Are schools and teachers really the problem?

More than a decade ago, the so-called No Child Left Behind legislation declared that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  Less than a decade later, Race to the Top promised a trickle of financial support to states that agreed to include student growth data in new models for teacher evaluation. Following more than a decade of business-style reforms to the nation’s schools, the achievement gap between affluent and disadvantaged children has actually widened. 

Many in the education community assert that the legislated “expectations” are unrealistic, if not completely unreasonable, as long the current model of the school day remains in use. We might as well say to highly effective oncologists that, in order to be considered successful, no patient must ever die, or that renowned surgeons must attain Johns Hopkins results from a battlefield triage tent. 

The public is regularly regaled with tales about the positive influence of individual teachers on the lives of their students. While inspirational stories abound, they remain anecdotal and constitute an inaccurate portrayal of the reality educators confront in the schoolhouse. In a society too dependent on soundbites, it is impossible to comprehend the chasm that yawns between an anomalous performance and the statistical trend. 

The uncertainty endured by educators, especially those in communities with a high concentration of poverty, is troublesome. Should a teaching career last long enough, existential tragedies will invariably populate the timeline. My high school experienced a little more than a decade-long run of burying a member of the student body every year, a couple years it was more than one: drive-by shooting; murdered girl found in woods; car accidents; gang related violence, just a couple by “natural causes”. 

Not all the stressors in a teacher’s life are so grave, though… The woes of the survivors are no less disconcerting. We shall dub my signature tragedy with the pseudonym of “Linda” because she possessed a singularly beautiful mind.

In a career that comprised several thousand students, she was among a “handful” of the most gifted children ever to grace my classroom. Innate inquisitiveness and a penchant for language learning were her trademarks. A sponge for language, she possessed an effortlessly imitative ear. She seldom needed to hear a word, expression or structure twice. She faithfully maintained a dialog journal, experimented in  poetry and prose, performed well on all written assessments, and effectively tutored her classmates. “Linda” was the  ideal student.  

She is also the “one that got away.” Her story haunts me to this day.  

We had backward-mapped her route to Advanced Placement French, and she acquitted herself remarkably on every challenge. All indicators were the proverbial “green” and she was working toward the goal of college credit in French out of high school. Unexpectedly, one day in the middle of her third year, she simply “disappeared” from school.

  • A phone call home? Disconnected
  • A query to the school resource officer? Have not heard anything. 
  • A visit to registrar? No request for records. 
  • Questions to classmates? Oh, she’s moved.

In a school system with high mobility, it was not unusual for students to depart suddenly. It was unusual for a high-performer to depart without even a “goodbye” never to be seen again. 

Over a period of months, the resource officer pieced together the story of an adolescent abandoned by her mother as a consequence for the daughter’s testimony regarding abuse in the home and the consequent jailing of a family member. So much for the furnishing the needs of “safety” and “familial support.”  Soon thereafter, on her own at the tender age of 16, “Linda” had married a young man seeking respite from life in the gang.

It remains a national tragedy that such wretched narratives of squandered human potential are permitted to proliferate in our land of plenty. Alas, nationally, we are too preoccupied by attributing blame to schools and teachers regarding student achievement when, as a colleague recently posted in a online forum, “How can teachers really get to work on Bloom’s taxonomy before they begin to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

[The original version of this “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday, July 31, 2014. It has been revised for content & style. The photo of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes from ]

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.]



Equal Opportunity: A Grim Fairytale of Two Cities

Once upon a time in a land far away, a snafu of biblical proportions separated a set of identical twins in the regional hospital and sent them home with two sets of parents.  Both sets of unsuspecting parents would love their children unabashedly and without reservation. Both families were determined to do the best possible job raising their little bundles of joy.

The two lads possessed nearly identical aptitudes: prodigious intelligence and incredible potential at birth.  The first, Monty,  would live in the lap of luxury; the second, George, would know only hardships.  Monty, whose father was a highly successful investment banker, would know only privilege; George, whose father repaired small engines for a living, would discover life’s obstacles.  Monty’s parents had means; George’s parents belonged to that class of people called the working poor. They were good, honest, hard-working people, all, but at opposite ends of the economic ladder.

Monty went to live in a single family home in the suburbs with a crime rate next to zero; George went to the complexes.

Monty was doted upon by his mother and his nanny who encouraged every flight of fancy.  George watched hours of soap operas with the unlicensed daycare provider while his mother worked to make ends meet.

At age three, Monty started studying violin according to the Suzuki method with a replica of a Stradivarius; George listened to the radio, expressed an interest in music, but there was no room for an instrument and lessons in the household budget.

