School & District Management Opinion

John Kuhn: America, Stop Making Excuses for Inequality

By Anthony Cody — February 01, 2012 11 min read
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Guest post by John Kuhn.

Part Two of two.

I ended the last posting with a list of possible causes of the superior academic results seen in Highland Park ISD as compared to Everman ISD. In this posting, I want to talk at length about causality, because it is at the core.

The battle line over causality, like all battle lines, is defined by two sides. One side shouts, “It’s poverty, stupid,” and the other shouts, “Quit making excuses and get results.” Who to side with?

There are two main reasons I side with the poverty faction (not including the fact that I am a teacher and tend to hate it on principle when non-teachers tell me I am terrible at what I do.)

The first reason is simple. To use a baseball analogy, rich and middle-class kids from stable families are fastballs over the plate. We tend to hit them out of the park with regularity. Poor kids, on the other hand, are knuckleballs and rising curveballs. The poorer they are, the nastier the junk. Poverty, in my first-hand experience, makes a HUGE difference in the classroom. In general, homework gets done more consistently if you aren’t poor; notes get taken; tests get studied for; parent phone calls get answered; parent conferences are actually attended; commitments are made by parents and followed-through-on; online grades are checked; parent-initiated phone calls are received; questions about grades get asked; supplies are provided from home and not from the teacher’s mug of cruddy free pencils.

If you are a reformer, you are likely tempted to say, “So what? Baseball players don’t make excuses. They either hit the ball or they get sent down to the minors.” But here’s my philosophical rub: baseball players face an opponent. There is another team trying to strike them out. I’m left with a fundamental question: in the field of American education, who is trying to make teachers strike out? Who is the opponent throwing this junk? And why don’t they just stop?

Everyone you talk to says they want us to hit homeruns. No one self-identifies as the opponent. As far as I can tell, an opponent of education doesn’t exist. But these factors that challenge the education of our children keep arising nonetheless. School reformers seem to believe that these pitches are magical and immutable. God is the one throwing the heat, and who are we to tell Him to stop? Poverty has no origin. It has no cure. It cannot be ameliorated or minimized. And any teacher who breathes the p-word, “that which must not be named,” is just making excuses.

I say baloney. Poverty can be contained; it’s just that no one wants to do it. “Inequality is inevitable” would make a really pathetic national motto, wouldn’t it? So quit screaming at me to put out these fires faster and admit just once that there’s an arsonist on the loose.
The only problem many are willing to acknowledge is bad batting. They wear jerseys with our logo on them, jerseys that say “Students First” and have pictures of apples and the whole bit. Everyone--everyone--says positive outcomes for children are “the most important thing in the world.” But none of this changes the fact that someone is still out there throwing junk over the plate, still trying to make teachers fail in accomplishing “the most important thing in the world,” and no one is lifting a finger to stop him. I’m left with the disheartening belief that the reformers’ commitment to success for all students crumbles when they are asked to do anything more strenuous than condemn others. Ask them to work for some meaningful improvement in the life conditions of students and they, ahem, balk.

Accountability is only for the teachers in our modern republic. There is no visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn that, while many are content to pretend it doesn’t exist, nonetheless devastates kids in Everman far more than it devastates kids in Highland Park. We batters are supposed to live with these nasty pitches; we are supposed to accept poverty as “part of the deal.” There will be no hue and cry in opposition to inequality. And to that I can only say, “Why?”

When Dr. Steve Perry titles a book No One is Coming to Save Us, I can only ask myself why he has given up so easily on equality and the moral imperative of social justice. In surrendering equality and embracing the inevitability of poverty, so many who think they are serving the interests of poor children have traded their birthrights for a bowl of soup (or a stack of standardized tests).

The myth of the Bee-eater is that the outcome of kids is so important that any and all obstacles to their success should be confronted. But that doesn’t appear to be the case when it comes to obstacles that aren’t teachers.

If you contend that poverty and inequity are “part of the deal,” to be lived with and accepted, then I think you are either cruel or you possess a deficiency of moral courage. If you say--as an acquaintance on Twitter recently argued--that inequity is inevitable, then I think you’re an enabler for the 1%. If you stand in the public square and say schools must change but society must not, you are a fraud and you aren’t fixing anything. After all, there are many places on this green Earth (brace for Finland reference) where inequity is much less pronounced than in the USA. Apparently inequity isn’t inevitable everywhere. And before you jerk that knee and say, “But Finland is homogeneous,” let me just telegraph to you that my reply will be: “So you’re saying America would be more equitable if it weren’t for all the black people?” (I like to say that we are just as homogeneous as Finland because we are all people here. I don’t subscribe to the prominent philosophy that accepts different treatment of other races as the norm.)

The “quit making excuses” refrain rubs me the wrong way because my “excuse” is the straightforward statement that kids run more slowly in flip-flops than they do in Nikes, no matter how hard I coach them, and that it’s pure, cowardly nonsense to say this nation can’t give every kid in flip flops a better pair of shoes. When did it become fashionable to throw in the towel on equality in the USA? When did we all agree that Thomas Jefferson missed the mark when he said “All men are created equal”? When did we decide that egalitarianism was no longer a worthy aim for our democracy?

The quick dismissiveness of so many regarding the “excuses” of soul-searing inequality and bone-grinding poverty leads me to believe that they aren’t really interested in finding solutions for our children unless the solutions are as convenient as firing 5% of our public school teachers or maybe opening some lucrative charter chains.

I’ll ask a question I’ve asked before: if accountability is good for our schools, then isn’t it also good for our society? If bad teachers can be identified and fired, then surely bad policy can be identified and repealed. Benchmarks for statistical progress can survive outside the confines of our public schools, can they not? Or is school the only place in all of America where we are willing to demand improvement and levy stiff consequences for its failure to materialize?

