"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Share the Responsibility. No More Excuses!

John Kuhn (not the Packer's fullback) is the superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Perrin Texas. I wrote about/quoted his work four times during 2011, in March, July, August and December. He is a vocal and inspiring proponent of improving public schools for all children.

This week he wrote two guest blog posts for Anthony Cody's Living in Dialogue blog.

Guest post #2, America, Stop Making Excuses for Inequality, demands that we, as a nation, take a shared responsibility towards improving our schools. (Click here to read part #1) I suggest that you read both of them. I'm only going to quote bits and pieces, but both entries together make a powerful and convincing statement...so in order to really understand what he is saying you should read them.

Kuhn writes about the "Poverty Makes a Difference" versus the "No Excuses" sides of the current national educational debate. He unabashedly takes the former side and this post provides his reasons.
The battle line over causality, like all battle lines, is defined by two sides. One side shouts, "It's poverty, stupid," and the other shouts, "Quit making excuses and get results." Who to side with?

...I side with the poverty faction...

...To use a baseball analogy, rich and middle-class kids from stable families are fastballs over the plate. We tend to hit them out of the park with regularity. Poor kids, on the other hand, are knuckleballs and rising curveballs. The poorer they are, the nastier the junk. Poverty, in my first-hand experience, makes a HUGE difference in the classroom...
The fact that he used a baseball analogy made it doubly meaningful for me since, in my opinion, baseball is the perfect analogy for life (perhaps a blog on that someday??).

But it's not just his opinion either. He doesn't spend time listing sources, but the correlation between poverty and lower achievement is well documented. States with the highest levels of poverty have the lowest levels of achievement (whether their teachers are in unions or not); American students from schools with low poverty are among the highest achievers in the world; SAT scores are directly correlated to family income, and so on...

The data, if the so-called "reformers" would be honest about it, shows that poverty is a serious and powerful ally of low achievement. But ending poverty in the United States doesn't add any money to the edupreneurs portfolios. Charters and Private school vouchers, do. But I digress...
The only problem many are willing to acknowledge is bad batting. They wear jerseys with our logo on them, jerseys that say "Students First" and have pictures of apples and the whole bit. Everyone--everyone--says positive outcomes for children are "the most important thing in the world." But none of this changes the fact that someone is still out there throwing junk over the plate, still trying to make teachers fail in accomplishing "the most important thing in the world," and no one is lifting a finger to stop him. I'm left with the disheartening belief that the reformers' commitment to success for all students crumbles when they are asked to do anything more strenuous than condemn others. Ask them to work for some meaningful improvement in the life conditions of students and they, ahem, balk.
This is absolutely true. Have you read the news lately? Have you noticed how services for the poor are being cut by state after state because they "don't have enough money," although there does seem to be enough money for tax incentives for the wealthy. More and more tax breaks for corporations and the millionaires, but less and less for those who are struggling and for public schools. There is more money for corporations starting charter schools, and to fund vouchers for private schools, yet the pubic schools, which educate the vast majority of our children have to do with less.
Accountability is only for the teachers in our modern republic. There is no visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn that, while many are content to pretend it doesn't exist, nonetheless devastates kids in Everman far more than it devastates kids in Highland Park. We batters are supposed to live with these nasty pitches; we are supposed to accept poverty as "part of the deal." There will be no hue and cry in opposition to inequality.
On a recent episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart said, "Poor people have sh*tty lobbyists." And, alas, that's where the problem lies. In our "modern republic" the lobbyists determine legislation and legislators.
The "quit making excuses" refrain rubs me the wrong way because my "excuse" is the straightforward statement that kids run more slowly in flip-flops than they do in Nikes, no matter how hard I coach them, and that it's pure, cowardly nonsense to say this nation can't give every kid in flip flops a better pair of shoes. When did it become fashionable to throw in the towel on equality in the USA? When did we all agree that Thomas Jefferson missed the mark when he said "All men are created equal"? When did we decide that egalitarianism was no longer a worthy aim for our democracy?

