Assessment Opinion

I am Educator, Hear Me Roar! An Interview with John Kuhn

By Anthony Cody — March 23, 2011 15 min read
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A week ago, a friend shared a video with me of a school superintendent giving a fiery speech at a Save Texas Schools rally. That is how I met the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt School District, John Kuhn.

After watching this video, I felt I had to get to know this man. He responds to my questions below.

Question: You have become widely known due to your Letter from Alamo. Can you explain the circumstances that led you to write this?

A Texas state senator spoke to a group of administrators in Austin back in February. It just so happens that this senator is the chair of a couple of very important education-related committees and is a former school teacher. As a result, she is kind of seen as an “education expert” among our legislators. This particular senator, however, has been at the forefront of drafting policies that I see as counterproductive for our public schools: she has pushed for more and more high stakes testing, and less and less funding. She also has advocated for maintaining the Target Revenue System, which is a school funding scheme in Texas that gives certain schools more funding than others, seemingly at random. In Texas, the luckiest schools have a Target Revenue of $12,000 per student and the unluckiest schools have a Target Revenue of $4,000--but all schools are held to the same hard-and-fast standards when it comes to state and federal accountability measures. It’s unjust on the face of it.

So, going into this meeting, I was already angry about the moral underpinnings of our whole system. It just all seems like a parody of bad government to me, like something you’d read in a dystopian novel like 1984 or A Brave New World--except that it’s real.

So this senator spoke to us and, after letting us know that there will be severe funding cuts due to the economic downturn--and never once mentioning the 2006 school funding tax swap that she and her colleagues adopted which capped property tax rates and slashed 1/3 of schools’ revenue, replacing it with a business tax that generated billions less than what was cut (and which was labeled at that time by our state comptroller as “the biggest hot check in state history”)--she then began to talk about a pet project of hers: the new State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test. She spoke about it with a gleam in her eyes, as though it were her new grandbaby. And then she said a word that pushed me over the edge. After having spoken at length about making hard decisions and sacrificing and cutting local budgets, she bragged that spending on STAAR was “non-negotiable.” Teachers’ jobs are on the line, but not the precious test. I had trouble getting on board with her priorities.

She took questions at the end of her presentation, and I let her know my concerns. I pointed out to her that I had given myself a 10% pay cut and would be cutting positions soon, and I asked if anyone at Pearson (the firm that makes the test) would be taking a pay cut. I told her she was “saving the test but not the teachers.”

Her responses to my (probably impertinent) questions left me even more concerned and frustrated than I had already been. Anyway, this particular senator has been a steadfast critic of public schools, calling us inefficient and creating layer upon layer of bureaucracy to watch over us and micromanage everything we do. This session she has often repeated a dubious statistic about the “1-to-1 ratio” of teachers to non-teachers in Texas schools, and how that ratio was 4-to-1 back in the 1970s--never mind the fact that a.) the state’s statistics in the 1970s didn’t include lunch ladies, bus drivers, and other non-teachers, creating a false comparison, and b.) the amount of bureaucratic nonsense and inflexible accountability measures piled on Texas schools beginning in the 1980s has created countless man hours of reporting and testing paperwork and has led schools to hire testing coordinators, math coaches, parent involvement coordinators, etc. When this senator implies that the state of Texas is broke because superintendents like me just go wild hiring unnecessary non-teachers, it feels very much like I’m being slapped for doing what the senators forced me to do. I feel like public school officials are the Official Scapegoat of Texas.

So, in short, I got my belly full. I went back to my hotel room that night and wrote the Alamo letter. I have written a million rants about government insanity in guiding educational policy over the course of my career, but I have always deleted them after venting. But not this time--I typed that bad boy out and sent it to my hometown paper and to Diane Ravitch, to heck with it. And it ended up on Valerie Strauss’s blog at the Washington Post website. Then I spent about three nights not sleeping and asking myself, “What have I done?” But, even as I was pretty sure I was going to die from a heart attack over the near-certainty I would lose my job, I was kind of glad I had taken the things we school people gripe to each other about and put it out there for everyone to read. A wise superintendent friend once told me that teachers who complain to each other in the teachers’ lounge don’t really want things to change, they just want to gripe; but those who want things to be better will actually voice their concerns to the people who have the ability to fix them. So that’s why I wrote the letter--I’m begging our legislators to quit driving us down what I believe is the fundamentally wrong trail.

Question: What has been the effect of NCLB on children in your district?

