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State teacher of year: Who am I to judge Detroit teacher sick-outs?

As the Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2016, I serve as an ambassador between educators and students throughout the state and the Michigan Legislature, Department of Education, and State Board of Education. In this role, I visit schools from Iron Mountain to Monroe to observe educational practices and report on them to state policymakers.

My conversations and observations in a variety of school districts have given me a clearer understanding of the reality of life for Michigan teachers. While the quality of teaching constantly is being challenged, systemic inequity is the greatest obstacle to education. Nowhere is that more true than in Detroit, where the recent teacher sick-outs have put a spotlight on the terrible conditions in which children are supposed to learn.

My sharply contrasting professional experiences illustrate how inequities shape outcomes. I am a native Michigander. I taught roughly half of my career in the Chicago Public Schools and have been in Birmingham Public Schools since 2003.

In Chicago, I had to purchase many supplies my students needed ‒ everything from paper and pencils to notebooks and Kleenex. Most of my students’ parents struggled to make ends meet. Very few parents had high school diplomas. Kids came to school hungry. My students rarely entered kindergarten knowing their letters, numbers and shapes. Few traveled beyond their neighborhood. The threat of gang violence was omnipresent, and kids were lured by what they believed was the easy money that life in a gang offered them. My students lived with daily threats of violence, including from their family. Health care was lacking, and chronic illnesses often went untreated because of a lack of health care resources and access to hospitals. The students in Chicago were primarily politically underrepresented people of color. The standardized test scores in my school were among the lowest in Illinois.

“Poverty matters. There is a one-to-one correlation between standardized test scores and socio-economic status. Period.” ‒ Rick Joseph, 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year

In Birmingham, I am able to access or obtain nearly any resource my students require. All of my students’ parents graduated from high school, and most have a college degree. Kids typically come to school well-fed. The majority of my students arrived in kindergarten knowing their letters, numbers and shapes and several knew how to read. Students typically travel widely, and many have been abroad. College-educated parents are always willing to volunteer in various capacities. There are few threats to students' safety at home, on the suburban streets where they play, or at school. If a child has a health issue, they are no more than 10 minutes away from a world-class medical facility. The students in Birmingham are predominantly well-represented people of European or Asian descent. The standardized test scores in my school are consistently among the highest in the state.

Though my students' test scores increased profoundly from my last year teaching in Chicago to my first year in Birmingham, I did not feel any sense of accomplishment. I did not dramatically change from an ineffective educator to a highly qualified one, and I taught with outstanding, dedicated, talented teachers in Chicago just as I do in Birmingham. The truth is that our public education systems are wildly inequitable for reasons that are largely beyond the individual or collective control of educators.

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

Yes, there are ineffective educators, just as there are ineffective doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. Teachers, however, are not responsible for the inequities that render some children ill-prepared for life in a global society while others are destined for success for reasons that transcend what happens in classrooms.

This narrative exists all over our state, I have witnessed it in the funding gaps that exist between debt-ridden urban and rural areas and affluent suburbs, from Detroit to Birmingham, Grand Rapids to Forest Hills, or Lansing to Dewitt. Nowhere in Michigan are these inequities more obvious than in Detroit. The city clearly is on an upswing. The motor capital of the world is rapidly reinventing itself with a cool city vibe that is welcome after generations of economic decline. Public education, however, has yet to share in this renaissance.

Detroit Public Schools teachers, acting independently of their union, recently have staged sick-outs to call attention to the deplorable conditions for students and educators. People have asked for my opinion on these events. 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 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 national media?

I am not necessarily anti-school choice, nor do I oppose a reasonable number of not-for-profit charter schools that complement existing public schools. When school choice exists in some communities and not others, 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 be able to go to school in Bloomfield Hills and vice versa.

The reality is that Americans want good public schools in their communities. By and large, we have them, and have had them for years. The factors that determine 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, nimble public education systems must be cultivated on behalf of all students, to help us make Michigan the great state it can and should be.

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