COMMENTARY | In a March 6 press release, the U.S. Department of Education announced our nation's minority students are receiving inequitable educational experiences, according to a 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) report. Among the factors responsible for this are less demanding curricula and inexperienced teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes "the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise," declaring it is necessary to ensure this does not continue to happen.
Having taught in both a struggling school district and an affluent one, I must agree that the educational opportunities afforded minority and underserved students is not equal to that offered to the rest of our nation's students.
One of the biggest factors impeding minority students' access to a quality education is tying district funding to high stakes testing. The notion that taking funding away from districts not making the grade will somehow magically result in better educational experiences for students is sheer nonsense.
In order to attract and retain qualified educators, including teachers and administrators, a school district must compensate them in a fair manner. It must also be able to provide the necessary resources, such as access to current teaching materials and professional development opportunities, for teachers to have a positive impact on student learning. When a district's ability to provide these is inhibited by the government's and public's misguided ideas regarding how funds should be distributed, you can bet the district will continue to provide sub-par curricula and under-qualified teachers.
I left the first district in which I taught for many of these reasons, as did a great number of my colleagues. In fact, that district had one of the highest teacher turnover rates I have yet to witness, and the myriad issues causing that boiled down to funding.
For one, teachers and administrators weren't - and still aren't - compensated enough to make rent, let alone to raise a family. One of the reasons my husband and I had to leave was because health insurance cost a quarter of a teacher's monthly salary for each dependent. When our first son was born, we were faced with a decision: pay our bills or pay for our son's medical coverage. We chose to find positions where we could do both.
Moreover, few staff members had advanced degrees or more than a few years' experience, resulting in a structure rife with complications. Discipline was inconsistent and unfair, teaching resources were scant, and little curricular improvement occurred, mostly due to the high staff turnover and resulting lack of teacher knowledge and experience. To get anyone worth their salt to stay was darn near impossible.
My experience in that district couldn't be any different from my experience in the district where I now work. Staff can afford to raise a family, lowering turnover tremendously; teachers and administrators without advanced degrees and quality experience are the minority; and educators have access to the latest instructional resources and training. It's no surprise our district has high graduation and college-bound rates and is preferred among area families.
The bottom line is this: equitable educational opportunities for all America's students - not just the privileged - boils down to our willingness to invest in our public schools rather than punish them monetarily. We wouldn't expect a hospital with underpaid physicians and shoddy equipment to be any good, would we? How, then, can we expect the same of our schools?
Attracting and retaining qualified professionals and providing those professionals with first-rate materials and training is the way to eradicate educational inequity, and until policy makers and the public accept this, the trend highlighted in the CRDC report will continue.
Laura Sauer is a high school English teacher in Michigan. She holds a BA in English and is pursuing her MA in Curriculum Development and Instruction.