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Posted at 1:36 PM ET, 01/ 3/2011

America’s disdain for its children

By Valerie Strauss

Americans don’t really think very much of their children. Not really.

Yes, we love our own children, and sometimes the kid next door. But a look at the education world as we enter 2011 reveals how little we really care about childhood and the importance of creating the conditions in which young people can grow and learn in safe and secure and smart environments.

If we did actually give a hoot about kids:

*We would never tolerate a poverty rate among children of 21 percent.

That’s one in five kids who live in poverty, or nearly 15 million children in the United States who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, currently pegged at $22,050 a year for a family of four.

And that, of course, doesn’t include the kids who live in families of four who make $22,051 a year. Or $22,052. In fact, research shows that families need an income of about twice the poverty level to cover basic costs, so at that rate, 42 percent of American children live at or close enough to the poverty level so that basics aren’t being covered.

*We would never pretend that any single institution, especially public schools, can overcome the problems caused by a life in poverty. Reformers would stop staying that citing poverty as a problem is “an excuse.”

Don’t, please, write me and tell me that I am offering teachers an excuse not to work hard. You know I’m not.

Acknowledging that poverty matters means that we have to counter its effects when children come to school -- making sure they eat, can see, hear, aren’t exhausted – and more broadly, address the causes of poverty on a societal level.

*We would stop our hypocrisy over standardized tests.

On one hand we admit that they are too rudimentary to be used for any high-stakes decisions.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2009 at the National Education Association’s annual conference: “I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam. Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense."

And on the other, we use them for high-stakes decisions anyway.

When the Los Angeles Times published so-called “value added” test scores to rate teachers in the city’s public schools last summer, Duncan said, “What’s there to hide? In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success."

*We would not demonize teachers, but rather treat them as professionals.

This means paying them a professional salary, ensuring that they have professional training (not a summer crash course), giving them a large role in what happens in their own classrooms, and finding fair ways to evaluate teachers so that those who don’t belong in a classroom can be removed.

*We would stop thinking that we can tell anything about really young kids by subjecting them to silly tests and recognize the value of learning through play. Quality pre-kindergarten would be a national priority.

*We would stop underfunding public school systems.
We hear plenty about how much public money is being wasted, and, certainly, one can always find places where it is. But the bigger problem is that public systems are being starved. Some systems have cut out a day of school each week because they can’t afford it, and there is talk in California about cutting an entire month out of the public school calendar.

This is nothing but sickening.

*We would never allow the public school system to be dependent on the good will of private citizens or foundations.

*We would stop pretending that charter schools are the be-all and end-all of public education.

Yes, yes, some of them are tremendous schools. But most of them aren’t any better than their local traditional public school, and many have less “accountability” than traditional schools, but you couldn’t tell that by listening to some school reformers and wealthy funders.

*We would stop pretending that teachers unions are the cause of all of the ills of public education, and accept the common-sense refutation that the problems are the same in states without teachers unions. You don’t have to love unions to accept this reality.

*We would really try to consider what kids need and think.

For example, we know that for biological reasons, teenagers fall asleep later at night, and one study showed that students attending high schools with later start times were less likely to report being sleepy during the day. But we stick to early start times anyway.

*We would remember that the public school system is our most glorious civic institution. Yes, it needs to be improved, but not in the way we are doing it now. We would, in fact, inject humanity into public schooling. Somehow we’ve let that slip away.

Add up all of this, and then tell me how much America really likes its children.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 3, 2011; 1:36 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Standardized Tests, Student Life, Teachers  | Tags:  charter schools, children, poverty, standardized tests, teacher evaluation, teachers  
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Next: A response to Arne Duncan

Comments

Where can I start with this.....

Who is 'America?' Are they the parents next door, the parents on the other side of town? The adults who attend your church, or some other church/faith?

Do I not care about our children? Am I one of those persons who does nothing about 'poverty?'

Don't public schools already depend upon the tax dollars of the home and business owners in their neighborhoods?

'Glorious' is certainly subjective when describing an institution, and it's up to the voting public to decide how essential and important it is through the ballot box. When parents within certain neighborhoods are given an option to choose, they're not choosing regular public schools. There must be a reason.
In Los Angeles there are such dire complaints of the budget issues, but few in the media have confronted how a school district build to support 700,000+ students has just over 600,000, driven partly by parents choosing other options for their children, and the district failing to reduce it's budget (administrative dead weight, mind you) accordingly.

