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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 11/ 9/2010

Schools in a banana republic

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody. After 18 years as a science teacher in inner-city Oakland, he now works with a team of experienced science teacher-coaches who support the many novice teachers in his school district. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This appeared on his Teachers Magazine blog, Living in Dialogue.

By Anthony Cody
Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times this week described the economic state of the nation in rather stark terms. Due to the accelerated concentration of wealth, this country is in danger of becoming what is derisively termed a "banana republic." This term has been used to describe the Central American dictatorships such as Nicaragua and the Honduras, where a handful of families control the wealth, land and economy, while the poor barely get by. Kristof shared [these] statistics...:

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976.

C.E.O.'s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

And the tax cuts from the Bush era continue to put billions in their pockets.

How is today's economy affecting our students?

Rising inequality also led to more divorces, presumably a byproduct of the strains of financial distress.

Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks.

Yes, unemployment causes divorce. Unemployment causes tremendous stress. Stress that bubbles over in the homes of those in poverty, unable to keep the lights on, to buy adequate food, to feel safe and secure. These stresses are terrible for children, and for their ability to concentrate and learn in school. In many of our schools we have more than 90% of the children on free and reduced lunch. We have unemployment in excess of 15%; it's much higher for African Americans and Latinos. The transfer of wealth we are experiencing will be felt by a whole generation of children, and affect school performance for years to come.

As Stephen Krashen pointed out recently,

American students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average. The United States has the second highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (22.4%, compared to Sweden's 2.6%) which of course pulls down our overall average. The success of American children who are not in poverty shows that our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.

When the problem of poverty is solved, all children will have the advantages that right now only middle-class children have. This will close the "achievement gap" between children from high and low-income families.

And how will our public institutions be able to respond?
All indications are that we are entering a new era of economic austerity. Newly elected congressional representatives believe they have a mandate to "pay as you go," and cut way back on "discretionary" spending. Most of these policymakers, unfortunately, do not think they have any say over the half of the federal budget that is devoted to military spending, so that is off the table for cuts. And they can't touch Medicare or Social Security - so actually 85% of the budget will not be touched. But things in that 15% that are considered discretionary are vulnerable, and that includes federal education spending.

This will have a mixed effect. On one hand, the reduction of discretionary spending will mean the days of Daddy Warbucks Duncan dangling tempting billions before state policy makers to get them to race to adopt his policies may be numbered. This could be a healthy thing, since many of the reforms he has promoted have been bad ideas.

On the other hand, federal dollars provide crucial support to many low-income schools, and if these funds are cut now, at the same time state dollars are dwindling, the results will be devastating. We should be clear that when taxes are cut for the wealthy, and education is cut for the poor, dollars have, in effect, been transferred upwards.

There is one other area of spending that has, up to this point, been immune from cuts -- our prison system. As James Carroll pointed out yesterday,

In 1975, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in the United States. By 2000, that had grown to 2 million, and by this year to nearly 2.5 million. As the social scientist Glenn C. Loury points out, with 5 percent of the world's population, the United States imprisons 25 percent of all humans behind bars. This effectively created a vibrant shadow economy: American spending on the criminal justice system went from $33 billion in 1980 to $216 billion in 2010 -- an increase of 660 percent. Criminal justice is the third largest employer in the country.

In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the poor."

Most of those 2.5 million Americans lived in poverty, and many of them have children enrolled in our schools. If poverty has a devastating effect, imagine the effect incarceration of a parent has on a child.

The war on poverty has been replaced by a war against the poor.

In states across the nation, there has been a call for more local control of schools. This is a healthy direction when coupled with real democratic control by parents and educators, but there is one big problem with this. Resources are not spread evenly, and some areas are much wealthier than others. Local control cannot always generate the resources the schools need. The ideal of high quality public schools for all has also been greatly undermined by the drive to standardize everyone and punish those with low scores.

How does the extreme concentration of wealth affect our schools?

The middle class is being squeezed.... The result is that voters are more reluctant than ever to sacrifice their money to pay for services - and so they want their taxes cut. People in wealthier communities contribute directly to their schools to make sure they have the resources that are needed - as I described in a post last year. Or they simply abandon the public schools and send their children to private schools that charge up to $30,000 a year.

Oddly enough, many of these people are willing to spend this sum for their own bairns, but balk at such largesse when other people's children are involved, insisting "money will not improve the schools." Private schools across the country have class sizes roughly half that of public schools, and per pupil costs that are roughly double, as shown by the School Finance 101 blog.

