Familiar script, possible problems: The web site of The Atlantic maintains an education section.
In this recent post at that site, Melinda Anderson discusses a familiar literary genre—the book or film about the "savior teacher" in the urban school.
In its modern form, this genre stretches back at least to the early 1960s. In the 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, Glenn Ford was cast in the role of the hero teacher, but his unruly students were mostly white. In the genre's more common modern form, the hero teacher is supposed to work his or her magic with a group of black kids.
Anderson's review of the history of this unhelpful genre is rather sketchy. That said, her account of the problems with this genre is basically right on point.
For the most part, Anderson avoids noting that the savior teacher is typically white. That said, she sagely quotes a Miami teacher saying this about these inspiring tales, in which the savior teacher has little experience but spills with good intentions:
“In real life, that’s not a recipe for great teaching."
Later, Anderson joins an academic in noting the racial context which often obtains with the inspiring hero myth:
ANDERSON (4/4/16): While the mythology surrounding the teaching profession is strong and pervasive, most striking may be the messages that are amplified about white teachers in predominately non-white schools—and the qualities that are necessary to educate children in urban school districts.In our view, Professor Royal is getting it right. The savior teacher myth is generally unhelpful. When the savior teacher is white, an additional unhelpful element is thrown into the mix.
This breed of books and films “hold up...white people as exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-sacrificing or just exceptional and heroic for doing the same work educators have done for years without fanfare,” said [Loyola University's Camika] Royal, whose work with preservice teachers brings this sharply into focus. “I debunk this idea with my students before we begin field experience in Baltimore City schools each semester,” she said, stressing that “white saviors aren't bringing light and hope. The hope is already in our students and in our schools and communities. Our job is to cultivate it, to bring out what already exists.”
Especially in low-income settings, there are no perfect public school teachers; there are also no perfect groups of teachers. That said, there are also very few savior teachers, although Hollywood and the publishing business have frequently said different.
Anderson's assessment strikes us as correct. The story of the morally pure savior teacher is a largely unhelpful tale. This is especially true when the story is peddled by individuals like Michelle Rhee, or by groups like Teach For America, who are bearing bogus statistical claims.
Having said that, let us also say this:
In our view, another familiar figure tends to be unhelpful in the realm of low-income education. We refer to the achingly pure but inexperienced "savior journalist."
Based on her latest report for The Atlantic, an unkind person could throw Emily DeRuy into that mix. Even as Anderson notes the problem with the tale of the savior teacher, her colleague DeRuy may be displaying the problems which often attend the work of the savior reporter.
In her report, DeRuy writes about a new study by some Johns Hopkins professors. The professors have found an extremely familiar problem in their study of some urban high school teachers. Headlines included, DeRuy summarizes their findings like this:
DERUY (4/1/16): White Teachers Expect Less Than Black Teachers From Black Students/From there, DeRuy proceeds to a strikingly selective account of the problems affecting the academic achievement of the nation's black students.
A new study suggests that low expectations from some teachers might engender low performance from students.
In yet another sign that the lack of teacher diversity is a pressing issue, a new study suggests that white teachers expect less academic success from black students than black teachers do from the same students.
The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University, found that when a white teacher and a black teacher consider the same black student, the white teacher is 30 percent less likely to think the student will graduate from a four-year college. White teachers, the researchers also found, are nearly 40 percent less likely to think their black students will graduate from high school.
“One of [the teachers] has to be wrong,” Nicholas Papageorge, a co-author and economist in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.
We'll review that part of DeRuy's report on Friday. For today, let's quickly scan her account of this study, which seems to have found a very familiar problem, with a slightly villainized air.
(For yesterday's post on this topic, click here.)
Uh-oh! According to DeRuy, the new study has found a very familiar problem. It has found that "white teachers expect less academic success from black students than black teachers do."
Indeed, the gap in expectations seems to be rather large. According to the study, white teachers "are nearly 40 percent less likely to think their black students will graduate from high school," DeRuy says.
“One of the teachers has to be wrong,” one of the co-authors (somewhat misleadingly) says.
Right at the start of her report, DeRuy draws the familiar conclusion. The study provides "yet another sign that the lack of teacher diversity is a pressing issue," she writes.
DeRuy is writing from script, and also from good motives. But she's an inexperienced education reporter, and this lack of experience is often unhelpful in savior reporters, as in savior teachers like the widely-loathed Rhee.
Uh-oh! To a slightly more experienced eye, possible problems seem to appear all over DeRuy's brief account:
That co-author's enigmatic statement is perhaps a bit misleading, but DeRuy didn't seem to notice.
The statistic we cited may be a bit misleading too, a point we'll review tomorrow. DeRuy didn't notice that either. Nor did she tell you which group of teachers apparently offered the most pessimistic predictions about the students under review.
An unkind person might say that DeRuy writes like an inexperienced savior reporter. That said, we the liberals love such familiar work.
Kevin Drum even swallowed it whole in this puzzling post. Our questions, as the analysts squeal:
Where have they taken the real Kevin Drum? And when are they bringing him back?
Tomorrow: A misleading quotation, the real statistics, and the obvious question not asked.
Also, the harshest predictions of all! Savior reporters, like savior teachers, may tend to blow past such facts.