08/09/2012 02:22 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Teachers Can't Go It Alone

Across partisan lines, strategies are being proposed to close our persistent achievement gaps; the issue here is not intention, but how we frame the problem. Unfortunately, the frame is so narrow that it obscures much of the problem.

When our children are not reaching their full academic potential, many assert that it's because their teachers have not truly committed to their success. This focus on teacher commitment or expectations, often in isolation, as the main driver of student failure and success, ignores the larger circumstances in which teachers work with students. As this year's MetLife survey demonstrates, a combination of policy pressures and budget cuts has made teaching harder and less attractive than any time in recent decades. When we blame teachers, we fail to address the roles played by budget cuts and by family and child poverty, and we fail to recognize those who are dedicated to student success in the face of great challenges.

Recent news reports suggest that it might be time to give teachers more credit and to reflect on how we can better support them. Challenging economic times and political brinksmanship have led to budget cuts that dictate large-scale teacher layoffs and decreased funding for educational programs in many districts. As low-income students, in particular, face the consequences of these budget cuts, teachers have been stepping up to bridge gaps.

This year in Gwinnett County, Georgia, school officials cut $89 million from the budget, leaving schools like Benefield Elementary in Lawrenceville, GA, unable to provide any summer enrichment programs. This concern prompted about fifty Benefield teachers to volunteer to offer free reading summer classes every week for their students. One teacher, Karen Stocks, "didn't want her students to forget what they learned over the summer break," and within 15 minutes of emailing co-workers to volunteer with her, "she had five people who'd already signed up."

In Pennsylvania, this year was particularly stressful for the Chester Upland School District. Statewide budget cuts put the small city's schools in danger of running out of funds, and the Corbett administration threatened not to provide needed financial aid. Teachers in Chester responded by passing a joint resolution to stay on the job and continue teaching. As one Columbus Elementary School teacher put it: "It's disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."

In City Heights, San Diego, most of the teachers at Fay Elementary School have been laid off. Although many have eight-to-nine years of teaching experience, and could likely find good jobs at other schools, they have collectively decided to try to stay at Fay. The reason is simple: they are determined to not disrupt the support system that they have developed to ensure the best education for their students. "We built this school, and I take pride in that," said Rebecca McRae, one of many laid-off teachers at Fay. Over the years, they had built a cohesive system of close relationships, responding to one another's sick days and in-class struggles collectively, and pulling together to offer a valuable educational experience to all of the students, and to specific students with particular needs. Principal Moreno notes: "In communities such as City Heights, the kids have so many challenges. But these teachers don't want to go anywhere else. They've fallen in love with these kids."

In Philadelphia, when the state failed to meet the needs of the city's disadvantaged children by further constraining its education budget, community members intervened on their kids' behalf. Philadelphia's nearly broke school district could not afford to offer summer school programming this year, leaving many students without some much-needed academic support. In light of these circumstances, a group of parents, teachers, local organizations, and a principal worked together to offer a half-day summer school. These community members raised $6,000 to fund the program for their elementary school students, recognizing that children are, as Principal Ralph Burnley put it, "operating at a disadvantage if they go home for the summer months and forget some of what we taught them during the school year."

Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of teachers, all of these stories should provoke real concern. Sharp cuts in after-school and summer programs, personnel, and even (in Chester's case) entire schools are devastating. Good, committed teachers are being laid off to the detriment of children who already face serious needs as a result of high rates of parental unemployment, foreclosures and unstable housing, and the many stresses of living in and near poverty. And as a new paper commissioned for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education documents, many districts have been forced to make cuts to the very supports -- early childhood education, food services, health care, and especially afterschool and summer enrichment programs -- that low-income children need most, just as those needs are growing.

Americans know every child deserves a decent education and that our economy demands no less; we just have a hard time getting the framing right. To minimize the damage done to students by the recession, we need a Broader Bolder Approach to Education, one that recognizes the reality that all children need these supports, and that deprivation of them for low-income children exacts a heavy toll in school and throughout life. We should applaud teachers for their heroic acts. But we cannot afford, as a society, to depend on such acts or to substitute them for sound, holistic policy if we expect our children to thrive.