Teaching in high poverty schools: Rolling the dice and hoping children learn

Patti Ghezzi, a former AJC education reporter, works in university communications. As a journalist, advocate and parent, Ghezzi has had a longtime interest in education issues and education equity.

By Patti Ghezzi

In the mid 1990s, I was a tutor at Parklane Elementary in East Point, a school with a history of high poverty and low achievement.

Parklane was a cheerful school staffed with teachers who walked the hallways with their heads held high. A second-grade teacher assigned me two students, Nicole and Jacob.

diceShe told me the most important thing I could do for Nicole and Jacob was to help them tell time and count money. These were key second-grade skills, important for life and for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. (Yes, standardized tests mattered even before the CRCT.)

To teach them about money, I created a game with a giant die and game board, both made out of poster board, some mismatched game pieces and fake money. The game was a hit. When I arrived for our weekly tutoring sessions, they couldn’t wait to play that money game.

Even though I tutored them in the library, we never read or worked on anything other than money and time. I believed a narrow focus would yield results. Money and time. Time and money. Focus, focus.

They were sweet, chatty children, and I can still recall their faces. Nicole had small features, and her hair was always pulled back tight in twists. Jacob, doughy and round, had that mini grownup look.

Most days, I left my tutoring sessions confused. Nicole and Jacob remembered the rules of the money game from week to week, but they didn’t remember the values of the coins. I had to go over the values every time. Two nickels equal a dime. Five nickels equal a quarter. Four quarters equal a dollar. By the end of our session they would seem to have the values down. But the next week I would have to explain it again, even pennies.

A teacher friend told me to use real money, so I rounded up real coins, and we played with those.

At the end of the school year, Jacob and Nicole showed little improvement in their understanding of money or time. I left Parklane with acknowledgment of my failure and respect for teachers who work in schools that are part of a city’s complex ecosystem of intractable poverty.

I did not leave thinking Nicole and Jacob couldn’t learn.  They were so eager and bright, of course they could learn! I just didn’t know how to teach them.

Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t try something different, like setting up a store with a cash register. Instead I kept playing that game over and over thinking something would stick. Nothing ever did.

Twenty years later, I see this happening in education. Surely if we keep at it, this high-stakes testing will work. We’ve sunk enough money and time into it.

High-stakes testing makes sense in the abstract. Catch kids who can’t read in third grade and hold them there until they can. Tutor them. Don’t let them go on to fourth grade until they can read. Hmmm… that’s not working. How about getting an early jump on reading the very moment a child enters school? Test kids in kindergarten. Build up data on them. Hmmm… still not getting results. Teachers need to teach harder. Let’s make the stakes higher by tying their evaluations to their students’ test scores. That will motivate them to stop making excuses and teach better.

A whole dysfunctional industry and culture has built up around high-stakes testing, and we have seen little success, especially at schools serving poor, minority students. Two decades later, Parklane’s test scores remain low, just as its students remain mostly poor and minority.

Do we keep going because the broken machine is too big to dismantle? Or because we can’t bear to acknowledge defeat by turning around? In Atlanta, we have teachers headed to prison for test cheating. Around the country thousands of parents are refusing to let their kids take standardized tests.

Anybody listening?

No? Okay, well, I’m sure it will be fine. Keep up the high-stakes testing, and I’ll keep rolling my giant cardboard die. I’m sure we will win the game eventually.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

126 comments
Sara0507
Sara0507

I can relate in some ways.   . My 3rd grader can not spell and shows very litlle recognition of phonics.  However, her verbal ability/vocabulary is somewhere in the 9th-10th grade range and because of that is in our school's gifted program.  They keep trying to teach her how to spell using the same techniques that she has been using since kindergarten (ie phonics). They just can't understand why she is verbally so bright but can not learn spelling/punctuation.   I told them she is dyslexic but they don't want to hear it so they just keep doing the same things.  They won't test because she is not failing. They say she is adequately compensating.  But they are starting to mark off for spelling and punctuation causing her grade to go down. It will only get worse.  They told me they have never seen a child like her before.  My kids are white and not poor and we live in one of the most affluent districts in the state.  This isn't a poor/minority problem.  This is a... the machine is too big and is broken problem.    I say every single day... Hello, Is anyone listening??? 



JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Popacorn


This from a proud supporter of teachers and public schools. Damn skippy! The important question is why don't you? 

VICTIM?  

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Clown, 

I don't agree with the moderator. She can ban me when ever! I may be an idiot. At least I am man enough to spew my nonsense in my own name.

You are a victim. Poor me, I am soooo smart I must cry on the Internet. If anyone knows who I am my opinion will have less merit. HAHHAHHHAHAHHAHAHhaaaaaaaaa.

.

popacorn
popacorn

This from a proud supporter of teachers and public schools. 

URClown1968
URClown1968

And proud enough to identify himself as one of the 9,000 or so people named "J.B. Brown."

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@URClown1968 I think there are more than 90000. Many more clowns. I will be glad to validate my id. Will you? You're not a pig you're a Kitty.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

 I have name called. I am a bad man. The people that are complaining are the people that want freedom to hide on the Internet and slander an entire profession. Do you not think Popacorn, Astropig, or Udut are not making a very personal attack on teachers in general, that is opinion based, not fact? 

It is not politically correct to say black people hold themselves down and blame white people; it is not politically correct to say some white people don't like black people. Somewhere along the lines children of both races get caught in the middle.

As for the complaints about the waste of money on public education. That is just opinion. As for me, in my opinion we don't spend enough. I do sign my name to my opinion and don't cry when someone disagrees. Troll is the name that describes people placing an agenda on the Internet. If Popacorn or Astropig are not trolls, why do they hide behind a silly screen name?

URClown1968
URClown1968

Not to worry. Those who agree with the moderator are rarely censored. Your bigger problem is ... you're an idiot!

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Folks, Please stop the name calling. Getting complaints about some folks. As you may have noticed, I am banning folks now who rack up repeated complaints. 


Uthred
Uthred

The same people who oppose charter schools and any other choices in education are behind this constant complaining about accountability. 

And the AJC is wrong to think parents of school age children—or taxpayers—will be willing to just let failing schools operate as monopolies oblivious to the 21st century and its needs. 

OldPhysicsTeacher
OldPhysicsTeacher

Science Teacher671 and JBBrown1968,


It's NOT a joke.  All it takes is knowledge of what is actually going on.


All I will say is: do a search of the tenure of the subject matter "leaders" in the GADOE. These "leaders" are the ones responsible to the SSS, who is responsible to the Gov AND the Lying Legislators. Then search for the tenure of the SSS. Yes, I know the SSS is an elected position and has nothing to do with the Gov... Except it does. These subject matter "leaders" set the cut scores, and they pick the percentage of easy, moderate, and hard questions on the test.  Once you have identified the individuals and their tenures, then search for the state wide scores of the subject matter EOCTs by year.  You may or may not find the cut scores.  They are most likely carefully guarded and not for public distribution. Compare and contrast the two databases.  The answer is not obvious unless you do all of the above. People are always people with strengths and weaknesses.  It is not obvious, but you can find out what is going on. 

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

@OldPhysicsTeacher 


Cut scores vary by subject, and for physical science at least they've seemed to stay pretty steady from year to year. 43% of questions yields a passing score; a student who gets 54% correct "exceeds expectations."


Of course, this says nothing about the difficulty of the questions, which may vary from year to year.


I'm pretty annoyed that the scores for the new EOCs won't be available until fall. If the state had truly decided "what students need to know, and how we'll know they know it" when designing these tests, the scores for students who took the test on computers in December should have been available immediately.


Since they're going to wait until all students in the state take the tests, then analyze that for a few months and release the scores in the fall, I'm convinced that they have a predetermined number of students who will pass and fail.  

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

ScienceTeacher.


What I see from the outside is it’s all a joke. 