Well, they get to take plenty of bubble tests, and if they do poorly they get lots of remediation in the core areas that get tested. I guess NCLB has ensured that our teachers and administrators feel lots of pressure to perform on these tests. Like everyone else, we do diagnostic benchmarking and use released tests in the classroom to get ready. Like someone (I think it was Matt Damon, actually) recently said, we are doing less teaching of kids and more training of them, with an eye toward that test. I’m not blaming our teachers, though, for “teaching to the test,” as I have often heard parents and citizens bash the schools for doing. Our leaders have created this creepy environment where standardized test scores are the great false god. If I raised my kids at home according to the prevailing philosophies, we would have a simplistic scoring device for how effectively my kids did their chores--ignoring every other, less measurable way they show me that they love me--and I would then meter out hugs accordingly. If I were to establish such a dazzlingly, nauseatingly wrong system at home, I couldn’t very well then turn around and criticize my kids for adopting certain mechanical approaches to getting the results I wanted, could I?

So of course teachers are going to teach to the test, and even more so when those scores are tied to them personally (coming soon to a Texas public school near you!) As we move forward, I see the electives withering on the vine and the classroom increasingly becoming a place where kids work on “fundamentals” like they do on the football practice field--after all, that high-stakes test IS the big game, and the consequences of losing are very real.

Question: What do you see as the positives and negatives of current education reform efforts in your state and across the country?

First, I am not against accountability, just the incredibly convoluted, inefficient, and mean-spirited kind of accountability we have right now. In my mind, we should treat teachers the way we want them to treat students. But we don’t. We ask them to encourage and remediate and support kids while we whip, label and threaten them. So the positives would have to be that teachers work hard (which they always did anyway in the rural school I grew up in), and that the top-down pressure has led schools to align their curriculum and really look at what they are teaching. The negatives are huge, however.

First, accountability has narrowed our focus down to--in Texas--just four subjects. It doesn’t matter to Texas if kids learn anything in any subject but math, science, social studies, and language arts. Therefore, the only saving grace in the arts and foreign languages and vocational classes and athletics is that we have passionate people teaching those subjects who really care about their students and their subjects. And that is the core of my disdain for this ugly baby called accountability--if the test-and-label philosophy really worked, then you would think there would be far worse teaching going on outside the core classes, but there isn’t generally. Why? Because good teachers are motivated by passion and a moral sense of mission, not by the threats of absent bureaucrats.

We are putting the wrong fuel in our car--it runs best on support, and we are gassing up with intimidation and blame. We are going to burn up this engine by making education a place where only hyper-competitive type-A individuals can feel comfortable, while all of those wonderfully kind and dedicated, supportive people who were born to teach abandon the classroom in search of a kinder profession where their skill sets are valued.

The other major gripe I have is this: if we really believed that accountability works, wouldn’t we have accountability for all public servants? Why do we not require our legislators to make “Adequate Yearly Progress”? We have the data from their congressional districts, do we not? There is crime data, health care data, poverty figures, and drug use statistics for every state and federal legislative district. Why, exactly, do we not establish annual targets for our legislators to meet? We could eliminate 100% of poverty, crime, drug abuse, and preventable illness by 2014!

If accountability is the answer, we must move from the selective accountability that merely targets schools to a universal accountability that targets all players. We know that poverty, illness, crime, and addiction in the home all have a direct impact on the educability of our students--when legislators fail, schools fail. But we only blame the second domino to fall--it seems very cynical to me. It appears that accountability is currently more about finding a convenient scapegoat for our national failings than about really solving problems. I will believe this as long as we hold teachers accountable and not legislators. (I know that a legislator would instinctively say he or she is held accountable at election time, but an election is not remotely like an education-style accountability measure--when superintendents get their contracts renewed, we have a state-assigned label stamped on our foreheads. When politicians go out for re-election, they get to define themselves for voters, sans a state-issued label as to their fitness to serve. This happened recently in Texas, when our governor ran ads touting Texas’ huge budget surpluses, which we discovered shortly after his re-election were actually huge shortfalls. Educators can’t participate in those kind of games when their contracts are up--we have a label that we can’t explain away. If this kind of system truly works to create positive outcomes, why do we not apply it to other public servants?)

Question: You seem unusually outspoken for an administrator. Have you experienced any repercussions?

My community and school board have supported me, and educators around Texas--as well as nationally--have emailed, called and written letters of support. It’s been inspirational. I have received one letter expressing disappointment that I spoke at the Texas Rally to Save Public schools. There have been a few vicious comments posted in the comments sections of articles about the Alamo letter, but I don’t take anonymous commenters very seriously. One superintendent indicated in an interview that he felt my letter was inappropriate--he’s probably right, but appropriate behavior is what got us here. My contention is that quiet meetings in legislators’ offices with frustrated school people asking for support has gotten us the current Rube Goldberg systems. I personally want the general public to be aware of these machinations and the back room legislative wheeler-dealing that gives rise to clearly immoral and self-defeating policies such as the Target Revenue System. I can’t bring myself to believe that the average person wants a standardized-test-centric, blame-the-teachers-for-all-social-ills education for their kids. I am tired of educators’ silence allowing the public to blindly criticize teachers and local schools for the effects of elected officials’ foolish decisions. If elected officials want to play the blame game--and boy do they!--then I’m going to play it with them. There is enough blame to go around.

