Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Trouble with Belief

Belief is a big part of the reformster narrative put forth by the administration and its various proxies. The problem with low-achieving minority students and students with special needs, goes the narrative, is that both individual teachers and the institution of school itself do not believe that these students can learn or grow or achieve, and therefor they are denied a full-on education.

At the heart of this narrative is something that is absolutely, undeniably true-- so undeniably true that I don't know a single competent teacher who denies it.

To teach students, you must believe that they can learn. The degree to which you believe in their power and potential has a huge effect on what those students will actually achieve.

I think we would be hard-pressed to find anybody who disagrees with that. But once we get past that point, we start to encounter a great deal of argument and disagreement.

Some of the disagreement is manufactured, the result of a new attempt to use belief to bolster the stance of reformsters, particularly those in the charter camp. The stance goes something like this: "This charter school has achieved great and wonderful success. If you question our statements about that success, it can only be because you don't believe that our students could possibly be that successful." This is another variation on the Condoleezza Rice "charter opponents are racists" argument; it's not about establishing a dialogue, but about shutting people up.

In fact, we know the secrets of charter success, and one of them is the exact opposite of believing all students can learn. It's the secret most clearly articulated by Mike Petrilli of the Fordham, and that story goes something like this: in every low-achieving under-served school you will find a mix of students who could really achieve and students who are part of the problem, so we should use charters to rescue the students who can actually accomplish something.

Where charters succeed (or do at least as well as their public counterparts) it is because they believe only in certain students who meet certain qualifications and behave in certain ways and produce certain results. There are very few charters out there using a sales pitch of, "We believe that all students can succeed and we will accept any and all students and keep them till the bitter end, no matter what, because we will find a way to help them succeed."

Most charters are an expression of the same old belief system that has always marred the face of US public education-- there are some students who we believe in and some we don't. Charters just have the opportunity to gather only the students they believe in. That does not necessarily make charters evil or venal or dastardly, but it does mean that they have nothing to teach public schools, which must take all comers all year, about success and believing in students.

So when I say I'm not impressed by your story of charter success, I'm not saying that I don't believe that your students couldn't succeed or even didn't succeed. I am saying that 1) I have no reason to believe they wouldn't have been just as successful in a public school and 2) that there's very little that you've done in your charter school that is any help to me in a public school, where I will take any student at any time. And if I seem angry, I'm angry on behalf of all the other students that you abandoned in public schools where they must now make do with fewer resources because money and resources were stripped for the select few chosen for charterdom.

Belief is also a problem when it's used as an excuse to ignore the nuts and bolts of education. When belief becomes the linchpin of an argument that says, "You don't need money or a roof that doesn't leak or current textbooks for every single student or enrichment programs or a functional gym or the best administrators we have in the system or the best resources that money can buy-- you just need teachers who believe in those kids."

Do students in poor, minority schools deserve and need teachers who believe in them, in their promise, in their ability, in their potential? Absolutely. Is that the only thing they need? Absolutely not. Find me a rich white school in the 'burbs where the parents say, "Yeah, let's not spend any money on resources or upkeep for the school. Our kids have teachers who believe in them, so they don't need to have anything else at all."

For politicians and policymakers to say, "Yes, we believe in these young people, and that's why we're not going to fully fund their school," is a shameless crock. I'm in Pennsylvania, where the state government leads the nation in making school districts depend on local taxpayers for the bulk of school funding. This has had the predictable effect of making schools in poor areas poor. Belief is important and fundamental and essential, but the students of our poor districts also need resources, tools, a means of attracting and retaining top teaching talent. If politicians want to show how much they believe in the potential of young people, they need to put their money where their mouths are.

Belief is essential. Faith is great. But faith without works is a hollow, empty exercise.

That's because belief has limits. There's a point at which believing in a student goes past the point of being supportive and turns into being abusive. Good teachers try to find that balance every day. If I don't ask enough of a student, I have failed that student. But if I demand more than the student can give, I have also failed that student. There are hundreds of reasons not to believe in students, and they are all wrong and inexcusable. But it is also inexcusable to expect students to leap great barriers without help, support or guidance, just because we expect them to. Believing in the student means the whole student, including her challenges. We cannot overcome what we refuse to acknowledge, but we also can't overcome what we see as insurmountable. This is a hugely difficult balance, and it's here, more than anywhere else in the ongoing debate, we seem to find people refusing to acknowledge the difficulty and importance of this balance. Not all SPED students are placed because of institutional bias and lies, and not all of them are placed because they should be.

