Monday, September 13, 2010

Blame the Kids

It’s funny how the start of school also marks the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. What isn’t funny is how so many politicians running for office blame kids for our faltering economy.

It’s an all too familiar story—when America has a problem, we often choose to blame the victim. That seems to be exactly what is being done in the rhetoric on the campaign trail these days. If only our schools will improve the economy will improve. If kids step up their games, study harder, get better grades and test scores, somehow this will make everything all right.


We have heard this blather before. Remember “A Nation At Risk” and the rising tide of mediocrity that threatened the American way of life? That was 1983 and the National Commission on Excellence in Education wanted schools and teachers to buckle down and work harder, because if not the economy would crash.

Of course, when the economy turned around in the early 1990s there were no parades and celebrations to honor the hard work of our kids and teachers. No, just more bleating about how bad schools are and the beginnings of the press for more standards, testing, and ‘accountability.’

I am thinking about this at the start of this school year as we begin to see the effects of the current economy show up at our doors.

For several families that have brought us children we are having a difficult time proving residency in the district—because they have moved in with sisters, aunts, parents, whoever has room for a family of five whose parents have lost their jobs. The oil spill in New Orleans brought us a child as well, all the way from the gulf to southern Ohio.

I am happy to have these children. Their parents come to us on the chance that we can shelter them from the turbulence of their changed conditions; and the hope that we can provide them with an education that will turn things around.

But I am unhappy that so much seems to rest with us.

In case you have not noticed, the welfare of our children is not well these days. The recent report by the Casey Foundation points out that nearly 20% of children live in poverty, over 10% live in a home with and unemployed parent, and over 16 million were ‘food insecure’ (as in hungry) during the past year. What is important to note is that on the ten indicators of childhood welfare the Casey Foundation tracks there has been little improvement since 2000; as compared with drastic improvement from 1996 to 2000.

It is not a stretch to point out that when the economy catches a cold, many kids are headed for the emergency room. But what is a stretch is to blame it on the kids.

I visited Detroit last month; I grew up near there and make an annual pilgrimage to see a Tigers’ game and wander the streets. Once again it broke my heart. Woodward Avenue, the route we would take with our parents to buy school clothes in the big city, is lined with empty and abandoned buildings. Houses are boarded up and dilapidated. The only vibrant businesses seem to be the check cashing services, six of which I counted in one block.

I had to wonder—how do you convince a child to do more math or read more books when s/he walks past a shuttered and burned out public library every day? And why do we put it all on the shoulders of these children and their teachers? Clearly they are not to blame for the abandonment of Detroit, or New Orleans, or our rural areas.

Our economy did not collapse under the weight of under performing schools or kids. Industry did not flee the country, first to Mexico and then to Asia, for better-educated workers. No, they went for cheaper labor. And the mythology about the Asian ‘miracle’, how many engineers they educate, etc. simply collapses under the evidence. Evidence of grotesque working and environmental conditions in China and the so called engineering graduates in the developing world who would not qualify in this country to fix your car.

So as long as we keep blaming kids and schools for our economic woes we will refrain from actually doing something about them. Things like fixing trade policies that allow jobs to flee to low-wage, anti-union countries; things like investing in renewable energy and infrastructure jobs; things like actually asking the rich in this nation to pay their taxes.

That may be too much to ask. But I know what I will not ask. I will not ask the teachers and kids I work with every day to take the blame for the unethical and immoral acts of the investment bankers, mortgage brokers, and industrialists who brought this nation to its economic knees.

Instead I will try to help them do their best to stand up to the half-truths and shaky logic that blames them for a world they did not create.

Not So Smart, ALEC

The recent headline in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press was sent to me by my good friend Carl Glickman: “Low-income Vt. students rank No. 1: Report faults state on education reform.”

It seems that despite the gains made by the kids in Vermont, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) gave the state an “F” for education reform. Incredulous, I decided to check out ALEC’s web site for verification. Guess what, while they give Vermont their #1 “performance ranking” they actually give Vermont a grade of “D”, dead last, on education reform.

I have often thought that debates about public education go on in an ‘evidence-free’ zone, but this takes the cake!

To understand how this first to last phenomenon occurs, you have to see how the smart guys and gals at ALEC come up with their ratings. The performance rating, the one that puts Vermont on top, comes from student gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams over the period of 2003 to 2009. In particular, they look to see what states help low-income children increase their scores the most. Like tests or not, congratulations to Vermont and its teachers for their good work.

But when it comes to rating education reform, ideology, not data, raises its ugly head.

Seems that ALEC has an agenda here, with private school choice, charter school availability, online learning, homeschooling, and alternative routes to teaching certification making up 8 out of 13 categories (or over 60%) of the grade. Three more of the categories come from how well ALEC thinks a state does on retaining effective teachers and firing ineffective ones and two others rate the state’s education standards. Because Vermont does not buy the political agenda of ALEC around school choice, charters, and alternative certification they get a “D”. Tough graders, these guys. (“Teacher, I go the answers right, why did I get a bad grade.” “Because I didn’t like how you did it.”)

After digging through ALEC’s so-called “Report Card on American Education” (and please, click here to read it, just in case you don’t believe me) I am amazed at the paucity of evidence that the education reform ratings are based upon. There is no evidence that school choice, charters, alternative routes to teaching, etc. necessarily improve student performance. In fact, as Diane Ravitch, formerly a supporter of such agendas, has pointed out there is actually evidence that these strategies hurt the educational attainment of our children.

Of course, maybe ALEC’s report card is the best evidence we could have that such strategies do not work. Take a look at the top five states for student performance and the grades/ranking that ALEC gives them for education reform: Vermont rates #1 in performance but gets a “D” in reform; Massachusetts #2 for performance, “C” in reform; Florida #3 in performance, B+ in reform; New Hampshire #4 in performance, “C” in reform; and New York at #5 in performance earns a “D+” in reform.

For even better evidence that the reforms ALEC supports should be avoided at all costs, here are the bottom five states: Louisiana #47 in performance earns a “B” in reform; New Mexico #48 for performance gets a “B” in reform as does the #49 state, Michigan; West Virginia ranked 50th in performance earns a “C” for reform and South Carolina, coming in at 51st in performance (includes the District of Columbia) is near the top of the education reform rankings with a “B”. (“B+” was the highest ranking given, and Vermont’s “D” was the lowest, no grading on a curve for these guys).

Being from Ohio, I had to also take a peek at our scores. We ranked 35th in performance, but forgive me for not being surprised that we earned a “B-“ for our school reform efforts. The report’s authors must have been supremely impressed by our charter school laws, the topic of yet another scandal this week.

The authors of ALEC’s report card (who come to us from the Goldwater and Heritage Foundations) are to be thanked. They have provided all the evidence we need to show that the emperor, this time in the guise of the charter/choice/alternative certificate crowd, has no clothes. I just hope someone tells the people of Vermont.