Is equity “too expensive” for the children of Prince George’s?

     In his book Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol pointed out that a Maryland task force on school funding suggested to the governor in 1983 that “100 percent equality was too expensive” a proposition, and that, therefore “the poorest districts should be granted no less than three quarters of the funds at the disposal of the average district.” Decades after the Supreme Court had ruled that “separate” is inherently “unequal” and moved forward -however slowly –  with desegregation, Maryland enacted a policy that suggested “unequal” education was just fine for the socio-economically disadvantaged. 

     More than three decades later, and a decade following the passage of the landmark Bridge to Excellence Act,  based on the renowned work of the Thornton Commission chaired by Dr. Alvin Thornton, the children of Prince George’s are still experiencing the legacy of that Orwellian public policy. Just last year Worcester County budgeted approximately $17,093 per student while Prince George’s County has budgeted about $14,813. Thornton funding has closed the gap somewhat, but equity has yet to be achieved for children living below the poverty line. [See link: 2015 Per pupil Spending in Maryland ] 

     Nationally this year 91% of school funding, approximately $550 billion dollars, will be allocated locally for schools, mostly derived from real estate taxes. The current funding stream virtually guarantees that the quality of education will be determined by the average net worth of homes in a zip code. 

     Should Prince Georgian’s be heartened by the fact that our per-pupil spending has closed the gap to 86 percent of our more wealthy neighbors? Or do we owe it to our children to improve still further and, in so doing, offer ALL the children of this community the surest path to breaking the chain of poverty? Or will we allow those who have maximized their opportunities to pull the ladder up behind them? The answer to each question should be abundantly clear.

      Today, two words should strike terror into the heart of every Prince Georgian with a child in school. Two words should inspire every supporter of public education in Prince George’s County to political action. These same two words need to be excised from our political lexicon and our regional rites of spring. What are these two words?

-Budget Reconciliation.

     Our superintendent will likely soon be compelled to do what all effective educators always attempt when the allocations do not match the budget request: make do. As much needed line-items are deleted by the doctrine of cost-avoidance made famous by a previous superintendent, the Superintendent/CEO must deploy inadequate resources for maximum effect.  What an onerous, unenviable task to befall someone who has devoted a lifetime to children.

Whose dreams does one elect to quash? Whose aspirations get trampled? 

  • Is it the students on the cusp of possible success who watch beneficial programs of study disappear?
  • Is it the teachers who dream of reaching each-and-every student that will find themselves hopelessly overwhelmed by unreasonable class sizes?
  • Is it the administrators who will witness the dismantling of effective learning environments as necessary resources are withheld?

None of these alternatives should be acceptable outcomes for our children, or the children of our neighbors.

     Still, these are among the options that we face if this community does not unite behind the Board of Education and Superintendent in the struggle to furnish adequate resources to the children of our neighbors. Everyone who cares about education in this county needs to engage in the political fray that threatens the well-being of children.

     We must not misdirect our efforts!

    Our struggle lies with the funding authority of the Prince George’s County Public Schools and an electorate that has permitted inequities to flourish for as long as any of us can remember. Struggle we must, however, lest we be counted among those that Frederick Douglass chastised for expecting food without plowing the ground. Otherwise, what fate awaits us with the next, inevitable economic downturn?

     Unlike in previous budget cycles, the County Executive, Rushern Baker, and members of the County Council are spreading the word that commitment to public education signals to businesses contemplating a relocation that Prince George’s County is a healthy and vibrant community. If we want the stability of families choosing to make a life in Prince George’s County, potential newcomers need to see a community commitment to the public schools.  It is incumbent on Main Street to make doing otherwise a politically untenable position.

     In the long term our elected leadership needs to establish policies and procedures that will effect full-funding for the public schools at levels that will meet the educational needs of all children at optimal levels. Our leadership must continue to demonstrate to the naysayers who resist such ideas why these policies are in the best interest of the common welfare.

     Long ago this great nation recognized the error of its ways and abolished the practice of fractional apportionment of votes based on race. Perhaps, the historical moment has arrived for this community to lead the way in abolishing the practice of fractional apportionment of educational opportunities based on socio-economic status. Until such time as this goal is attained, until such time as we furnish every child a truly equal setting at the American banquet, until the entire community embraces the sacred trust of educating the next generation, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must not be satisfied.”

 

[A much updated & revised more current version of a “Viewpoint” that first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on June 4, 2001.]