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Wow. Most of you people hate public education. You guys are only jumping on this APS mess band wagon to say.....I told you so. Yes they are guilty, put them in jail or execute them. Makes no difference to me. Changing that silly asssssssss test makes no difference to the justice system or you people. A new group of crooks wants to control the money! These people are just collateral damage. Seven years is extreme.

There has been more abuse of educational tax dollars on High School athletic programs then what these people took. We all know that these athletes are NOT being used by their schools or communities, and they are all being well educated. Where is your outrage? It been proven most of the successful coaches around here are cheating to win. No unethical problem if you are a winner.....correct? Don't worry about not living in district young man.....

For the private school crowd..........you are right, I am wrong. Recruiting poor minority kids to play football never happens

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

@JBBrown1968


I still want to see someone take the GaDOE to task for telling 8th grade students who had only 4th grade reading and math skills that they are "proficient" in those subjects.


How is that any different from what the APS teachers did?

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Longnut/Udunut or just plan nut. 


What does the AFT do for any Georgia Teacher? Please tell me the Ga Rep. What is the dues? Why is there no collective bargaining? Why don't you come out of the closet and just post in your name. Then we can decide if you're (PopAfart) an expert in this field, or just wanting some of the tax dollars. Trolling for hire or fired teacher?

Now don't come back with GAE or PAGE being affiliated. Teachers only deal with those crooks for cheap liability insurance, they have no other value.

Chalkboard
Chalkboard

Glad teachers didn't have all these excuses when I was young. Or the chutzpah to think our parents would believe them if they did.

jezel
jezel

@Chalkboard My parents never let me blame the teacher for my grades. They knew what was going on.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@jezel @Chalkboard I'm guessing your parents themselves never blamed the teacher for your grades, either.  Yet, that is de rejeur now.  Parents and kids say, "the teacher GAVE me an F."  No, you EARNED an F.  


When I was having "trouble" with a class (below a 94 average) the problem was with ME, not the teacher, according to my parents.  They worked with ME, not the teacher, to bring up the grade.


Tell that to parents nowadays, and they look at you like you are crazy. 

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Hey Popfart,  What have you contributed in life? MaryE is a little Disney, but it seems she has tried to find a solution to the problems not whine! 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

What's that definition of insanity;  "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"?  Perfect example was the author's board game.  Kept playing the game hoping the students would have an "eureka!!" moment.

Of course, modern public education has developed their own definition of insanity:  "Keep doing different things until you achieve equal outcomes." Impossible to do when you have one student with an IQ of 85 and the next student with an IQ of 120.  They're not equal going in and they will not be equal going out.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@Lee_CPA2 Lee- just stop.  You are sounding silly again.  This is about creating a consistently supportive educational environment at home.  If it is not reinforced in the home- then no amount of "schooling" will ever matter for low-income students- in both urban and rural areas. Same challenges (unemployment, drugs, poor parenting, etc.)- different races.

OldPhysicsTeacher
OldPhysicsTeacher

@gactzn2 @Lee_CPA2 

I'm confused... how is what Lee_CPA said to what you said?  He's dead right.  Kids aren't equal; people aren't equal, BUT each child has the same opportunity.  Not every child has the same ability.  If you want every child to "succeed," then the definition of "success" has to be set very, very low.  You are equally right.  You need to create "a consistently...at home."  Neither of the concepts are wrong.  Neither of these conditions which leads to success or failure is within the scope of schools' missions. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@OldPhysicsTeacher @gactzn2 @Lee_CPA2


Let us remember that all human beings are equal, spiritually, in the eyes of God (and hopefully in the eyes of Man) simply because we all are human beings.  The commonalities among us all are much more similar, than disparate, when compared with the Mind of God.  We are truly all one, from this perspective.