If 'humanity' has 'slipped away' from public schools I'd like to know exactly from which schools this has happened, and ask the parents at that school if they feel that's the case. If it's true, these parents deserve options NOW; they can't wait for 'humanity' to return while their children grow up.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 3, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Pre-K is not needed. If we want day care call it what it is, but putting that on the back of education is waste. We tried this little experiment with K and it didn't work. Now we want more. So if we are climbing a ladder on the wrong building we get a bigger ladder?

Funding is not the issue if you tell us funding is needed to continue Pre-K. Norwegian kids start school at around 6 or 7, and before that they are in what amounts to a "discovery" school where they play and learn from playing. They attend school until age 16. If it is test scores then model our system after this, but if you want innovation, wild open ingenuity, and continued growth then stop the madness.

Can we improve? Yes. Do we need to improve? Yes. Do we need to eat more pie to lose weight? Probably not.

On another note, we fill the airwaves and other "information" paths with such hair-raising stories about education that kids are possibly becoming afraid or at the minimum, numb. We are constantly filling their heads the system is broke, they are uneducated, their parents fail them, the teachers are inept, and the boogy man test will possibly cut of their eternal knowledge nerves.

Yeah, if I were a kid, I would ask for more pie too!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 3, 2011 2:43 PM | Report abuse

*We would never tolerate a poverty rate among children of 21 percent.

We don't tolerate it. We provide 3 meals a day for many of these kids. We provide Medicaid for their healthcare. We provide Food Stamps for their groceries. We provide subsidies for their housing and heating. Does this address all their needs? Of course not, but to say we simply look at poverty and ignore it, is ludicrous.

*We would never pretend that any single institution, especially public schools, can overcome the problems caused by a life in poverty . . .

While arguing public schools alone could overcome a life of poverty--and this borders on straw-manning--is unreasonable, so too is arguing that because of poverty, public schools should view these kids as hopeless or unteachable--equally straw-mannish. So, how about we both stop the extreme statements and agree that poverty creates challenges that require special attention, but that are not insurmountable in many, if not most cases.

*We would stop our hypocrisy over standardized tests.

How do we know if kids are learning what they need to know? Decry standardized tests all you want, and I have decried them as much as anyone, but there has to be some manner of measuring learning and there needs to be some level of consequence for those results. I am all for giving teachers and principals the freedom to teach as they see best. I am all for eliminating the 4-5 practice standardized tests that take away classroom and teaching time, but measuring effectiveness is not unreasonable.

*We would not demonize teachers, but rather treat them as professionals.

I agree completely. Treat them as professionals subject to at-will hiring and firing at the discretion of the principals and allow them to be paid what their bosses believe them to be worth to the organization. Welcome to the real world.

Posted by: horacemann | January 3, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

*We would stop thinking that we can tell anything about really young kids by subjecting them to silly tests and recognize the value of learning through play . . .

True, but let's not take it too far that we end up with well-socialized 5, 6, and 7 year-olds who can't write their names.

*We would stop underfunding public school systems.

I'm not sure who the "we" is in this case, as public school systems are notoriously local, but let's say for the sake of argument that we are speaking of DC. Is DC underfunding the public school system? The budget has grown over $100 million in the past decade and it educates fewer students. Money may be the problem in some areas, but not everywhere.

*We would never allow the public school system to be dependent on the good will of private citizens or foundations.

While I agree with the statement as you have written it, I suspect that what you really mean is that private citizens and foundation with whom you disagree should not have the ability to impact school systems through their donations. Again, I think if you trust teachers and principals to educate as they see best, you want to allow this kind of philanthropy, because it can allow for groundbreaking and innovative approaches to education that are often starved due to lack of resources.

*We would stop pretending that charter schools are the be-all and end-all of public education.

I could not agree more. You rock.

*We would stop pretending that teachers unions are the cause of all of the ills of public education . . .

Ending unions will fix everything that's wrong with public schools. I see your sweeping generalization and raise you one.

