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.

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