Greg Palamas
Greg Palamas

The author states that her students were bright and eager to learn, but the account she relates seems to argue the exact opposite. She just wants that to be true, because it sounds like the kind of thing she thinks she is supposed to say. The problem is that people actually create education policy based on fantasies like this. People with control over public funds dump billions of dollars of taxpayer money into these delusions, but like light entering a black hole, nothing ever comes out of it. Forget folie a deux, this is mass psychosis. Or maybe not; people have been know to fake insanity to avoid dangerous battles.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Greg Palamas


I'm glad that I do not have such a cynical view of education (and even of life).  Glad, also, that I spent 35 years of my life uplifting the lives of others through teaching, which, in turn, uplifted my life.

popacorn
popacorn

@MaryElizabethSings

Funny how people, after years and years, selectively remember the 'good ol' days'. It was a different century back then. Memories fade, become unreliable, and things change. Clinging to the past solves nothing. Welcome to the 21st Century!

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 


Association is an even more effective memory technique than repetition.  See the post in which I suggested association with body parts.  One student with dyslexia who graduated from high school at nearly 21 years of age had a severe visual memory problem.  Average IQ, otherwise. 

Greg Palamas
Greg Palamas

One will never find more cant than in the world of education. "As someone who fights for social justice . . . ;" "As someone who believes all children can achieve . . . ;" "I spent 35 years of my life uplifting others . . ." No one like to parade his or her own virtue like the leftist educator. That I'm as pure in my motives as multicultural driven snow has no bearing on the point I am making or the rightness of my observation. My take is either more correct than yours or not. There was no evidence for the brightness she attributed to her students in her account, and if she had any I doubt she left it out. She chose to believe things because they made her feel, and more importantly look, righteous. That, I fear, is the dominant motive for much educational thinking. The linked article elaborates:

http://takimag.com/article/a_whining_pretension_to_goodness_john_derbyshire#axzz2i1zIM25C

popacorn
popacorn

@Greg Palamas 

'She chose to believe things because they made her feel, and more importantly look, righteous.'

Raise hammer, hit nail on head. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Greg Palamas


You are wrong.  All reading specialists when I taught were required to give all of their students pretests (in August) and post tests (in May) on the Nelson or Nelson-Denny standardized Reading Tests for the year.  Those scores were - by students' individual gains and by overall gain - turned into the Department of Instruction for their analysis of our work.


In addition, since I taught an SAT verbal preparation section of my Advanced Reading course, I compared my students' SAT verbal scores before they took my elective course, as well as after they had had my course. Let's just say that my elective classes were always filled full in the 15 years I was in that school.


If you try to look on the positive instead of the cynical side of things, you may come closer to truth.

OldPhysicsTeacher
OldPhysicsTeacher

@Greg Palamas " No one like to parade his or her own virtue like the leftist educator."  Spoken like a partisan conservative who believes his way is correct with 100% conviction and anyone in opposition is a ____.  that does not "win friends and influence anyone."  It sets people into hardened camps and only serves lying politicians of both parties. </preaching>

popacorn
popacorn

Funny how every single educator will tell you that their students were focused, learning etc etc. With all these great teachers, why is public education in the toilet?

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

@popacorn


Not EVERY educator will tell you that, and public education is not in the toilet everywhere.  In most schools, there are students who excel and those who don't.


I have students who are failing because they don't come to school, they don't want to pay attention when they are there, or they're spending all their time trying to figure out how to text their friends or browse the web without getting caught.

bu2
bu2

@Greg Palamas 

No, actually it sounds like they had some learning disabilities.

bu2
bu2

@Greg Palamas 

The kids sound like they had problems accessing their memory or storing things long term from their working memory.  A special ed teacher would have ideas on how to make it stick and to access it.  Lots of repetition is one of those techniques.


They could also have been ADHD.  Think of times when you have had to juggle a bunch of tasks (i.e. you are distracted) and someone tells you the same thing several times and you keep forgetting it.


hssped
hssped

And Patti's article answers the question of what to do.....that which we haven't we tried.  We haven't  tried making parents responsible.  There has to be practice at home and application at home.  