 

 

All of Our Fates are Intertwined

What single human behavior remains the greatest threat to achieving social justice in our time? The capacity to endure needless suffering and inequity, without complaint, must surely be a candidate. Another possibility must be endemic political apathy whether arising from abject nihilism or from the belief that misery and misfortune are largely in the rearview mirror.

Even a cursory examination of the last century might lead the casual observer to conclude that humankind’s potential for inhumanity places us all in imminent peril despite our material wealth and standard of living. The compendium of psychopathic megalomaniacs and the toll of their innocent victims might lead one to believe that our comparatively “minor” social injustices, here and now, are hardly worthy of note: Mao Zedong, 45-72 million dead; Adolf Hitler, 25 million dead; Joseph Stalin, 20 million dead; Pol Pot, 1.5 million dead

This is hardly an exhaustive list. Modern despots with death tolls in the hundreds of thousands now approach banality. The acquisition of power is a most volatile solvent to the thin veneer of civilization. So, where do our current inequities in the delivery of education fall on the moral plane when compared to historical rates of human mayhem?

The principal responsibility of education is to remind each generation that our own national aspirations and lofty rhetoric are replete with irreconcilable contradictions in the execution of this great American experiment.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Ask yourself how that worked out for the 500 nations of indigenous peoples that inhabited this continent prior to our arrival, or the twenty generations of Africans sold into bondage, or our countrymen imprisoned in the internment camps for Japanese descendants during World War II. The Equal Rights Amendment remains on hold since the eighties when women are the majority of our population. The evidence suggests that, in practice, some are more equal than others… 

The road to each of these transgressions originates, to some degree, in the dehumanization of the “other” and terminates at the preservation of social advantage for the “dominant” cultural force. Those that own the gold write the rules, or so the saying goes. The vestigial remnants of systematic oppression remain readily apparent in the workings of the criminal justice system and the grossly uneven efforts to promote the general welfare of the citizenry.

Devoting the resources necessary to maximize the potential of every child constitutes a moral imperative for every community. Our evolution to the status of a truly egalitarian democracy is irrevocably dependent upon the unyielding political engagement of conspicuously well-informed citizenry intent on never revisiting the errors of our heritage.

It is unconscionable to permit a “present” that is merely “survivable” to become the enemy of a future that is “optimal” for all children. 


[The original version of this “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February 19, 2015.]

Don’t move the start of school year until after Labor Day

Two reasons stand out.

First, during the Agrarian Age — pre-dating the Industrial Age of late 19th and 20th fame — farmers really did need children to help tend the crops on the family farm during the summer. Even cursory genealogical research reveals the premium that previous generations placed on large families.  Second, human beings have proven curiously resistant to changing long-practiced, traditional behaviors.

Our current agrarian school calendar was never predicated on the assumption of optimal academic achievement for students. Even the goal of functional literacy for all is a fairly recent phenomenon. At the dawn of the Age of Information, one can only hope that decisions about our school calendar will be grounded firmly on the concept of learning outcomes rather than the economic considerations of private enterprise.

Here in Prince George’s County, the education community has been coping with the rigors of the externally imposed testing regimen, driven by the top-down initiatives of NCLB and RTTT, in part, by opening schools prior to Labor Day. The extra days of instruction have yielded dividends in improved performance on the federally mandated statewide assessments that arrive unmercifully in March.

It was a local strategy that has borne fruit. Some percentage of our increase in test scores can be directly attributed to the extra instructional time before March “Testing” Madness begins. Increasing the time devoted to academic endeavors prior to the administration of the testing regimen has served to keep this school system competitive with more affluent surrounding jurisdictions.

Most educators concluded long ago that standardized assessments are (how can this be phrased kindly?) less-than-ideal measures of student growth. However, as long as so much rides on those results, the education community must be free, locally, to implement any calendar that prevents the loss of resources for the schools and protects the interests of children.

Most young people need to be developing 21st century skills, and that will not occur in the service industry summer jobs. Compelling all schools systems to move opening until after Labor Day is terrible public policy for many reasons, not the least of which is once again reducing the role of children to that of chattel for the labor mills while telling them how much fun they are entitled to have.

Schooling Needs to Begin Early in Life

In his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam asserts that the social mobility afforded to previous generations is at risk in the current political and fiscal climate. Early on he proclaims the subject of his book to be the “widening of the class-based opportunity gap for young people.”

