as a river of arms and legs, low-slung backpacks and sagging jeans, the in-kids and the trying-to-fit-in kids pushed their way to class. In some ways the scene was common to any large, crowded American middle school — a wash of hormone-addled young men and women not sure of their place and not fully in control of anything, much less their emotions. An Austin police officer — cops were a frequent presence at Pearce — stood 15 feet behind me. I smiled and nodded hello to a boy who approached me. He wore baggy jeans and a white T-shirt several sizes too large for his wiry frame. The boy cocked his head back and returned my smile with a stare — “mean muggin’,” students called it.
“Fuck you,” the boy yelled as he lunged at me, swinging his fist inches from my face.
Speechless, I watched the scene unfold. The police officer sprinted over, yanked the boy’s right arm and pinned him face-first to the wall. Roughly. He whispered something in the boy’s ear, then dragged him to me. “What do you say?” the officer prompted.
“Sorry,” the boy muttered.
The officer pivoted to me. “What do you want me to do with him?”
Part of me wanted to grab a fistful of the kid’s shirt and ask what the hell he thought he was doing. Another part of me, a better part, wanted to know if there was any way I could help this kid. Right here, right now, what could I do? Not much.
So I drew a deep breath, turned to the officer and said, “You can let him go.” The boy walked away. I stood in the hall and tried to slow my breathing.
A minute later the bell rang again. Rattled, I walked into my classroom where my students were completing a warm-up assignment, like they did every day. As I walked to my desk, I noticed Leticia, one of my best students, clandestinely reading something tucked under her desk. (Students' names have been changed.) I paused and glared at her. She knew she was supposed to be doing her warm-up assignment. I coughed to get her attention, but Leticia was mesmerized by this note. A couple of students noticed and started smiling. I had given her a chance — she knew what she was doing. I marched to her desk and stuck out my hand. “Give it to me, now.” If I hadn’t been so shaken by the hallway incident minutes earlier I probably would have been more empathetic, more myself, sensitive to the fear and embarrassment in her eyes. She handed me the notebook. I walked to my desk and slammed it down with a force that surprised even me. Leticia — quiet, conscientious, kind, never-got-in-trouble Leticia — started crying.
“Fuck me,” I thought.
* * *
Before I came to Pearce I knew that many of its students scored poorly on standardized tests; the school was rated “Low Performing” the year before I arrived. The only other non-elementary school in Central Texas rated “Low Performing” was in the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center. I also knew that 80 percent of Pearce students received free or reduced-price lunch, and almost all were African-American or Latino.
Like many attendance-zoned high-poverty schools, Pearce was often a chaotic place where discipline issues, student absenteeism, low parent involvement and high teacher turnover were the norm. Why would a teacher with other options work in such a stressful, violent setting? I chose Pearce because I was going to make a difference; I would do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. Full of youthful enthusiasm and self-flattery, I could change the world by working at Pearce. Why not?
Here is the hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact. Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives, much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but “Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is survival.
This is not to say Pearce didn’t have a stable of talented staff, some with deep roots in the Two-Three. Mr. Green, who attended college down the road at historically black Huston-Tillotson University, was a committed and graceful algebra teacher with an infectious positive energy. Born in Panama, he had as much street cred with the Latino kids as the black kids. I once asked Mr. Green how he stayed upbeat at the end of a difficult day. “I’m too blessed to be stressed,” he said with a smile.
Mrs. Ologban, despite her diminutive stature, displayed absolute control in her classroom. I spent several planning periods observing her to improve my own teaching. Mrs. Ologban taught me it was more important to reward good behavior than to punish bad. The first time I observed her I noticed she kept two lists of students on her board — a good list and a bad list. Too simple to work, I thought. But I was amazed when even disaffected students smiled when Mrs. Ologban wrote their name on the good list.
Mr. Parish, who grew up close to the Two-Three, had some street in him and knew how to use it. He could convince even the most recalcitrant 13-year-old to see a problem from a different angle. When a disagreement between the Latino boys from the soccer club and the black boys from the basketball club culminated in a fight, Parish was instrumental in calming everybody down. Mr. Green, Mrs. Ologban, Mr. Parish — these people taught me a great deal about teaching, relationships and toughness in the classroom. They were the bedrock of Pearce.
In spite of their efforts, Pearce was still a failure — at least according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The TAKS is just a test, and by no means the only indicator — or even a good indicator — of the commitment of a school’s teachers and administrators. But in the modern era of test-driven school reform, filling in bubbles is the bottom line, the final word and the only thing that matters in the eyes of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top.
Poor students typically face challenges that inhibit their chances of performing well on standardized tests. Whether it’s the lack of a cognitively stimulating home environment or the higher prevalence of health and emotional problems, the bubble exams might as well be in Mandarin. A 1999 Department of Education study compared students’ test scores when entering kindergarten. Children from the most affluent homes scored 60 percent higher than students from the least affluent homes. High-poverty schools like Pearce only perpetuate this gap.