The quick dismissiveness of so many regarding the "excuses" of soul-searing inequality and bone-grinding poverty leads me to believe that they aren't really interested in finding solutions for our children unless the solutions are as convenient as firing 5% of our public school teachers or maybe opening some lucrative charter chains.
Superintendent Kuhn is more generous that I am. I don't believe that the "reformers" are looking for convenience. I believe what's happening is a series of actions the intent of which is to destroy America's public education system and replace it with a private one. And I believe that the Milton Friedmanesque "destroy and replace" process is purposeful. It's disaster capitalism in action. First, announce that there is a crisis in public education. Then, demonize the public schools, public school teachers and teachers unions by claiming that they are failures. Then, remove all supports -- punish failure instead of helping to relieve it -- until the demonization becomes reality. Finally replace the so-called failing schools with private company run charter schools or vouchers for private schools. That's exactly what No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top does.

It doesn't matter that students in low poverty public schools are achieving well. It doesn't matter that charter schools don't do any better than regular public schools. It doesn't matter that all the little things being done to de-professionalize teachers and denounce teachers unions are based on faulty logic and research (Value added evaluations, union busting state legislatures, for example). The facts don't matter. What matters is that the public schools be transferred to private, market based, control.
I'll ask a question I've asked before: if accountability is good for our schools, then isn't it also good for our society...is school the only place in all of America where we are willing to demand improvement and levy stiff consequences for its failure to materialize?

Under NCLB, teachers and schools have been on trial continuously for 10 years. But poverty and inequity haven't had a single day in court. Reams of data have been collected and then paraded before teachers with the question, "What are you going to do about this?" But who of the prominent school reformers has taken the time to parade the readily available data pertaining to school funding inequities and say, "You know, it isn't enough to hold teachers accountable. Our public policy needs a close look too. Policymakers should be held to account"?

...What teachers say is, "Please, tend to poverty. We're dying here." And the reform movement's callous reply is "Shut up and teach harder." If we say, "Hey, while you're holding us accountable, could you also demand action on the poverty/inequity issue?" we can expect to be summarily ignored. Poverty will not be addressed, thank you very much. The curveballs will not cease. Learn to hit them or go home.
Teachers are going home in greater and greater numbers. There will soon be a real crisis in finding qualified teachers to teach anywhere. There are fewer students willing to commit their professional careers to public education. There are more and more teachers who are leaving early. There are still 50% of all teachers who leave the profession within their first 5 years...
But you and I well know that teachers will never hit the curveballs like we hit good pitches. And each one of those kids who isn't a home run is a real person, with a real future, good or bad. And we don't get those pitches back. So you can pile the guilt on me and my colleagues if you want...We are your scapegoat; we make you feel better about being privileged in a nation where many are not. "If it weren't for bad teachers," you say, so that you may avoid saying, "If it weren't for people like me."

Why is there not a parallel system of accountability for public policy that affects learning? After all, no one honestly believes that test scores are solely affected by teaching; yet no one proposes that we use these same test scores to identify other weaknesses in our democracy...

So what I argue for is the fairly obvious concept of shared causality. The poor scores of poor children are not caused merely by bad teachers, but by a variety of factors, all of which can be remedied (but not all of which can be remedied by teachers).
If teachers are to be held accountable for students' achievement (and no one is arguing that teachers should not be accountable for that which is in their power to change), then so should police and fire departments, hospitals and clinics, social workers and social services providers, and most of all, legislators and governmental executives.

We need to move beyond scapegoating and blame casting. We need to share the responsibility for raising the next generation.

~~~

You might also be interested in this...

James Boutin is writing a series of articles about teaching in a high poverty school in New York.
As I walk down the stairs to my classroom, a war wages in my mind that disrupts my emotions. I’m reminded we don’t have enough rooms so that I can have a quiet last ten minutes of my planning period, so I instead choose to join the Spanish class. On one side of my head fights the six-year-old expectations for what I’d been led to believe was my immense capacity to educate students and change lives coupled with an innate lifelong idealism. On the other, the fresh lessons of the past six years learned battling student apathy, poverty, and the staggeringly negative effects of adult incompetence and ego.

As Spanish class ends and I begin digging through my backpack for the work I’d planned for my ELLs (primarily recently-arrived Dominicans), one of my students asks me if I want to collect the homework from last night. “Oh my gosh, yes! Thank you for reminding me. Please, everyone give me the homework from last night.”

Most students look at each other and snicker. One with a big smile on his face: “Come on, mister. You know we don’t do homework.”

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