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.]

Experience Matters for Educators, too!

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 about.com. ]

Maintenance-of-effort law still shortchanges students


[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February  13, 2014. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]



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.

Nurturing in Infancy Prepares Toddlers for Success

What if the attributes of personality most responsible for academic initiative develop between birth and the age of two years? What if the confidence, courage and curiosity of children are the direct outcome of parental nurturing during the first two years of life? The implications for educators would be enormous.

In his book Why Children Succeed author Paul Tough presents a number of findings that seem to suggest that children become intrepid toddlers in direct proportion to the frequency and intensity of parental nurturing in the two years immediately following birth. Children who want for attentive nurturing during infancy, conversely, tend to be more fearful and unsure of themselves.

The former are more inclined to persevere when challenged; the latter more inclined to surrender when faced with adversity. The former seek to explore; the latter tend toward tentativeness.

For early childhood educators, compensating for this reality represents one more high hurdle to clear in meeting the needs of every child. As someone quite eloquently posted on Facebook recently, “We must cope with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before we can hope to address Bloom’s taxonomy of learning.”

Initiating  children into age-appropriate educational settings at an earlier age is a categorical imperative if remediation falls, as of course it will, to classroom educators. Determining what interventions will ensure that all children begin schooling on an level playing field will be no small task. For too long we have been worried that schools are leaving children behind when in reality too many children arrive at school wearing the intellectual shackles of their socio-economic circumstance.

We must attempt to eradicate the erroneous concept – still held as certain, by some – that not much is happening in the mind of an infant. We now know that infants are actively engaged in figuring out their place in the world almost from the moment they are born, if not before. Rudiments of the ambient language appear in the babbling of infants at three months of age provided that speech samples and face time are ample.

Infants develop confidence in direct proportion to their perceived importance to the adult caregivers in their lives. Near-constant mental stimulation from birth to two years lays the foundation for the habits of mind to follow; training and encouragement furnish confidence and willingness to fail and overcome challenges. These traits are essential to future academic success, and they likely emerge at much earlier stages of development than previously believed.

Perhaps it is time for a series of public service announcements targeting young parents regarding the importance of active parenting for brain stimulation in those first critical years. Surely, the medical, religious and education communities could put together adult education programs that teach the foundational nurturing behaviors that infants require to travel the road to self actualization.

Some might interpret this as an intrusion into the private lives of parents. Still, the founder of the Children’s Defense League, Marion Wright Edelman, asserts that “… protecting today’s children, tomorrow’s Mandela or Mother Theresa, is the moral and common sense litmus test of our humanity…”

Further Reading:

[The original commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 10/28/2014. It has been slightly revised.]

Beware the Potholes on the Road to Educational Reform

ford-model-t-pics-17837Some years agos, a story appeared about the efforts undertaken by a certain midwesterner to keep his antique Model T running. The tires were increasingly difficult to find. He lamented that, even in junkyards, it was nearly impossible to locate spare parts. More than once he had been obliged to improvise temporary repairs. The gentleman so loved his old car that he would take broken or worn parts to a local machinist and have them rebuilt from scratch for what might be considered extravagant prices.

He was frustrated that he could only take his car out late at night or early Sunday mornings because it could no longer compete with the faster automobiles of today and their increasingly impatient drivers. Even tractors had more acceleration than his carefully maintained relic.

He confessed an irrational inability to let go of reminders of the halycon days of his youth.

His situation is an apt metaphor for the perils of Public Education in our time.

In my father’s days as a student, and to some degree even my own, the goal of Public Education was to supply an adequate education for all students possessing the will to avail themselves of the opportunity. A high school drop out rate of twenty-five percent was acceptable. Another twenty-five percent placed in college was a laudable goal. Fifty percent of students went out into the world with no more than a high school diploma.

Generally speaking, dropouts were consigned to menial or manual labor a century ago. If students left school able to read well enough to follow instructions and if they knew enough math to balance their checkbooks, then they could find a job in the industrial manufacturing base where the wages, if not conducive to comfort, were at least livable. Those who furthered their education found positions in leadership and management.

It may not have been the best possible system in educational achievement. However, the need for unskilled labor was great, so it was deemed generally utilitarian.

Recently, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of industrial manufacturing jobs. In the never-ending quest for profits, Capital is taking advantage of an increased reliance on robotics here at home or cheap labor overseas. Hence, the set of skills required by our young people to compete in the post-industrial society has changed irrevocably.

More importantly, the compendium of human knowledge has doubled in size every seven years during the same period.