Under NCLB, teachers and schools have been on trial continuously for 10 years. But poverty and inequity haven’t had a single day in court. Reams of data have been collected and then paraded before teachers with the question, “What are you going to do about this?” But who of the prominent school reformers has taken the time to parade the readily available data pertaining to school funding inequities and say, “You know, it isn’t enough to hold teachers accountable. Our public policy needs a close look too. Policymakers should be held to account”?

If you’re in a rowboat that’s sinking, it seems to me that you wouldn’t waste time arguing about whether you should bail water or plug the leak. It doesn’t have to be either-or. Seems that you would let those who think plugging the leak is vital to get about that and those who think bailing water is vital to be about that. In the words of John Thompson in comments here, folks should “play their own position.” Listening to policy wonks talk about what teachers should be doing is a lot like listening to white people expound on problems in the African-American community. It is perhaps the least productive and most offensive way of trying to fix something. Yet teachers have acceded (because they had no choice) to the machinations of the policy wonks. But policy has yet to accede to the demands of teachers for accountability on the other end.

I sum up the prevailing narrative in American education policy this way: “Teachers, you must be accountable; policy-makers, eh, do the best you can.”

Every time Diane Ravitch or a teacher brings up poverty, you can count on some wag to say something like the declaration in the comments section after one article that “we should not wait until all our nation’s social differences are erased to take more steps to improve schools,” as if Diane Ravitch or any teacher has ever actually argued for that. What teachers say is, “Please, tend to poverty. We’re dying here.” And the reform movement’s callous reply is “Shut up and teach harder.” If we say, “Hey, while you’re holding us accountable, could you also demand action on the poverty/inequity issue?” we can expect to be summarily ignored. Poverty will not be addressed, thank you very much. The curveballs will not cease. Learn to hit them or go home.

But you and I well know that teachers will never hit the curveballs like we hit good pitches. And each one of those kids who isn’t a home run is a real person, with a real future, good or bad. And we don’t get those pitches back. So you can pile the guilt on me and my colleagues if you want. And you can wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first. You can puff yourself up and assure Oprah Winfrey and all your snooty friends that you are better and more pure than the sorry teachers like me and every last member of my blood family, regular middle-class people who pollute every town in America with our mediocrity. But I see through you. We are your scapegoat; we make you feel better about being privileged in a nation where many are not. “If it weren’t for bad teachers,” you say, so that you may avoid saying, “If it weren’t for people like me.”

This all comes to me in the context of a Texas funding system that funnels more money to a child’s school if it’s in a wealthier community, and less if not. Contrary to popular straw men, no one is saying, “Fix poverty and only then hold me accountable.” We have said (or tried to say), “Hey, while you’re beating the tar out of me with all this accountability, would you mind terribly slapping society on the wrist for the outside factors that simultaneously influence these test scores (which, incidentally, you’ll be using to fire me someday)?” And as long as enough education wonks dismiss truly diabolical schemes like Texas’s Target Revenue funding system as nothing more than a lazy teacher’s excuse, such poxes won’t get cured. The curveballs will be incoming. And my friends and I will keep swinging (and all too often missing).

Why is there not a parallel system of accountability for public policy that affects learning? After all, no one honestly believes that test scores are solely affected by teaching; yet no one proposes that we use these same test scores to identify other weaknesses in our democracy. Why aren’t we bailing water AND plugging the leak? In the strange reality of these education debates, any proposed effort to ameliorate poverty is seemingly rejected out-of-hand, on the off chance that helping poor kids might accidentally bless teachers with a kind of collateral beneficence.

So what I argue for is the fairly obvious concept of shared causality. The poor scores of poor children are not caused merely by bad teachers, but by a variety of factors, all of which can be remedied (but not all of which can be remedied by teachers).

Surely the day will come when it is considered simplistic and unproductive to insist that bad teaching is the sole or even greatest source of our educational woes. Surely some of the attention will one day get fixed in the direction of that other giant causal agent, inequality.

And if shared causality is acknowledged to be real, then it follows that there must be shared accountability for the outcomes of our children. Every actor whose fingerprints are on these children should be held equally responsible for the results of his or her actions. The fact that Texas lawmakers can routinely invest $7 million dollars more educating 6,000 kids in a rich neighborhood that they spend educating 6,000 kids in a poor neighborhood and NOT be faced with relentless cries of “Inadequate Progress” or “Unacceptable” speaks volumes to me. The fact that school reformers can’t find the time or energy to speak out against systematic fiscal child abuse--yet also can’t stop rooting out a tiny proportion of bad teachers in a select subgroup of our schools--leaves me little choice but to ascribe to dark conspiracy theories about the deliberate undermining of the American public school system.

The children’s song “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” never ends. After starting by singing “There’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza,” Henry and his wife go through a list of steps needed to fix the hole, the last of which is fetching a bucket of water. That, of course, takes them back to the beginning.

The education reform debate is like that. But it’s even worse because we disagree over which lyric truly begins the sad tune: “There’s poverty, Dear Arne” or “There’s bad teaching, Dear Diane.” The chicken-and-egg nature of the debate may never end, but sensible folks should hedge their bets and insist that one not be addressed without also addressing the other, and with equal attentiveness and urgency.

John Kuhn is Superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Independent School District in Texas. Last year he spoke out on the steps of the Capitol in Austin, and was featured in this interview here.

What do you think? Are teachers being used as scapegoats by a society unwilling to address systemic inequality? How can we change this song?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.