What sorts of schools exist in banana republics?

Highly stratified, just like the society. The very wealthy send their children to private schools of privilege, just as is becoming the norm here. The poor go to schools where they are daily reminded of their inferiority. How many ways do we have to remind our students of their academic inferiority? Could this be an unconscious or sub-rosa part of the high stakes we now attach to test scores? Is this perhaps part of the reason schools, teachers and communities are stigmatized when schools are condemned as failures and dropout factories? Our schools are inevitably mirrors of the society in which they function.

I must add here, lest I be accused of adopting a fatalistic stance, that I believe schools have a powerful role to play in cushioning the blows of poverty, of lifting the aspirations of our students beyond their circumstances.

But everywhere in school reform these days we hear of the need for "urgency," as if the reason that previous generations of educators failed to eliminate the achievement gap was a lackadaisical attitude, or persistent low expectations. Not so. Unfortunately, although schools can make a difference, poverty and a genuine lack of opportunity usually trumps our efforts.

The intense discomfort the "school reformers" have with our low-performing schools may reflect our unwillingness to recognize that yes, we have a growing underclass in the United States. Yes, we have a burgeoning strata of society that no longer can even grasp the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

We can blame the schools for this, but the schools did not create this situation, and getting everyone ready for college and careers will not fix it. Only when we get our economy back onto firm ground and restore some balance, so the wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes, and the middle class can survive and prosper, and the poor can truly access the ladder to success, only then will we see hope return to our students and see the gaps in achievement really begin to close.

Special thanks to teacherken for highlighting these issues in his blogs.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 9, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers, Poverty  | Tags:  achievement gap, anthony cody, guest bloggers, poverty, school reform  
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Comments

"American students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average. The United States has the second highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (22.4%, compared to Sweden's 2.6%) which of course pulls down our overall average. The success of American children who are not in poverty shows that our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty."

Gee, why doesn't Blarney Duncan tell us this?

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

WOW! Really our Educational system is going down the tube because of poverty? HAve you given up on those kids all together? I don't think it is fair to take money that other people have worked hard for and give it to others who don't work at all! Yes, I know that unemployment is down! But there are some people who don't want to work because the government is handing them money! How is that fair? I don't think money is the entire issue! I think that there needs to be a reform in place that states that children need to succeed in certain areas by certain time! We need to have educational standards that are equal across the board!!! Standards don't take money, they take time, effort and believeing in our students! Education is actually the equilizer! Teachers need to teach children that education does matter! Some children feel that it doesn't or feel that their teacher has givin up on them so why should they try! That teacher goes right on doing what they are doing not realizing that they are the ones responsible for leaving that student behind! I know that there are some school districts that have received money from the government for state of the art school buildings and equipment! But that does not mean that ALL of those students are going to succeed! It is the teachers and the staff that MUST believe in those children and guide them down a new path! Yes, it will be ALOT of hard work but it CAN be done! Some teachers are not willing to do this! Those are the teachers that need to be removed from the classroom! Don't blame things on poverty! There will always be poverty! Take a stand to help those children to achieve more then they ever thought they could!!!!!!

Posted by: craink | November 9, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Breathtaking in its arrogance. Ok, so it's the criticism of the public school system that makes it bad. fine. Lets dismantle it. Every school is a charter school from here on end. Every school is able to accept funding from the outside, and for-profit or not-for-profit or non-profit schools become possible. All teachers go through a certification exam that is identical across the nation, and an exam for their own specialty (think GRE). At the same token, decree open accounting for all schools. In return, take all the dysfunctional pension plans and roll them into one nationwide one (spread the pain). Same with healthcare insurance.

Posted by: ShowMeTheRealMoney | November 9, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

craink,

Why don't you become a teacher in the inner city?

And because of your blame the teacher attitude, are you willing to warn young women not to become teachers. If you are going to attack teachers, you should at least have the courtesy of warning women not to be teachers in the first place.

You can't just attack teachers, and not take the time to warn young women what they are going to face if they become teachers.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

craink,

Become an inner city teacher yourself. Instead of telling teachers what to do, and not dealing with reality on what inner teachers face - become an inner city teacher yourself. Face the reality of what happens there, and then come back and tell us what you think.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

ShowmetheRealmoney,

There is already a national teacher test that is administered by ETS(the same testing company that does the GRE), it is called the Praxis. Most states require teachers to take the test and earn a certain score to be certified.

