The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal just published an article titled, “Clinton Abandons the Middle on Education.” The author, Mr. Peterson, is a senior editor at Education Next and he is a professor at Harvard University. Peterson makes the case that Hillary Clinton’s education policy plan is more in alignment with teacher union leaders as opposed to rank and file teachers and to Democrats themselves. He writes that “the party also promises that it will end the ‘test and punish version of accountability,’ and that the platform “includes a full paragraph of ideas” to regulate charter schools. Somehow, Mr. Peterson took the phrase, “recognize and honor all the professionals who work in public schools…” from the Democratic platform and parlayed that into: “suggesting that every teacher does a terrific job.” It’s odd, because I took the time to read the Democratic platform on education and nowhere does it state or imply “every teacher does a terrific job.”

Education Next conducted a survey of 700 teachers and 3,500 “other Americans,” with the results to be published next week. Using the results of this survey, Mr. Peterson seems intent on driving a wedge between “platform-committee Democrats” and “rank-and-file adherents,” citing that 80% of the rank and file supported “all students be tested in math and reading each year.” Apparently Republicans had similar results in this survey.

As an educational leader, I like surveys to help inform my decision-making to foster a better learning environment for my students. However, I do not like surveys that seem to have a political agenda. Just think if you were one of the survey participants (one of the 3,500 Americans). When asked if students should be tested in math and reading each year, would you answer no? Of course not. What if the survey question read as follows: “Do you think that ALL students (without regard for disability) should take high stakes tests in math and reading each year and any student who does not meet academic benchmarks will be retained for that academic year?” For some Florida third graders, this was a reality. Several students were going to be retained (not promoted to 4th grade) because their parents chose to “opt them out” of the state tests. Thanks to some parents who sued the school district, the school district administration changed their minds and are now allowing the third graders to move on to fourth grade.

The hit job from Mr. Peterson continues by stating that “57% of Democrats nationwide said they supported ‘basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn.’” One would think that the percentage seems a little low. Again, who would think that if the students aren’t learning, the teachers shouldn’t get their full salary — or worse, they should be fired? What does that 43% know that the 57% doesn’t? Perhaps they know that in 2014, the American Statistical Association released a statement that read in part, “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores,” and that “ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” So, basing part of a teacher’s salary on how much their students learn on a standardized test isn’t supported by research, and in fact, may have “unintended consequences.”

So, where do we go from here? George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” is now in the dump heap as one of the worst educational initiatives, only to be followed by the worst educational initiative (a waiver from NCLB) — Obama’s “Race To The Top.” In December of 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which ostensibly returns the lion share of responsibility of educating students to the states. However, Education Secretary John King seems to have other ideas. One of the areas that ESSA covers is “school accountability.” John King seems intent on quashing the ever-growing opt out movement sweeping across the country. If John King gets his way, school districts will face possible financial consequences for not meeting the 95% test participation rate. As NPE’s Dr. Carol Burris points out, “these proposed regulations would micro-manage the ability of states to create their own accountability systems, and take away the opportunity for parents and educators to have voice in their school accountability system.”

The narrative that the American education system is failing is false. If you don’t know this to be fact, then I encourage you to read Diane Ravitch’s book, Rein of Error. However, we do have an education system that fails to adequately address the myriad challenges that face our students attending inner-city school districts that are woefully under-funded and under-supported.

Are we a society that truly exhibits the “soft bigotry of low expectations?” Do we believe that students of color who live in poverty cannot meet the academic achievement levels of their white suburban counterparts? I hope not.

Can students who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, who live in abject poverty, who are hungry, who have inconsistent housing, and who lack high quality medical care, be successful academically? Of course they can, but the statistics are not in their favor. Wouldn’t these students stand a better chance at success if they weren’t in classrooms with over 30 other students? How about if these students had access to the same class sizes, or enrichment opportunities, or up-to-date technology, and high quality facilities, that their suburban counterparts expect?

What would happen if we provided “wrap around services” to these communities? Look no further than Harlem, New York for an example that works. As reported by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, the students attending Harlem Children’s Zone “have erased the racial achievement gap that has persisted in every urban school district in America as far back as data have been collected.” This success was achieved by focusing a lot of resources and attention on the negative effects of poverty. When children are well fed, have consistent housing, and other basic needs are met, they are better able to achieve academically.

As we enter another presidential election, education will be used as a wedge issue to persuade the American voter to vote one way or the other. Public education should be seen in the same light as our crumbling infrastructure is seen: non-partisan. If we want our public schools to truly prepare our students for “college and career,” we need to invest in them, not demonize them or the teachers.

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