I had to chuckle at her saga of playing the game week after week.  I have been teaching HHB for a few years now and the students get 3 hours of service per week (vs 30 in the classroom).  I will instruct and review and go back the next week and the kid will not have touched any of his/her work and will plead that he/she doesn't know anything and I need to review again.  It is very much like the movie Groundhog Day.  I usually tell him/her (after the 2nd time it happens) that they are taking the test (pass or fail) and we are moving on.  


If parents would just step up to the plate I believe a lot of this would go away. 

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

@hssped This year I teach a lot of seniors. Some have been failing since the 3rd week of school, because of excessive absences, failure to turn in work, etc., and I've sent home progress reports and contacted parents with no change in student behavior for most. 


Now that graduation is getting near, the parents are finally getting concerned.....

hssped
hssped

@ScienceTeacher671 @hssped


Haha!!  I know that's right!  


We get a TON of referrals about this time of the year......all anxiety/depression and guess what? These kids are failing all of their classes.  If I were failing all of my classes I would probably be depressed and anxious too.  


If you pull the reports from 1st semester it is exactly as you wrote...excessive absences, zeros for missing work, etc.  There is nothing that HHB can do at this point.  They receive services but they still fail. I feel bad for the kids.  We procrastinate as adults so how can we expect kids to push themselves and step things up a notch?  That is the parent's job.  We can't completely blame the kids, but we can't save them, either, not this late in the game.  


As you wrote....where was the parental concern first semester? 

Longviewer
Longviewer

This newspaper column's a mouthpiece of the teachers' unions. Their current crusade involves trying to get Congress to do away with or water down the testing requirements in public schools.

So expect a continuous stream of these hard luck stories.


BobWills
BobWills

@AvgGeorgian @MD3 @Longviewer There is no tenure in Georgia, it is a right to work state.  There's no permanent job protection either.  I see teachers get terminated every year for poor job performance.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Longviewer @ChrisRMurphy 

EdUktr, as you well know because it's been pointed out to you for at least the 4 years I've been blogging here, those aren't unions because  they can't strike under Georgia Code Section 20-2-989. They just lobby and offer legal advice to teachers.

popacorn
popacorn

@MD3

If you don't like it, censor it. He is not the only one repeating the same thing. 

Longviewer
Longviewer

@OriginalProf

And it's been repeatedly pointed out to you that there's much more to unions than workplace militancy ...

Longviewer
Longviewer

@popacorn

Indeed, Maureen's been banging on the tests are bad drum 2-3 times a week for years now.

popacorn
popacorn

An immutable law of nature: When panties wad, tempers flair. The Girls Club is reeling from the reality that thoughts they have held and people they have enabled/defended have been shown to be bogus and felons, respectively. Besides, better to read a short/to the point post than suffer in the page after page of noxious gas that is so often released in here. Without so much as an 'excuse me'!

MD3
MD3

@Longviewer @popacorn C'mon Eduktr... There's a very simple concept that you seem unable to grasp -- this is HER BLOG!! She can write about any topic she chooses. Don't like it? Go start your own blog, and then you can write all day every day about how unions are evil and standardized tests are awesome. But you're at the point of being laughable now. You've been banned under at least two screen names already. 

MD3
MD3

@Longviewer Wow Ed... You must be going for a world record on number of times being banned from a blog...

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@MD3 @Longviewer I am really concerned about the teacher's unions in this state. They must be the number one problem preventing children from learning. They surely have devastating effects on GA education because they are mentioned almost everyday in these comments. It is horrendous how they have the power to (wait, I'm researching..............) do nothing? Well, well, uh, what about how they got those cheating teachers off scott-free, what, they didn't? Then we should focus on the huge pay raises the unions have forced the state, what, no raises for six years? Well at least they have forced the state to provide tenure and teachers cannot ever lose their jobs, what is it now? Oh, no permanent job protection, fair dismissal after 4 years? Well, well, .. maybe I should read the comments of those "people" posting union comments and see if the posters seem like trustworthy sources.