Has the village abdicated its responsibility for raising children?


*The West Wing character

[The original version of the “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on October 20, 2014. It has been revised and expanded.]

Our public education system is being undermined

The determined enemies of public education currently are working, mostly behind the scenes, to undermine the public’s confidence in what once was, and still should be, among our most revered institutions: the public schools. 

Certain ideologues will argue that the education of children does not fall within the purview of government, and that education is far too important an issue to be entrusted to those in public service. However, the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States directs our representatives to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” One would be hard pressed to name one human endeavor that will better bestow prosperity on posterity than facilitating  a complete education for all citizens. 

Is there any more reliable way to oppress a people than by fostering conditions that permit ignorance to fester? The Founding Fathers were abundantly clear on that topic. The very survival of our democracy – perhaps even the survival of our species – depends upon our collective resolve to deliver an adequate and equitable education to all children. To paraphrase Anne Sexton, the dissemination of knowledge must remain the awful rowing toward justice. 

Our most challenged schools are wrongly touted as representative of failed education policy and reforms. Frequently, corporate reformers propose solutions that favor private institutions and choke off the funding for public ones; vouchers, charters, tax credits, and accountability measures deliver advantages mainly to more affluent citizens and condemn the most disadvantaged of our society to a fraction of a complete education. One conservative radio talk show host likes to speak dismissively of the “public screwels“, and his colleagues on the airwaves echo the Big Lie, ad infinitum,  by inculcating listeners with anti-public school propaganda. “The schools are failing! Teachers are not teaching!”

Ample evidence to the contrary remains invisible to eyes that refuse to see

Researchers have clearly demonstrated that economically disadvantaged children in so-called poorly performing schools arrive in pre-school already lagging behind their peers. Typically, such children make gains during the school year and then lose ground again during the summer hiatus. In other words, their teachers are teaching but systematic reinforcement of acquired skill is lacking outside of the classroom. The evidence suggests that the better-equipped schools and extra-curricular educational enrichment programs furnished to economically privileged children skew the performance curve on standardized assessments across the scholastic career. 

As for the teacher retention issue, the 38-week school year and the 7.5 hour school day are always used as a justification to summarily dismiss demands for professional compensation for educators.

“What are teachers complaining about?” the naysayers ask. Well, even a cursory investigation reveals that an overwhelming majority of committed educators devote 10 to 12 hours-a-day to the required tasks of delivering effective instruction with little hope of finding any respite. Meanwhile, teachers are also required to implement new top-down reforms du jour, and to obtain an advanced degree that maintains certification for a compensation package that renders it impossible to support a family without a second job…

Is it really any wonder that more than half of all newcomers to the profession find themselves unable to endure more than five years in our overcrowded classrooms? Teachers have long advocated for lower class size to permit more individualized attention for every child , but the current funding structure based on property values virtually guarantees that school districts dominated by poverty will experience unfavorable staffing ratios. 

Ironically, critics of public education praise reports that show home-schooled children outperform their peers from the public schools on standardized assessments. No public school teacher managing classes of more than three dozen students is shocked by this statistical tidbit and would likely claim that it supports the argument in favor of reducing class size.  However, home schooling will never be a realistic option for a working, single mother of two seeking a brighter future for her children. Her children deserve to be nurtured in a well-funded, adequately-staffed neighborhood school.

A truly just society would allow no lesser school to exist; it is simply inexcusable that the wealthiest nation on the planet continues to shirk the duty of nurturing the intellectual growth of all children. 

 

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared on April 23, 2003 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.]

 

 

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.]

 

 

Heavy load puts teacher retention at risk

Considering all the positive outcomes arising from our public schools in recent years, it is somewhat disheartening to see the issue of turnover rearing its ugly head once more. All our advances will be for naught if this community fails to entice educators to spend their careers right here.

How has it come to this, again?

A nearly completed career in public education leads me to a single, inescapable conclusion. Call this Haines’ law: Systems of labor requiring unsustainable effort can never be taken to scale. 

Teachers quickly realize that the assigned goal of reaching every child requires the deployment of nearly every waking hour to the preparation, delivery and evaluation of instruction. The persistent call of “Teacher Do More!” plays quite poorly to those dedicated altruists who already devote nearly their entire existence to improving the lives of children.

Valiant efforts do occur. Those stories can be inspirational, even transformational, but they have yet to be proven sustainable over time in the public schools, especially in public schools where poverty is prevalent.

Periodically, anomalous improvements in academic performance are generated in challenged schools. Such results most often involve a charismatic leader who inspires educators to heroic efforts on behalf of children.

Much-ballyhooed successes invariably lead to promotions and transfers of valuable personnel in the attempt to seed other sites in the hope of generating like results.

Most frequently, in just a handful of years, such success stories begin the inexorable slide back to the mean. Simply put, there are limits to human endurance and patience. Heroism arises occasionally in extraordinary circumstances. It cannot be sustained as a workload or lifestyle.

In this age of increased scrutiny and accountability for educators, there will be some who ridicule the idea that teachers are assigned an unreasonable number of tasks to perform on any given day. Educators, however, know that the design and delivery of effective instruction too often becomes an afterthought on the administrative flow chart.

If this community fails to support and empower our highly performing teachers, those instructional leaders certainly will be the ones to seek out employers who will. It will be our children who suffer form our failure to learn form past mistakes.

Further Reading @ The Prince George’s Sentinel


[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on January 31, 2013.]