School & District Management Opinion

The White House Is of Two Minds When It Comes to Bullying

By Anthony Cody — March 10, 2011 5 min read
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The White House today launched a conference focused on fighting bullying in our schools. I found this definition of bullying here:

Bullying is when someone keeps doing or saying things to have power over another person. Some of the ways they bully other people are by: calling them names, saying or writing nasty things about them, leaving them out of activities, not talking to them, threatening them, making them feel uncomfortable or scared, taking or damaging their things, hitting or kicking them, or making them do things they don't want to do.

We have a White House with a split personality.

Today I heard First Lady Michelle Obama speak eloquently of the model we must set for our children. She said that as parents, we need to show compassion for others and treat one another as we would like to be treated ourselves.

This is such a deep issue, and the root of it is our empathy for others - our capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s place, and understand how they might feel.
And on a deeper level, to identify with them, to share their feelings even when we are NOT in their situation. And the response to bullying is twofold. Those who are being bullied need to stand up to the bullies. They should defy those who threaten them, or call them names. Because often times, the best cure for the bully is when the victim stands up and defends himself. And those not being bullied should step forward as allies to those being picked upon. They should stand in solidarity with the underdogs, and not allow the bullies to isolate their victims.

Michelle Obama is correct when she says this is a deep practice that we need to carry with us into all of our relationships. The most important way we teach is through our behavior, and the way we treat others, especially those with less power than us.

We have all seen how bullies operate. They scan the scene and size up the crowd. They identify the most vulnerable kids - the ones with some obvious flaws. The kid who is fat, has big ears, or is of a different race than the majority. It is important that the victim be isolated. And what is in the minds of those not targeted? “Whew!” A sense of relief - glad that’s not me! And as the bully inflicts pain, those not targeted look away, and feel a mixture of pity and contempt for the victim.

Unfortunately, while our White House is four-square against individual bullies in our schools, it is guilty of supporting bullying of some of our schools. In America, it is the schools of poverty who have become the fat kids with big ears. No Child Left Behind and the leaders of “education reform” have preached that if a school has low test scores, it is because of the ineffective teachers. The solution therefore is to threaten those teachers and administrators with public scorn, labeling their schools as failures, and ultimately “turning around” their schools by firing the principal and/or half the teachers. This is classic bullying behavior. There is very little compassion towards the teachers working in these schools, and no consideration for the issues related to the proportion of the students who are English language learners, who are below the poverty level and affected by hunger and violence on a daily basis. And I believe the labeling of the schools, and subsequent closures, have the effect of disrupting the education of thousands of students, when what they need is more stability in their lives.

The problem with NCLB is that it has moved into a phase where soon every school in America will be the kid with big ears. And this is not just bad policy, it is impractical as a strategy for bullying.

In the very same news segment this morning was the image of Secretary Duncan warning members of Congress that more than 80% of our nation’s schools are going to be labeled as failures next year. His purpose in doing this was to convince lawmakers that they ought to “fix” the law so fewer schools are targeted in this way. The MSNBC news reader missed that distinction, and simply reported that “next year, 80% of the schools in the nation will be failures.”

But unfortunately Secretary Duncan and President Obama have made it clear that they are not opposed to the basic practice of labeling schools as failures. Secretary Duncan wants to change NCLB so that states will be required to identify the bottom 5% to 10% of schools each year, and these will be the ones targeted. Then they will be subjected, not only to the humiliation of this stigmatizing label, but also to the pain of having their principal and/or half their staff fired as they are “turned around.”

Not surprisingly, this approach does not have a record of success. In Chicago, Mr. Duncan closed down 61 schools with low test scores, but followup research that tracked the students from these schools showed they did no better as a result.

Many educators have called for more flexible approaches to these challenges. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s proposal was introduced last summer, and called for more supports for these schools, rather than the punitive approach now in place. More recently, the Forum on Educational Accountability has offered a detailed response to the administration’s proposal.

Just as with our schoolyard bullies, the correct response to bullying behavior is for the victims to stand up and refuse to be intimidated. Teachers, parents and students at these schools should stand together and reject the false labels that reduce school quality to a set of standardized test scores. That does NOT mean we should be satisfied with low student abilities as revealed by these tests. But we do not get anywhere by the tactics of name-calling, labeling and arbitrary firings that are the hallmark of NCLB. Furthermore, if Secretary Duncan is successful in revising the law so that it lets 80% to 90% of our schools off the hook, the response for those of us at those schools should NOT be “Whew, glad that’s not me any more!” It should be “Wow. I remember how awful and useless that label felt.”

Just as our children should stand with the victims of the schoolyard bully, parents and teachers at schools that escape the “failing” label should stand with those left behind, those fat kids with big ears, the schools with the vast majority of their children living in poverty.

We will have a chance to show our support for one another, and stand up to the bullying tactics of No Child Left Behind this July, at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

What do you think? Is No Child Left Behind responsible for bullying high-poverty schools? Will it be improved if we only label the bottom 5% of schools as failures?

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.