Posted by: sammann | November 9, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

You take 5 tests to become a certified special education teacher in Illinois. Plus you take extra exams for other endorsements.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 9, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

We may have a growing underclass, but remember that is because of the teachers - not because corrupt politicians and business people.

I think Obama and Jeb Bush and others like them are attacking teachers as a way to take the spotlight off their own mistakes.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 9, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

"Yes, it will be ALOT of hard work but it CAN be done! Some teachers are not willing to do this! Those are the teachers that need to be removed from the classroom!"

Let's put you in the classroom and see how you do. I've worked in business and education and I feel teachers work harder than people in business. So I won't be one of the people you want to listen to you.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 9, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Horace Mann the father of public schooling said "Money for schools now, or prisons later" to convince America to create the world's first free public school system. Unlike the rest of the world our public school system began town-by-town, village-by-village, city-by-city, and state-by-state.
Our public school model produced over a 170 Nobel Science Prize winners. It was a hard fought battle, but local buy in is what made us unique. The closest nation to that number of prize winners is England with 12. Do we really want to follow those nations?
The point is the rest of the world went national. We stayed local, diverse, and unique.
For the past 10 years NCLB has been pushing America towards a national model. The result is we are not leading any longer. However as Anthony states we are becoming more and more like Banana Republics. NCLB has spent 750 billion dollars on their race to be like the rest. The Feds have spent a bulk of it not on building new schools, not on reducing class sizes, not on hiring millions of tutors to help students falling behind, instead they spent it on standards, new tests, and new package curriculums. It is not so much how much you spend, but where and how you spend the money that counts in helping children. These people have spent billions of dollars on paper goods and policy mandates, and not on direct services to children. None of NCLB’s spending has led to any significant increase in test scores, or lower drop out rates. It is time to tell the federal government to return to the sanity of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act where the feds use our tax dollars to fund direct services to children again.
The leaders who are pushing this national model are the same ones that brought us the Tech Bubble, Housing Bubble, and Too Big To Fail Banking. They are also the very same leaders who sent millions of manufacturing jobs to China, and now are wondering why unemployment is so high.
My point Anthony in this long rant is does anyone really think we should be following the reforms of these people?
My thinking is our public schools make the perfect scapegoat for all their failures.
Excellent article Anthony.

Posted by: readdoctor | November 11, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

There is a fast way to reform the California Public School System for the benefit of the majority of California children: No more Educational Foundations.
The Bay Area is a quilt of different kinds of "public" schools. In Newark, our Educational Foundation just expired. In Los Altos, with 4,161 students, their Educational Foundation could spend $ 1.810.000 last year to ensure P.E. teachers, fine arts, hands-on-science, class size reductions… Their goal is $ 2.350 000 for this year.
California's public schools rely on parent capacity. The title 'public school' is not the defining term. It is location, location, location…Parent involvement is good, but should not determine what Public School is. Then education is not the equalizing force it is supposed to be in a democracy. Today we have public schools suffering severe cuts and a few happy isles where kids still get a well-rounded education.
If we had all parents working for great California Public Schools, instead of keeping schools in Los Altos, Orinda and Palo Alto out of harm's way, then we would have the proverbial magic wand. We could fix all our schools. California can afford good schools and good education for all kids.

You can see my illustration to go with this opinion if you visit:
http://sosnewark.org/rich-school---poor-school.php

Posted by: sosnewarkorg | November 12, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

There is a fast way to reform the California Public School System for the benefit of the majority of California children: No more Educational Foundations.
The Bay Area is a quilt of different kinds of "public" schools. In Newark, our Educational Foundation just expired. In Los Altos, with 4,161 students, their Educational Foundation could spend $ 1.810.000 last year to ensure P.E. teachers, fine arts, hands-on-science, class size reductions… Their goal is $ 2.350 000 for this year.
California's public schools rely on parent capacity. The title 'public school' is not the defining term. It is location, location, location…Parent involvement is good, but should not determine what Public School is. Then education is not the equalizing force it is supposed to be in a democracy. Today we have public schools suffering severe cuts and a few happy isles where kids still get a well-rounded education.
If we had all parents working for great California Public Schools, instead of keeping schools in Los Altos, Orinda and Palo Alto out of harm's way, then we would have the proverbial magic wand. We could fix all our schools. California can afford good schools and good education for all kids.

You can see my illustration to go with this opinion if you visit:
http://sosnewark.org/rich-school---poor-school.php

Posted by: sosnewarkorg | November 12, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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