Even the best teachers can’t erase inequities

Rick Joseph

As the Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2016, I have the opportunity to build bridges across partisan divides, illuminate effective educational practices and serve as an ambassador between the Michigan Legislature, Department of Education, State Board of Education, educators and students throughout the state. I attend monthly meetings of the Board of Education and report on educational practices I observe in schools from Iron Mountain to Monroe.

The recent teacher sickouts in Detroit have brought renewed interest in the systemic inequity that has existed in Detroit for years. Teachers and their practice have been questioned. However, I agree with a colleague of mine who taught in Chicago Public Schools with me for the first half of my career who says, “Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching,” regardless of the place or the space.

Though my students’ test scores from my last year teaching in Chicago to my first year in Birmingham increased profoundly, I did not dramatically change from an ineffective educator to a highly qualified one. Nor did I derive any sense of accomplishment from those same scores. The reality is that I taught with outstanding, dedicated, talented teachers in Chicago just as I do in Birmingham. I believe our public education systems are wildly inequitable for reasons that are largely beyond the individual or collective control of educators who serve their students on a daily basis.

Poverty matters. There is a one-to-one correlation between any standardized test scores and socio-economic status. Period.

Detroit Public Schools teachers, acting without the advice or consent of their union, have recently staged sickouts to call attention to the deplorable conditions for students and educators in their schools. People have asked for my opinion on these events as the Michigan Teacher of the Year. My response echoes the words of a far more noteworthy servant-leader than me, Pope Francis. Who am I to judge the actions of teachers who are beyond desperation and anger? Who have had wages and benefits cut? Who have actually loaned money to their employer so it could remain financially viable? Who work in conditions unseen and unsafe? Who fear the governor will return the Education Achievement Authority to DPS only to turn the district into the country’s biggest charter school district? Who feel that no amount of discourse can replace the response that their action has elicited from the president of the American Federation of Teachers to the mayor of Detroit to the mainstream media?

I am not necessarily anti-choice, nor am I opposed to a reasonable number of not-for-profit charter schools that complement existing public school options. I am convinced that the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats have the best interest of all of the students of the state of Michigan in mind, but obviously differ on the details of systemic reform. I can say with relative certainty that when school choice exists in some communities and not others, that it is not a viable model. A choice between two poor products is a false choice, especially when a child’s future is at stake. If defenders of our current education policy truly value choice, then a student in Detroit should have the ability to go to school in Bloomfield Hills and vice versa.

It is clear that Americans want good public schools in their immediate communities that work. By and large, we have them and have had them for years. The factors that determine the outcomes of standardized test scores have little to do with the dedication, passion and sacrifice that teachers all over the state offer their students on a daily basis. Public education and creative, equitably funded, nimble public education systems must be upheld and cultivated on behalf of all students, everywhere, to help us make Michigan the great state it can and should be.

Rick Joseph teaches at Birmingham Covington School. He was named Teacher of the Year this past May.