Children entering school today will have to know more upon receipt of their high school diploma than college students needed to know upon graduation a couple generations ago.   Furthermore, the base of children who will have to meet such standards in order to be considered “educated” has widened to exceed 90%. Today, the goal is to educate very nearly every student (even those unmotivated to learn!).

The goals of Public Education have changed immeasurably in the last fifty years. Our schools are beset by ever increasing responsibilities and expectations. Unfortunately, the models of the school day and school year have changed negligibly. The allocation of resources as a percentage of the Gross National Product remains stagnant.

This nation still employs the 42-week agrarian calendar although our children-of-the-cornucopia no longer typically spend their summer in the fields.   We still place too many children in front of too few teachers for too many minutes of the teacher’s workday with minimal resources at hand. Working conditions for our educators are scarcely adequate to execute appropriate custodial care, much less so when it comes to setting rigorous and meaningful academic standards.

There will never be an educational model that solves this nation’s academic woes if it does not address the following:

  • more reasonable caseloads.
  • fewer minutes of direct teacher/student interface time for teachers.
  • more time-on-task for students across the calendar year.
  • compensation & benefits packages that will attract more of our best minds to the teaching profession (and, hopefully, keep them there!).

Any proposals that do not address these four fundamental issues are akin to tinkering with a model that has moved beyond obsolescence toward the status of an antiquity.   Educators continue to point to the absurdity of it all, but few policymakers elect to process the message.

Bureaucrats and policymakers pretend that holding teachers and/or students “accountable” will improve performance. In the meantime, our schools are on the verge of becoming little more than Standardized Test Administration Centers.

If tests improved education, teachers would give a test every day. Meanwhile, psychometricians are driving educational policy while teachers watch still more instructional days disappear from the calendar. What is achieved via testing? An old Model T on a modern dynamometer is still going to exhibit the emissions of an old Model T, isn’t it? Only so much improvement can be coaxed out of an archaic technology.

  • Boost the octane to improve engine performance? The engine breaks down.
  • Replace the engine with a more modern one? The transmission fails.
  • Load it with too many occupants? The suspension collapses.
  • Enter it in the Indy 500? It will finish dead last.
  • Blame the driver? A résumé will go out in the morning.

This is what it is like to teach in the Public Schools today. Teachers endure every day the unbearable prospect of being expected to accomplish the improbable with the often unwilling while supplied next to nothing to perform the task, and all the while being publicly ridiculed by certain conservative radio talk-show hosts for “failures” that are due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Do you really wonder why half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years?

How long would you drive a Model T before you decided it was time to try another mode of transportation?

The former president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, beseeched our membership not only to teach students the Pledge of Allegiance, but also to teach America to pledge allegiance to her children. It is clear to many educators, however, that too many citizens prefer to drive the Model T instead and just complain about the lack of performance. Let’s cover it up, put it in the museum where it belongs, and figure out how to finance a better performing model.

[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette circa 2014. It has been slightly revised.]

No time for two steps forward and three steps back!

“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”   Letter from a Birmingham Jail Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, how our state chooses to address the educational needs of all children concerns us not only as citizens, but as immortal beings. Our fates are wrapped up in the fates of the most powerless among us, those who cannot vote. True equity and adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. However, it must be noted that the Free State still allows “difference” to be made legal in the schoolhouse and it would honor Dr. King’s memory if that could be changed.

Because “class size” is not classified a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems can have different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. Equity does not exist when our school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and their school system is able to afford more than sixty teachers per thousand. Delivering instruction to thirty-plus economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources.

Nor is there adequacy when our school system must choose gasoline for the school buses OR books for the media center and their school system manages to budget for both. Such inequities have existed in Maryland for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on student achievement as a result of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately equipped jurisdictions.

Half a century after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that this society permits children-of-color and children-of-poverty to attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by both the state and the nation and that misguided business model accountability measures threaten to do even further harm. This practice constitutes “difference made legal”.

It is no longer a mystery that the most effective schools tend to be blessed with greater resources – both human and material – the only mystery is why our political structure cannot achieve consensus on how to make those resources available to every child in every school. This despite the mandate of Article 8 in the Constitution of Maryland “The General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.”

The passion that helped fill the streets of Annapolis in support of the Thornton recommendations must be rekindled, and we must call on our legislators to have the courage to stand for all children. Article 8, too, is a promissory note, not unlike the one described in Dr. King’s most famous speech. Maryland has made great strides in moving toward equity in the schoolhouse, though to be truly just on the moral plane, a thorough and efficient system of free public schools must render “sameness” legal for all parties.


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette in 2015.]