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Living in Dialogue: Will the Teacher Rebellion Bring Educators from High Poverty Schools to Office?

An important result of the teacher walkouts in Oklahoma and elsewhere was unexpected, at least by this former inner city teacher. Even though the majority of Oklahoma students are low-income (eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch), only a small percentage of educators teach in high-poverty schools serving extreme concentrations of kids from generational poverty who have disproportionately survived multiple traumas. 

In my experience, few teacher-leaders come from the highest-challenge inner city schools.  I’ve always half-joked about educators with the personalities to stick it out in the most disadvantaged schools that, “You can dress us up, but you can’t take us out.” But could the recent wave of teacher activism begin to change this pattern?

Seriously, it is no surprise that high-performing teachers in high-performing schools are more likely to earn the respect of more affluent patrons with more political power. But I was wrestling with a way to properly explain why there is an even greater shortage of teacher-legislators with experience in the highest-challenge schools. Then I spoke with teacher/candidate Mary Boren, who articulated the dynamic that I was wrestling with. Inner city teachers, she says, are exhausted from continually wrestling with the worst of the bubble-in mandates and they are “battle scarred.” 

Boren offered insights on both sides of the tragedy known as corporate school reform. She had taught in the poor small town of Little Axe and been a counselor at Adams Elementary School in Norman. It was a school where 25% of the students were English Language Learners and where 1/3rd of the students lived in a trailer park. Boren served on the union bargaining team and, like so many teachers, had dropped of clothes, food, and Christmas presents at the children’s homes. Unlike most policy-makers, she’d had the experiences of intervening in mental health emergencies. 

Boren finally changed careers (becoming an attorney) when test prep took precedence over counselors’ meaningful responsibilities. She became horrified by the “bar coding” of kids, as testing turned children into numbers, demoralizing students and teachers. And this experience allowed her to volunteer insights that I have long tried to explain to administrators and policy makers. She explained how teaching to benchmark tests was just as destructive as teaching to high-stakes tests. Boren knew firsthand how this led to nonstop instructional malpractice mandates, especially in poor schools.

Boren also lived much of the institutional history of the State Department of Education Sandy Garrett and saw reform shift from standards-based to standardized test-driven instruction. Boren had written administrative rules for the PASS curriculum objectives and saw the way that Garrett had served as “an airbag between schools and legislators.” For instance, when the 1990s SDE had to write rules for reading remediation, it offered and promoted the option of parent involvement, a still-neglected best practice.

In the 1990s, it was tough enough keeping data-driven reforms from damaging students. Now she asks: Oklahoma doesn’t even empower teachers so how would we empower poor parents?

Finally, Boren knows the qualitative research that is so often ignored by today’s policy makers. Being both an administrator and a teacher and counselor, she learned to read social science like she was an anthropologist,  as opposed to today’s “top down, father knows best” reform micromanagers. 

I’ve loved the same type of conversations in Oklahoma City with two members of the “teachers’ caucus” who were elected to the House. Rep. Mickey Dollens taught in the 91% low-income, 89% non-white Grant High School. Rep. Jacob Rosecrants taught at the 93% low-income, 89% Hispanic Webster Middle School, as well as teaching in my old classroom at the 97% low-income, 90% black and brown Centennial Mid-High. 

All three of those schools were School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools that received $5 million federal grants in return for implementing the full corporate reform agenda. The SIG was a notorious failure which embodied the technocratic reformers belief that veteran teachers – who had ”low expectations” and made “excuses” – were the problem with high-poverty schools. The grant was used to replace Baby Boomers, and their higher salaries, with 23-year-olds, often Teach for America teachers, so that they wouldn’t interfere with bubble-in instruction.  This means that Dollens and Rosecrants have firsthand experience with the effects of the teacher-bashing experiment, known as “reform.”

Now, Sherrie Conley, an  assistant principal at Greystone Elementary is running for the legislature. Greystone serves the second census tract, identified by the Brookings Institute as being an “extreme poverty” tract, that fed my old school. In addition to learning why such a school needs “wraparound,” socio-emotional student services, she has seen what happens when reformers take the shortcut of trying to deputize teachers as the individuals who are supposed to overcome the legacies of concentrated poverty, extreme trauma, and segregation. Those policies are a major reason why 15 of the 28 Greystone teachers are emergency certified.

Another Oklahoma City teacher/candidate, Carri Hicks, began her career at the high-poverty Tulakes Elementary school, where she learned a different story. Tulakes has shown great success by becoming a full-service community school. Hicks has seen the ways that children from the projects can meet high standards when teaching becomes a team effort, where social service providers help lay the socio-emotional foundation necessary before holistic and meaningful learning can occur. 

I must emphasize a point that I’m confident that veteran educators like Boren, Dollens, Rosecrans, Conley, and Hicks would agree with. It is no insult to teachers or political leaders to say that it is hard for people who lack experience in the inner city to understand what it takes to turn around schools serving entire neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational poverty. Legislators without such experience are more likely to believe the claims that “high-poverty, high-performing” charters serve the “same” kids as we do in high-poverty neighborhood schools.

Also in my experience, it was the highest-poverty schools with the lowest test scores that were first subjected to bubble-in accountability, and more likely to be required to practice teach-to-the-test malpractice.

By 2014, however, all types of schools were oppressed by mandates to impose drill-and-kill. In Oklahoma, at least, it was educators in more affluent schools that led the Save Our Schools (SOS) anti-test-and-punish revolt. In 2014, when 25,000 teachers rallied at the Capitol and protested high stakes testing (as well as budget cuts), I don’t believe I saw another inner city teacher from my district. It was teachers in the suburbs, small towns, and magnet schools, who tended to be treated with more respect by the political system, who took the lead. Now, we who signed up for the toughest teaching jobs are joining, and sometimes leading, the political battle.

What do you think? How many citizens and political leaders have firsthand experience with schools serving extreme poverty? Have educators in the highest-challenge schools been adequately represented? Will inner city teachers be able to tell a fuller story about education policy?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...