Monty was indulged with a computer, books and a plethora of educational toys; George’s parents managed to meet his basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing.

Little Monty’s stay-at-home mom read to him every night until he went to sleep; George’s mom would fall asleep by the second page weary from her constant labor.

Monty learned to read in a posh pre-school program while George waited still another year for a chance at kindergarten.

Monty and his father camped, hiked and sailed together on the weekend; George’s father worked a second job at the local gas station.

Monty eventually attended an elementary school with class sizes between fifteen and twenty-one; George’s classes were sometimes double that.  Monty’s teachers were highly-qualified and adequately compensated; George’s teachers were underpaid and inexperienced because a voter imposed tax-cap hindered appropriate funding of the schools.  Monty walked to the local school a few hundred yards from his home; George rode a bus for an hour to avoid the largely unsuccessful local school.

Every time Monty sneezed, he was off to see the doctor.  George’s parents had no healthcare coverage, so visits to the doctor were prohibitively expensive.   Monty seldom missed school; George was absent more.

The multi-purpose room at Monty’s school could not hold all the parents on Back-to-School night; the one at George’s school was sparsely populated because most parents were still at work.   The PTA at Monty’s school held fundraisers for all the little extras; George’s school suffered shortages of even the most basic supplies.

The parents in Monty’s school district financed political campaigns; the parents in George’s school district wrote letters.  Monty’s school district got fifty new certified teachers (among the the finest transferred from George’s school district!); George’s school district got bupkus.

When Monty started having difficulties with math and science, his parents hired a tutor.  When George had these problems, his parents would do their level best to help him with his homework.

Monty had access to a well-stocked school library; George’s school system had to spend that money on gasoline for the school buses.

It was discovered that Monty and George had IQ’s in the genius range.  Monty went off to private school to make acquaintances among the “elite” and to form lifelong friendships and connections.  George was placed in a still over-crowded “Talented And Gifted” class where perhaps a third of the students were misplaced.

By a bizarre quirk of fate, both Monty and George lost their fathers to heart attacks at the tender age of fifteen.  Monty and his mom received a huge trust and the proceeds of a sizable insurance policy.  George and his mom received, shall we say, a somewhat lesser check from Social Security.   

A year later their mothers were both rendered invalids by a stress related stroke.  Monty and George and their two siblings were sent to live with relatives.

Here we part ways with our young heroes and leave them to their devices.

Now, reader, which one, George or Monty, was more likely to get into a good college and excel there?

Some will argue that there are people like Monty who fail, and that, conversely, there are people like George who succeed beyond all expectations.  That is undoubtedly true.  However, this truth is best described as anecdotal.  It is called a statistical anomaly.  From time to time, an individual will surprise us with the unexpected for both good and ill.

What happens if we compare the statistics on 60,000 people like Monty and another 60,000 like George?  Which group do you think would have the higher SAT average?   Which group would put the most students in post-secondary education scenarios?  Which group would generate the most dropouts?  Which group would put the highest number in a correctional facility?  This is not rocket science.

There are those among us who decry educational spending as a sinkhole.  Some will say: “Throwing money at the problem will not resolve our educational woes!”  Some will tell us that family values, not money, will save our children.  Nonetheless, throwing money most assuredly seems to work, more often than not, for those who have the disposable income to dedicate to their children’s education.  Money is a medium of exchange; it supplies people with opportunities that those without it will never know.

Will more money resolve every difficulty in our public schools?  It certainly will not.

But a sane, rational and egalitarian society must use every means at its disposal to prepare all children to compete in an ever more complex and demanding world, even (especially?) the children of the poor. A life among the socio-economically disadvantaged presents fewer opportunities.  If the playing field of life is ever to be leveled, it may even be necessary to allocate more dollars, not fewer, in schools where poverty is prevalent. In the end this is a self-serving act, because we do not know what someone like George may contribute if furnished with circumstances favorable to personal growth.  The child you act now to save may one day save you.

In Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey tells Mr. Potter that the poor do most of the working, and living, and dying in Bedford Falls, and that it should not be too much for them to expect a couple decent rooms and running water.  Permit me to suggest that the amenity of a great school be added to that list, one staffed by competent and committed professionals armed with adequate resources. Ultimately, this society will be judged on how it responds to this challenge. Will we tighten our belts and make the necessary sacrifices for the good of all our children, or will the rich continue to get richer, and the poor…

Well, you know the rest.  But, please, do not try to claim that money, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant to educational opportunity and/or performance.

[This is a slightly re-worked update from a commentary in 2000 originally published in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.]