* * *
Seventh period tested my patience. The department head decided it was a good idea to put three of the most difficult boys — Jorge, Marcos and Daniel — in my class. Jorge was the most antagonistic student in seventh period. A real mess. Off-task and prone to provoke classmates, Jorge sucked the life out of my time and effort — time and effort that could have been invested in helping other students. I had visited Jorge’s apartment and convinced his grandmother to let me keep his Playstation until he improved. For this, Jorge hated me. At 14 years old, Marcos struggled mightily academically, and was just biding time until he could leave school and go work construction with his uncles.
Daniel, who wore the same dirty shirt to school several days a week, was smart but angry. Born in Mexico, Daniel had a semi-constant scowl on his in-the-sun-all-day face and tough-guy strut that gave him a notable presence. I had run into Daniel on the streets of the Two-Three a few months earlier. Startled to see me outside the confines of school, he smiled as he leaned into my car to admire the $80 car stereo I had recently installed. Our conversation flowed more smoothly than it did at school. After our encounter I thought I might have an easier time with him in class. Nope. The let-your-guard-down sincerity I felt from Daniel on the street disappeared in the classroom.
After seventh period on that warm spring day I stood in the hallway again as students poured out of classrooms and past the orange lockers and cream cinderblock walls to head home. A few minutes after the bell rang, yelling reverberated from the far end of the hallway.
The screaming intensified. It always does. I raced down the hall, paused before the steel doors, gathered myself, and pushed them open. Several yards away a tall Latino boy brandished a red bandanna indicating his affiliation with the Bloods. Three shirtless black boys faced him, their names tattooed in Old English font between their shoulder blades. Twenty feet away a few female teachers stood aghast. It could have been a scene from “The Wire” —and I was now in the center of it.
Suddenly Mr. Dean, a security monitor, sprinted through the parking lot and positioned himself between the boys. I recognized Darius, one of the boys from the basketball club. “The cops are coming,” I shouted at him. “Leave. Now!” Darius and his friends fled, but behind me, Mr. Dean was trying to wrestle the Latino boy to the ground.
An assistant principal, Mr. Colegio, arrived on the scene, and the three of us together pinned the boy down. I held his legs.
The boy cursed at us, thrashing. A well-meaning female teacher thought it wise to brush a wad of dirt and grass out of the boy’s face.
“Don’t touch me, bitch!”
Mr. Colegio radioed for help.
“I’m going to bring my gun and kill all you niggas!” the boy yelled.
It took 10 minutes for an officer to get there.
At home that night I realized something had changed. I’d had enough. Enough of breaking up fights, of police officers patrolling the hallways, of red bandannas, of the N-word, of black hating brown and brown hating black and white not caring enough to notice.
I wouldn’t return to Pearce the following semester.
In bed, my mind raced. I was abandoning kids who desperately needed another caring adult in their lives, kids who through no fault of their own were stuck by the convergence of powerful forces in a school that didn’t work. I could run away from the problem, I could rationalize my decision, but for the kids of the Two-Three it was a reality impossible to escape.
* * *
The nonprofit research group Children at Risk ranks public schools in Texas based on standardized test scores, attendance numbers and student retention rate. Schools working with high percentages of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch get extra points. Children at Risk’s position is that “The effects of poverty are pervasive and have been shown to impact how well a child is able to learn and perform academically,” and that schools serving a large percentage of poor students have to work harder than more affluent schools. In 2012 Pearce ranked in the bottom 3 percent of middle schools statewide. Currently, 95 percent of Pearce students are low-income.
We have poured money into high-poverty schools, and we have replaced entire teaching staffs, but to little avail. Teachers aren’t the problem, poverty is. Moreover, segregating our poorest students in high-poverty schools, as we often do, exacerbates the problem.
After parsing fourth-grade math scores, education theorist Richard Kahlenberg concluded, “low-income students attending more affluent schools scored almost two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income students given a chance to attend more affluent schools performed more than half a year better, on average, than middle-income students who attend high-poverty schools.”
If socioeconomic status is a primary driver of academic performance, and if student achievement suffers in high-poverty schools, why do we continue to organize schools in a way that predetermines some for failure and then blame teachers?
There are ways we can make education better for all students — socioeconomic school integration, investing in early childhood education, providing the wraparound services students need — but a myopic focus on teacher quality won’t fundamentally improve schools.
* * *
A few months ago I stopped at a Greek fast food restaurant on the way home from work. Standing in line to order, I recognized the young man stuffing pita bread with lamb and vegetables, but couldn’t quite place him. He knew who I was as soon as he we made eye contact. “Mr. Savage,” he said with a smile on his face, “it’s me, Daniel.” Daniel, the malcontent from my seventh period class, had grown at least a foot since I last saw him. He took the glove off his right hand and reached over the counter to shake mine.
Daniel insisted on paying for my meal, and then we sat down and talked. He apologized for being such an “asshole” in class, and proudly told me about his wife and two children. He seemed genuinely happy. He also said he quit school to support his family but wished he could have finished.
Before leaving I told Daniel I was proud of him and gave him a handshake and half-hug, the way men do.
Driving home from the restaurant the image of Daniel lingered in my head. If instead of vilifying teachers, we tackled the real causes of educational inequality, perhaps we could provide students like Daniel a better chance — a chance to do more with their lives than stuffing pita bread.