In the brave new world of communication by soundbite, we witness talking heads that suggest that the poor should simply stop being poor while the political elite expend tremendous energy in keeping the Minimum Wage at decades-old levels. When discussing education, the media frequently portray statistical anomalies as the norm and demagoguery inevitably ensues. “Laziness“, however, is not the primary mover on the issue of poverty.

Poverty tends to be intergenerational. According to Putnam, upward mobility is proving ever more difficult to achieve as society has drastically increased the goals for public education and student achievement without providing the resources to achieve those goals. We are confronting economic segregation of our society into enclaves of the wealthy, neighborhoods of the poor and an ever declining middle class. 

For the sake of clarity

  • Newborns do not choose to be born to poverty.
  • Infants do not choose under-stimulation as a lifestyle.
  • Toddlers do not choose unlicensed daycare or parents toiling for too many hours at minimum wage.
  • Children do not choose to arrive in school already lagging in literacy and numeracy.
  • Students do not choose to attend overcrowded, inadequately-resourced and under-staffed schools.

Poverty and societal indifference to its hardships inflict these circumstances on the most vulnerable among us and too many of the affluent among us fail to recognize their needs. Politically, it is far easier to blame, shame and cast aspersions on the character of the destitute who live among us.

Nationally, one-in-five children live in poverty. In Prince George’s fully two-thirds of the children live at, or significantly below, the demarcation for poverty. Our incremental improvements in scholastic achievement of the last decade need to be taken to scale, and expansion of early childhood education is a moral imperative if our goal remains optimal outcomes for every child.

So, when it comes to support for full funding of the Board of Education budget proposal, remember the words of former NEA President Reg Weaver, “Education reform without resources is just rhetoric.” Not one more cohort of children should be denied adequate and equitable school facilities.

 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on April 2, 2015. It has been expanded for this blog. Image from tutorialstorage.com ] 

A Teacher’s Bowl Runneth Over

Some years ago, a brilliant television advertisement for a well-known breakfast food featured two older siblings – both dubious about their mother’s choice of cereal – attempting to foist her latest selection upon their little brother saying “Give it to Mikey! He’ll eat anything!”

While the advertisement was clever and memorable as a marketing ploy, the strategy seems to have been adopted nationwide in formulating job descriptions for educators.

For all professional educators, the phrase “other duties as assigned” has evolved into the bane of their professional lives. No task is too intrusive on the contractual day, too mind-numbingly menial, or too irrelevant to instructional priorities, to prevent its inclusion on the long list of mandatory duties that have nothing to do with improving the cognition of students.

Give to the teachers; they’ll do anything.

The acquisition of a teaching credential does not require a three-credit course in “bus counting” prior to certification. Yet, each morning and afternoon, a teacher is likely to be found in front of the school building, clipboard in hand, charting the arrival of those yellow behemoths. 

Nothing in teacher formation programs prepares teachers for their future in lunchroom crowd-control or supervision of the hallways. Ninety minutes of delivering instruction for a large class and, without a break, supervise the 300 youngsters in the hall. 

At least those duties do not directly interfere with instructional time.

However, for eight weeks during the school year, the added task of proctoring standardized tests (Benchmarks, PSAT’s, HSA’s, PARCC, etc.) curtails the ability of teachers to deliver coherent instruction.

For those not directly involved in proctoring, the challenge becomes keeping entire classes “on standard” when a different 30-40% of the class is pulled out for testing for 45 days during the year. Teach an elective where multiple grade levels attend each class and it becomes impossible to “advance the class” as a unit through the curriculum for multiple weeks at a time. 

PROCTORING EXAMS IS NOT TEACHING!

Furthermore, teachers spend weeks reteaching concepts to children returning from the testing hiatus. No matter how you cut it, the current protocols for standardized testing disrupt instructional programs for everyone despite the errant claims otherwise by bureaucrats. 

The workday for teachers should be mostly, dare one suggest “entirely”, devoted to diagnosing the needs of students, organizing lessons, delivering instruction and evaluating formative assessments. The inevitable collision with “other duties” too frequently results in a profound misuse of teacher expertise and, hence, the taxpayers’ dollars.

We can ill afford to fill the teacher’s contractual day with extraneous, non-instructional tasks while pushing to the periphery all the essential tasks required to improve academic outcomes.

 

[The original version of this  Commentary appeared originally in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 20, 2014. It has been revised for readability. ]