Posted by: horacemann | January 3, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

This post is a keeper. It should be read by every adult and posted on the walls of all who make decisions in education. It should also be the foundation upon which educational policies are developed – if they were truly in the best interest of children. Children have not been a priority in this country but they have been consistently exploited for political and economic gains. Despite the dedication of teachers committed to making a difference in the lives of children, the promise of high quality public education for all children has never been met and is now closer to becoming a footnote in American history. Americans once had the courage to stand strong for what they believed in, some believe they still do and are. If that is the case, it is clear children and high quality public education for all are not one of their beliefs. Public education in the US is like the frog who has been sitting in a pot of hot water that is beginning to boil. I am posting this on my wall and sharing with all I know who care about children

Posted by: highquality4kids | January 3, 2011 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Public funding policies have become disconnected from the interests of the American public at large. They are increasingly driven by corporate profit strategies, which only foresee a marginal participation requirement from an educated American workforce in the future. Corporations primarily need consumers, and they see a growing opportunity coming from foreign developing countries to feed demand. Educated employees are much less expensive elsewhere, at least for now. So investing in the education of American children has a diminishing return on investment for those who lobby and control our public institutions - especially at the Federal level. The new majority in Congress will not be pleading for education funding (a polite understatement). Parents of the 42% of children we speak of need to organize and find a loud voice. I have no doubt that they give a hoot about kids. At that rate they only need another 9% to join in the hooting to be a majority.

Posted by: craigemoen | January 3, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

As our nation's poverty level rises, so does the teacher bashing. As a teacher in the trenches of a public school in Florida, I am tired of hearing that I do not work hard or smart enough; that I'm lazy; that I'm for the "status quo"; that I'm ineffective;...and so on.

We have a problem in America and it is neglect. Pointing the finger at teachers will NOT fix the problems. As a teacher, I see hungry, tired children; children who have been traumatized, children with parents in prison, and children who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless. At my little public school, we now have over 100 kids who are homeless or "in transition". Our kids need help: psychological, behavioral, housing, proper nutrition, jobs for their parents, etc.

Our government has demontrated its disdain for its children by ignoring the needs of the hurting child while pointing a finger at his teacher.

Valerie Strauss is spot-on with this article. For those of you throwing punches, I haven't seen you in my Title I school helping out. But, I have seen numerous teachers, staff, and principals open up their wallets to help out poor students with clothing, books, food, and other necessities. Public school educators are in the trenches everyday trying to battle the neglect...and the battle keeps getting worse. We need to address poverty issues (and all the ills that go along with it, including jobs) in this country. Quality pre-K is a definite need, but we need to start even earlier with education during pregnancy. We've got to slow this "Race to the Top" down and address the barriers to learning or we will continue to see our poverty levels climb to third world status.

Posted by: Teacherreality | January 3, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Horacemann writes regarding teachers:

"Treat them as professionals subject to at-will hiring and firing at the discretion of the principals."

Are there any professionals (doctors and nurses at state hospitals, social workers, librarians, district attorneys, college teachers, fire chiefs, etc.) that get their salaries exclusively from tax money that are at-will employees? It seems to me that most come under the heading of "civil service" and get "due process" rights after six months, with the exception of college professors, who get tenure after seven years; and teachers, who usually get due process (technically not tenure) after two or three years. Why would anyone want less for teachers?

So far as I know, the only "at-will" professionals are in the private sector.

There are many reasons for people who work for the government or tax-supported institutions to get due process protections. Just read about teachers before they had employment protections to get a good idea of why they needed them.

Over 50% of teachers quit or are counseled out during their first five years of employment. This makes K-12 teaching the most self-selective of all the professions. The problem we have is recruiting and retaining teachers, not firing them. We already lose more than enough for a variety of reasons.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 3, 2011 6:27 PM | Report abuse

"While arguing public schools alone could overcome a life of poverty--and this borders on straw-manning--is unreasonable, so too is arguing that because of poverty, public schools should view these kids as hopeless or unteachable--equally straw-mannish. So, how about we both stop the extreme statements and agree that poverty creates challenges that require special attention, but that are not insurmountable in many, if not most cases."

The reformers, and you, horace, by saying poverty is something that teachers claim cannot be overcome, are introducing the straw man. Teachers are not saying the generationally impoverished are unteachable; they are saying that the schools can't make up for the deficits. And schools can't, generally.

To claim that poverty is not insurmountable, apparently because you just think so, doesn't help either. Poverty (socioeconomic level) is the only correlate to school performance found in the literature. Any claim otherwise is erroneous.

Posted by: tfteacher | January 3, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

horace says:

"...because it can allow for groundbreaking and innovative approaches to education that are often starved due to lack of resources."

