10/21/2010 01:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Blaming Teachers or Finding Solutions?

Education pundits are championing the creed, "education is the civil rights issue of our generation," to bring a sense of urgency to a broken public education system. Individuals that propose bold restructuring of schools, like Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and a myriad of other reform-minded leaders, are calling the public to rethink longstanding norms in education. Common themes have risen from this progressive dialogue; holding teachers highly accountable for student achievement, using data to drive instruction and assessment, reworking or weakening tenure laws, and providing economic incentives for positive academic results seem to be priorities as we look at changing how schools function.

One of the most popular criticisms of this reform movement is that we are blaming teachers for the downfall of a huge national system. Parents and school staff are speaking out, demanding that we refocus on issues like overcrowded classrooms, budget cuts, and standardized testing instead of making rash decisions to eradicate tenure or close low-performing schools.

In a discussion of a new study, "Housing Policy Is School Policy," Richard D. Kahlenberg of Education Week parses out the results, which indicate that affluent school setting, not emergency recovery efforts in schools for low-income children, is more closely linked to academic achievement. Students living under the poverty line who were selected to attend schools in affluent suburbs, outperformed students who remained in low-income schools, even though these schools were provided with extra resources. Supporting research like the San Diego School District's 2003 study on achievement determinants, "Housing Policy Is School Policy" shows that boosting funding does not boost learning as much as Kahlenberg thinks "positive peer role models, active parental communities, and strong teachers" might.

Coupled with my own teaching experience in urban Chicago, the results of these studies show that while we should not blame great teachers for the system's failures, we should realize that the lack of outstanding teachers in socio-economically disadvantaged schools is a major issue. Progressive reformers who want higher measures of accountability in schools are not speaking to the teachers who are already leading their students to academic gains. They are working to help children currently in schools who cannot count on extra funding or smaller class size in the near future. These children need great teachers now.

I felt the impact of budget cuts and understaffing on a daily basis. We were merging classrooms constantly due to understaffing, using taped-up books, completing a dozen redundant reports for various funding sources, and receiving meager paychecks in comparison to the effort we exerted -- all problems that seem almost cliché at this point. Half of my students, representative of other low-income districts, entered my classroom below grade level. Considering I taught preschool, these numbers are frighteningly indicative of the achievement gap.

Despite the challenges I faced, I knew that I was directly responsible for my students' growth and learning. Not once was I observed or critiqued by my supervisor, and the performance reviews that we were to discuss with the site director were generally completed casually, months after they were "due." Whereas I held myself to high standards, feeling the exigency of my students' needs, I watched some staff members take advantage of the lax accountability. I gained insight from wonderful veteran teachers, but I also saw some people in the classroom that were uneducated and unprepared. Some should never have been teachers. Others should have been released after showing no development or desire to be better educators.

The rise in educational thought leaders challenging the status quo, and calling on schools and districts to review teacher effectiveness, is a pivotal step toward bringing low-income schools the teachers they need. We still need our teacher and parent heroes that fight to reduce class sizes and to increase funding, but we also need to realize that this problem is bigger than a money game.

By focusing on teacher quality for children, and by working fervently to shift policies so that class sizes can be smaller and schools better financed, we can make measurable quality improvements and provide motivation for teachers to pursue results in the face of adversity.