Kristi Rangel | October 21, 2015
The following is a guest blog post by Kristi Rangel, a former principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Rangel left her position at the end of the 2014-2015 school year and today works as an educational consultant on the My Brother’s Keeper program at the City of Houston Health Department. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.
My daughter grew up helping me decorate my classrooms. She was the extra pair of hands at school events. She helped me read countless letters from students about what a great school year they had. As she grew up, I shared with her all the funny stories from my school day and occasionally some of my disappointment when my students were not doing their best.
Our house has always been a place filled with talk of school and learning. So I think my daughter has been surprised by my insistence that she consider avoiding a career in education.
The state of teaching has taken some unexpected twists and turns that would make any parent concerned about it as a career choice for her child. What I have not shared with my daughter are the stories of administrators and teachers who have been marginalized by a system that values testing more than people. I haven’t spoken with her about the ambivalence many leaders have about the vast turnover of teachers who leave schools year after year. Often, it’s an issue that goes unaddressed, since the unspoken assumption is that those who left were not good enough to stay. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
A different path
As parents, my husband and I have worked hard to make sure our daughter is a confident, bright and ambitious young woman. She has always been an academically gifted student with a talent for making friends everywhere she goes.
Despite my own career in education, it’s not a path I want her to follow. Why not? I fear she – like many other teachers – will be scapegoated as the reason public education is failing.
Teacher effectiveness has been touted as the single most important factor in determining whether a student is going to be academically successful. What is often not further clarified is that the quality of the curriculum, the effectiveness of the teacher and the funds that pay for both are closely intertwined.
In Texas, our state’s funding of education has been deemed unconstitutional by more than one court. There is a lawsuit pending that includes 600 school districts. State education funding faced a $5 billion budget cut in 2011. Though two years later some money was restored it was not enough.
Texas schools pay $9,559 per student, well below the national average of $12,040 per student, according data compiled by the National Education Association. Our funding per student ranks 38th of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Texas, on average, spends $54,582 less per elementary school classroom than the national average.
We have created schools that are functioning well below their capacity because of a lack of funds. Teachers are forced to make due in schools that lack adequate staffing and educational resources. Their classrooms are now filled with more poor children of color, who research shows need more resources, not less.
Almost none of the schools I have worked in have had funding for real counselors or social workers. Instead, we had to figure out how to manage behavior and get our parents to pursue outside assistance. This is a harrowing task when you encounter extreme circumstances like a fifth grade student who discovered her father shot dead in her driveway.
Classroom management has become a difficult art for teachers and administrators alike to master because of the limited resources to address students’ emotional needs. Many teachers cannot figure out how to manage the weight of student learning needs coupled with the often heart-breaking realities of their home lives. I have cried with teachers who decided to transfer to “easier” schools in “better” zip codes because they simply could no longer take the stress.
The choices teachers must make about which students may receive extra assistance is driven by the need to meet accountability standards set by the state. “Bubble” students – those whom show more potential of passing the state exam – are given more additional help than those students who are two or more instructional years behind.
The reality is that teachers sometimes must make the agonizing decision to cut their losses and direct their limited time and resources to those who still have good odds of passing. The system, ironically, may keep students who need the most help from receiving it.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if a teacher wants to survive and do well, the best place to be is a school with a student population that is less at-risk and has strong parental support. This means that new teachers, like my daughter, are urged by veteran educators not to begin their careers in the types of schools where we found our passion for students and learning – the sort of places that need eager, energetic teachers the most.
They don’t have time to dream and believe that their sheer will and effort will make a difference. Instead, they are bombarded by colleagues with stories of first-year teachers being terminated mid-year because of low benchmark scores. Their contemporaries tell them of the horrors of being tasked with creating the “no excuses” environment that tells students to simply shake off the effects hunger, homelessness and gang violence in order to perform well on the state tests.
A frustrating cycle
Once a teacher enters a school that is struggling to meet state standards, she is caught in a cycle where she’s forced to prove she is good enough to be in the classroom. She must answer why historically under-performing students are not performing well on district benchmarks. It is her charge to ensure that students’ personal issues don’t flood the classroom and disrupt the day’s lesson.
Teachers are told it is their low expectations for students that are responsible for subpar results. All this stress and strain leads to teacher burnout and low teacher morale. Inevitably, many can’t withstand the unrealistic charge to do more with less – whether it’s staff, funding or other resources.
If my daughter does continue her education career, it’s my hope that she and other novice teachers are strong enough to take a chance to serve our most needy students. But we owe them the respect of speaking of the realities they face. We must empower them by giving all teachers a voice. It is our obligation not to allow our politicians to continue to short-change our students and schools. Who is teaching, what is being taught and how those key elements are being funded is the formula for producing an effective teacher in every classroom. Money does matter. We must advocate for fair school funding.