This, I think, is one of the reasons that we need more teachers who are rooted in the community where they teach. To actually teach a student, it's not just enough to believe in that student's ability and potential-- you have to be able to understand their world, their life, their background, their culture well enough to see past all of that to where their potential lies and what odds and ends it's hiding behind. This is why the theory of "Let's just move the effective teachers around" strikes me as a waste. I'm pretty effective where I am, but where I am is where I grew up-- I know the territory, I know the background, I know the culture. Transplant me to inner-city Philly, and I would be far less effective. I wouldn't believe in the students any less, but my ignorance of the neighborhood, the families, the culture would all be real deficiencies in me as a teacher and would stand in the way of my ability find connections between student potential and the world they want to enter. I would do my damnedest to learn what I needed to learn, to listen and watch and try to understand and overcome my ignorance, but I doubt that I could ever raise my game to the level of a teacher who has lived there for decades

There are other challenges with belief in the modern reformster era. We need, for instance, measures of student achievement broad enough to encompass all the many ways in which students can achieve. Saying "student achievement" when we mean "student scores on a narrow standardized math and reading test" is disingenuous, and grossly unfair to the students whose awesomeness lies in places other than standardized test taking.

And yes, teachers get testy and defensive when they are confronted with what amounts to the accusation, "Your students failed because you didn't believe in them," as if there isn't any other possible explanation. Blaming the player (We lost the game because you didn't want it enough) is sometimes the truth, but sometimes it's the first and last resort of the bad coach.

And the area where we will probably never find large-scale consensus is in the question of how student potential is affected by student circumstances. Do the most challenging circumstances actually change a child's potential, or do they just lock that potential away behind harder-to-breach barriers? How do we navigate the area between what the child can achieve and what the child will achieve?

I do agree with the core assertion-- teachers must believe that all students can achieve. It is hugely hard to do for every single student, but it's necessary. I know teachers who fail at it occasionally and teachers whose daily failure to believe in their students is the surest sign that they should get out of the teaching biz. But using "belief" as a rhetorical bludgeon or an excuse to sit on your hands does not help us move education forward.


  1. Thank you for writing this! My biggest problem with the whole concept of "belief" is the magical thinking that often goes hand in hand with it. For example, I had a special needs student some years back who was in 7th grade, but had an IQ of 78. He struggled with 4th grade math, but somehow, if I "believed" enough, he'd master pre-algebra. This is similar to the notion of blind children being able to see print if we believe in them enough, or children in wheelchairs being able to run if we only believe in them enough. There's inspiration, but then there's also mass delusion. I believe all children can learn. There are many things I can teach them; however, I'm not the ONLY variable in each child's life. Reformers build much of their notions on magical thinking. Those that are savvy and who know better depend on convincing the public (mass delusion) that everything is teachers' faults, and therefore, we must "cleanse" the teaching population of bad teachers.

  2. Teaching as faith healing. Maybe we need to do it in a tent and have an altar call after each class.

  3. Teaching as faith healing. Maybe we need to do it in a tent and have an altar call after each class.

  4. NYS currently has very punitive graduation requirements for SPED and ELL students and I am working with local teachers to address. These teachers are still in contact with former students who are eager to share their life successes after finding school a struggle because of their "differences". That is what truly believing in your students accomplishes.

  5. Spot on, as always. I suspect that the reformy belief that all students need to succeed (on tests) is for teachers to believe in them, without regard for background or resources, goes hand in hand with the belief that CC$$ is effective, that scores represent students' skills, and that evidence itself is irrelevant. I do wish there were a way to distinguish between those who are ignorant--really do believe that evidence is irrelevant--and those who are lying cheats, sorry, business people trying to funnel public money into private coffers, though, because the approach to block, change, or refute their arguments is different for each. Regardless, the system they're imposing is terrifyingly destructive.

  6. All students can learn; not all students can learn to the same degree or at the same rate.

  7. Last year my principal said to me, “You have great instructional skills, great management skills, you know the math and you build excellent relationships with kids, so why aren’t your student’s doing better? Do you think it’s because you don’t believe in them?”
    Really! It didn’t matter that they came from poverty, were ELL students, that there were systemic problems with discipline in our building or that the students were lacking in basic skills.
    I still get sick to my stomach when I think about it.
    Thank you for you post, I needed to see it.

    1. And I bet your principal has little, if any teaching experience. S/he just believes that you don't believe in them.

  8. It's a faith-based system. No evidence is needed for the reformers of education at all. No peer-reviewed papers. No evidence that VAM works. No idea for ten years if any of this will work. We believe!

  9. I think that you bring up an interesting point about the need for teachers to have community awareness in order to understand how far and how to push students. Any advice for a teacher who is not from that community on how to start developing that cultural understanding?