Are you sure? Do you have even one example of philanthropy allowing for groundbreaking anything in education? So far they have seen fit to fund charters, and we know how that is going (charters are no better), they have funded paternalistic pedagogy (KIPP), and their movies flop.

Poverty is the issue. Go ahead and lengthen the day, or the year, demand parents get involved, reward kids for perfomance by giving them cash. Go ahead and do all that, and you will have done nothing to ameliorate the biggest cause of poor school performance--poverty.

You can ignore it, like we are, or you can start to talk about how disparity in America is making the poor even poorer, and it is the kids who are suffering the most as the poverty keeps them from developing large vocabularies, coming to K knowing letters and colors, and arriving fed, healthy, and well rested.

And you were kidding about unions, right?

Posted by: tfteacher | January 3, 2011 7:01 PM | Report abuse

"We would, in fact, inject humanity into public schooling. Somehow we’ve let that slip away."

Humanity has slipped from our country. I thought that the measure of a society is how we treat our young and our old. As a baby boomer, I feel the wrath of people that just want us to die and go away. I see kids that come to school unprepared, undernourished, and scantily clad in 20 degree weather.

Do we have people that rely too much on entitlements? Yes. Do we have people that abuse all systems? Yes. How do we correct this as we spend billions on 2 ridiculous wars? They say we are going to become as insignificant, on the world stage, as Great Britain. When I visited Asia I came away amazed at the size, scope, and how we are totally miniscule in comparison.

Last year started the jihad against teachers and unions (the union part is SO ridiculous). Please move on and find a new target this year. We are too busy doing our jobs.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | January 3, 2011 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Some say the public education system is turning racehorses into jackasses, but others say most of the students are jackasses to begin with, and it is a waste of taxpayers money trying to turn them into racehorses. It would be a big savings if we just imported the racehorses and put the jackasses on welfare.

Posted by: morristhewise | January 3, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your insightful posts each day. In an age where most media outlets seem hell bent on demonizing people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to children in high poverty schools (I am a 4th year teacher in a very high needs high school in DCPS). Thanks for helping me see through this mess and know there is at least one national reporter on the side of common sense and hardworking teachers nationwide who doesn't just blindly react but always offers very insightful and easily understood arguments. We need more voices like yours.

Posted by: laurajf2 | January 3, 2011 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your insightful posts each day. In an age where most media outlets seem hell bent on demonizing people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to children in high poverty schools (I am a 4th year teacher in a very high needs high school in DCPS), you are a shining light. Thanks for helping me see through this mess and know there is at least one national reporter on the side of common sense and hardworking teachers nationwide who doesn't just blindly react but always offers very insightful and easily understood arguments. We need more voices like yours.

Posted by: laurajf2 | January 3, 2011 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Let's make 2011 a year that we are heard. Let's get a postcard campaign going. I plan to send a postcard for each of my children and husband with a phone call about a week later seeing if it was received. :-)
I plan to post this message in various places. Please join me and get as many people as you can to join.

Dear Mr. Gates,
Dr. Diane Ravitch has invited you to a public debate around public education. I look forward to hearing the two of you debate. Please contact Dr. Ravitch at: New York University, 82 Washington Square East, New York, New York 10003.
Sincerely,

(Please send your postcards or call The Gate's Foundation at PO Box 23350, Seattle, WA 98102. The foundation's phone number is (206)709-3100.)

Posted by: tutucker | January 3, 2011 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Horacemann – I have some >comments on your comments.

“We provide 3 meals a day for many of these kids.”
>during the school year. Granted, that’s a good thing, but it’s not all year long.

“but to say we simply look at poverty and ignore it, is ludicrous.”
>Where did Valerie say that? This has a straw-mannish sound to me.

>Also, where did Valerie say “public schools should view these kids as hopeless or unteachable?” Calling strawman on your strawman.

“So, how about we both stop the extreme statements and agree that poverty creates challenges that require special attention, but that are not insurmountable in many, if not most cases.””
>So you admit that you’re making extreme statements. Also, I agree that the problems of poverty are not insurmountable, if they are properly addressed. Placing all the burden on teachers to reverse the effects of poverty through great teaching is not addressing poverty, it’s magical thinking.

“but measuring effectiveness is not unreasonable.”
>agreed – we just haven’t found a good way to do it, and at least in DCPS, management seems pleased enough with its system to fire teachers over it, despite the fact that it wasn’t vetted and there is no data (that’s been shared) that indicates that it works.