Question: How do you weigh the decision to speak out in this way?

I say what I believe to be true. And I’m willing to live with the consequences.

Question: Feel free to extemporize if there is something more you would like to share that I have not asked.

I have always believed that if a person has the audacity to accept the mantle of leadership, they’d better have the courage to lead. Unfortunately, many of my state elected officials play games and issue half-true sound bites rather than exhibiting true leadership. The greater good is dying on the floor while they preen and play to their fan clubs. (They use the word “constituents” because it sounds more grown up than “fan clubs.”) It’s all very sad to me, because historically we did education right, and now American education is writhing in hideous deformity on the experimenters’ table while other countries do it right. And it’s a vicious cycle: the more they mess things up, the more eagerly they then come at us with more clumsy surgeries to “fix” us.

I would like to note an incident that gave rise to my speech in Austin. Following the publication of the Alamo letter, I was invited to speak at a college here, and I spoke just before a nationally-known school reformer who is a high school principal. So he spoke about how he got miraculous results in his school, and how 100% of his students went on to four-year colleges, etc. It was all very inspirational. And then, in the middle of his speech, he felt the need to say, “I don’t work at a charter school, either. I work at a public high school.”

The implication was clear--he plays be the same rules as public school principals, he just gets better results. We all play the same game, he’s just a better coach.

So I was troubled when I got home. I was a public school principal for several years, and I couldn’t get 100% of my students to graduate, much less go to college. And I worked hard! What was he doing that I didn’t do?

So I went to his school’s website and I saw an interesting button on the home page. “Apply now!” it said. Weird, I thought. Nobody “applies” at my school. So I clicked on it and discovered that his “public” school is actually a “public magnet” school.

He strategically left out that important detail in his speech.

You have to apply and be accepted to get into his school; you only have to breathe and live in the district to go to my school. If you don’t toe the line at his school, this golden child principal will--wait for it--send you back to the public school! He drafts his players and I play with the Bad News Bears over here, and then he sticks his chest out and tells us all what a skilled coach he is.

In short, he deliberately, calculatingly lied by omission to an unsuspecting audience.

And that’s when I realized that the school reform movement is populated by self-promoting snake oil salesmen, and our elected officials are buying their tonic by the truckload. It’s hard for me to watch this train wreck slowly unfold.

The narrative of the school reformer is a simple formula: kids are victims, teachers are the villains, and some administrator is the messianic hero. A dynamic personality comes into a bad school and doesn’t accept mediocrity. He or she cleans up the discipline and fires all the bad teachers, confronting the wicked teachers’ union along the way. The hero is this lone special individual and the administrative mechanisms the he or she put in place. It is, basically, the Heroic Ballad of the Bureaucrat. It sells books and dupes legislators. It makes people rich. It only requires a certain amount of arrogance and duplicity to pull it off. It relies on the same dangerous logic that tyrants use to justify lording over peasants and restricting their liberties. In this case, the benign dictator is a self-promoting principal or superintendent with all the answers, and the poor clueless peasants in dire need of a paternalistic leader are the teachers.

The narrative I cling to is also simple, but it doesn’t make anyone rich. It would also make for a remarkably boring book. In my ballad, kids are still the victims, but bureaucracy is the enemy. Legislators too afraid to accept responsibility for the persistence of poverty, crime, poor health care, and methamphetamine addiction are the villains, eager only to place blame and not willing or able to actually fix things. And the passionate, beleaguered teachers picking up the pieces in their classrooms day after day are the heroes. My story plays out over years, with a million tiny acts of heroism, each one too small on its own to matter much--but when all of them are put together, how they speak powerfully of a life well-spent! These are the teachers I am sticking up for. And my story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. 100% of my kids don’t go to a four-year college. Some of them become house framers or work for our local oilfield companies. But they grow up and raise families and go to church and serve on the school board. They are successes in every sense of the word. And there are others who aren’t. Some of my students have gone to prison. Some struggle with addiction. My ballad isn’t tidy.

But, the nice thing is, I don’t have to leave out inconvenient details when I sing my ballad. The assumption that the school reform movement doesn’t permit negative outcomes requires you to believe that they fix kids when the hard, unmentionable truth is that they cull them. And I take the culled ones and do the best I can with them. And I’m good with this arrangement because you can’t spin the story when you stand before God. God sees through the omissions and knows that the reformer above runs a magnet school and that I take all comers. He can convince the politicians and his readers if he wants to. I’m good with that. I’ll soldier on.

UPDATE: John Kuhn has endorsed the Save Our Schools March and will engage in a conversation with us at an upcoming free webinar, scheduled for 8 pm Eastern time, Sunday, April 10. Register here.

What do you think? Has this Texas superintendent spoken for you? He speaks for me!

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.