How Do We Get There From Here?

An old Winston Churchill quote has been getting a lot of play of late, but it bears repeating. “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” The quip is applicable for so many of our national endeavors, except for public education where we try the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. 

It has become abundantly clear that funding education with the proceeds of a property tax favors schools located in affluent jurisdictions and disfavors those schools serving jurisdictions predominantly inhabited by the economically disadvantaged. However, we continue to rely on the same funding mechanisms that have failed to deliver equity for all children.

Why do we burden property owners with the responsibility of providing public education for all children? Is it not time to find a path to spread that responsibility more evenly across the tax base?

Educators, those closest to the work of preparing children for this new century, advocate strenuously for sufficient human and material resources to reach every child in every classroom. Achieving equity for the children most in need will be expensive, but poverty is the rogue elephant in our classrooms and pea shooters will not stop its charge.

Instead of compensating for that poverty with resources,  so-called education reformers allocated millions to fund new standardized assessments that do nothing but validate what all classroom teachers know in their heart: aggregate test scores are a reliable indicator of socio-economic status and little else.

Still, the nation doubled down on the ’test & punish’ strategy of No Child Left Behind by enacting an even more onerous Race to The Top, and this despite mounting evidence that both students and educators were losing too much time for teaching-and-learning to the administration of tests.

The media report regularly on the rampant turnover in the teaching profession. The exodus and/or migration of educators remains the logical outcome following years of vilification of teachers in the public debate and the fetid mix of inadequate compensation, unreasonable workload and little professional autonomy.

From where will the next generation of lifelong, committed educators arise given the current working conditions? Why would any of them stay anywhere but an affluent neighborhood with guaranteed optimal test scores?

Little has changed in the five centuries that have elapsed since Montaigne observed “…the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education children.” It does seem like time at least to start exhausting the possibilities so that we can finally arrive at doing the right thing for all children. 


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 29, 2015] 

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