“Treat them as professionals subject to at-will hiring and firing at the discretion of the principals…”

>Professional government workers have unions. So do nurses and police and other civil servants. Should they give up protection too? University professors have tenure. Michelle Rhee has been on national TV lately saying unions provide teachers jobs for life. You seem smart enough to know that that is not a factual statement. Unions provide protection and due process. Unions are far from perfect, but I believe they are necessary, particularly for teachers who tend to be gentle souls who are easily bullied.

“Welcome to the real world.”
>Same to you. There are differences among jobs and people. Most teachers care more about working with children than climbing the corporate ladder. Just ask them. Schools are not corporations; children are not widgets.

I've just read over some of the other similar comments addressed to horacmann -- I hope you're taking them seriously, horace. Hopefully your views are not rigid and you can see that that the people here are sincere and reasonable.

Posted by: efavorite | January 3, 2011 10:13 PM | Report abuse

horacemann mentions "groundbreaking and innovative approaches"

In other words, new and unusual approaches, that may or may not work in the long run. They are experiments; they might not be good.

Fine - I'm in favor of experiments, but we must be careful, especially when the experiments are with children, that we do no harm and end the experiment when we determine that it hasn't worked.

Posted by: efavorite | January 3, 2011 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, our schools have been forced to educate many children who are not "America's Children," but who are illegal aliens and offspring of illegal aliens. Every dollar spent educating illegal aliens and anchor babies is a dollar taken away from America's Children.

Posted by: postisarag | January 4, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

It's not just in the schools. It is illegal in a lot of localities for someone to stand on a public sidewalk at certain times of the day just because of his birthdate (curfew laws). The local mall had banned juveniles under 16 on weekends unless accompanied by adults with a specific adult-to-juvenile ratio. (If you read the regulations and replace "juvenile" with "colored" you have the old Black codes of the Post-Reconstruction South.) Apartments are allowed to ban children and pets; some retirement communities do not even allow grandchildren to visit for more than a few days. Several years ago a businessman proposed, quite seriously, that children should not be allowed on airplanes because their noise interfered with his important work. Parents pay extra to get video systems in the back seat so they don't have to talk to their youngsters on vacation. Until a few years ago, a child complaining of abuse was not believed. Schools conduct drug sweeps of students' lockers and cars; notice they never search the teachers cars or ask a teacher to empty her purse to prove she doesn't have drugs. Several members of the Supreme Court didn't have a problem with a school strip-searching a student just because of a rumor. In several states, it is legal for a person in authority to hit a student; what would happen if your boss hit you?

By and large, this country simply doesn't like children.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 4, 2011 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I am a parent who volunteers in both my child's school and a school in a poorer community.

For what it is worth -- I fully agree with this article. 100%. The politics of adults continues to help undermine a system that is already in dire need of some honest attention.

There isn't a single soundbite out there that will reinvigorate our US educational system. We are giving ourselves and our political representatives a free pass from using any critical thinking skills when we can be sold on silly generalities ("School choice! Ban unions! Parents suck!", etc.)

Thank you, Ms. Strauss for being a voice of reason.

Posted by: ParentX | January 4, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Thank you so much for this wonderful piece Ms. Strauss!!

Teacherreality-your comments are wonderful and echo my sentiments exactly!!

For the record, I taught for more than a decade in another state, before arriving to teach in Washington, DC. While I felt prepared to work with the children, the administration's neglect and lack of support for their students, teachers, and schools have stifled my passion for teaching. I will be leaving DC by the end of the school year.

Posted by: cosnowflake | January 5, 2011 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Recommended: Kingsolver, B. (1995). Somebody’s baby. In High tide in Tucson: Essays from now or never (pp. 99-107). New York: Harper Perennial.

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 5, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I am saddened there was not one mention of the family's role in education. Our system will not change. Citizens need to stop believing that state sponsored education has all the answers or should have all the answers. Schools are an invention of a government that needs working tax payers. children are an imposition.
We build multimillion dollar schools that no one but uninterested children have access to. Imagine if these services were offered to a community and children allowed to seek their own paths outside the constraints of mandated tests and homework. Our country was innovative, creative, and competitive long before our school system was in place. Systems are for factories not children.

Posted by: Ljomccullough | January 7, 2011 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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