Steve Singer’s recent blog post, “The Worst Sort of Violence Against Children” cross posted from The Progressive in Common Dreams describes the collateral damage that occurs when schools are underfunded and, consequently, under-resourced. In the article Singer describes the real violence his students face… not in school… but every day at home and, as was the case in one of his students, overseas where she was exposed to the horrific mall shootings in Nigeria. While suburban parents are raising funds for arguably superfluous safety equipment to protect their children from armed intruders, our country is doing little to help students who encounter real dangers each and every day of their lives. Singer describes the effects of poverty on his students this way:
Students must have their physical needs met first—be fed, have a full night’s rest, etc. Then they have to feel safe, loved, and esteemed before they can reach their potentials.
But meeting these needs is a daily challenge. Our students come to us with a wealth of traumas and we’re given a poverty of resources to deal with them.
How many times have I given a child breakfast or bought a lunch? How many kids were given second-hand clothes or books? How many hours have I spent before or after school just listening to a tearful child pour out his heart?
He emphasizes that he was drawn to teaching because he wanted to help children experiencing distress. But he DOES object to the public’s blaming teachers for their inability to achieve “success” in the classroom:
But what I do mind is doing this alone. And then being blamed for not healing all the years of accumulated hurt.
Because that’s exactly what’s expected of teachers these days. Fix this insurmountable problem with few tools and if you can’t, it’s your fault.
I didn’t shoot up the mall. I didn’t pass the laws that make it so easy for kids to get a hold of a gun. I didn’t pass the laws that allow such rampant income inequality and the perpetuation of crippling poverty that more than half of our nation’s public school children live with every day. And I sure didn’t slash public school budgets while wealthy corporations got a tax holiday.
But when society’s evils are visited on our innocent children, I’m expected to handle it alone. And if I can’t solve it all by myself, I should be fired.
That is where I take umbrage.
The parents in Singer’s school are not worried about intruders coming into school… they are worried about getting a decent meal on the table and a roof over their kids heads. They… and especially their children… are the collateral damage of the class war. And when teachers are expected to do the impossible and lose their job when they fail to do so, they, too, become collateral damage.
In 2002 futurist Daniel Pink wrote a book titled Free Agent Nation that forecasted a future where employees would be unencumbered by employers’ constraints and be free to, in effect, offer their services to the highest bidder. Robert Reich’s Huffington Post essay describes how that concept has played out in reality… and it has not been advantageous for employees! Instead, it has enabled employers to race more rapidly to the bottom in wages, increase hours, and eliminate benefits altogether. As a result, those who develop the logistical plans to deploy “free agents” are making millions while those operating as “free agents” get lower take home pay, less control over their work schedules, and are on their own when it comes to health insurance and pensions.
Reich describes how FedEx and Uber have recruited transportation workers to deliver packages or taxi fares. It is not difficult to see how a deregulated for-profit charter operator could use the same gambit to recruit low wage on-line-teacher-tutors to manage the “personalized learning plans” of scores of students. This would make the cost-per-student far lower than the amount allocated by states and providing a large profit margin for themselves. Indeed, this is not too far removed from the model for-profit post secondary schools use by hiring adjuncts to teach classes either on-line or in rented bricks-and-mortar spaces!
Reich’s essay, then, describes how “reformers” would like to see public schools operate. If they break the “stranglehold” the “government run public school monopoly” and are freed of the “stifling regulations” the “reformers” would be able to replace union workers with at-will contract employees. This would not only “save taxpayers” money and “contain runaway costs” but put money in the pockets of the oligarchs who hope to enter this potentially lucrative market. And the really good news for the profit seekers? They wouldn’t have to take on ALL public schools. They’d leave the affluent districts alone and go after the high poverty districts where parents have no political standing and have kids in schools that are underfunded and understaffed. If you don’t think this is the agenda of the reformers, I invite you to look at the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania where something like this scenario is playing out even now.
“Knowledge Isn’t Power”, Paul Krugman’s op ed column today, takes on the canard that businessmen cannot find enough skilled laborers because of a skills gap. After several paragraphs describing how this “skills gap” notion has become an accepted truth, he counters with this paragraph:
(T)here’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.
After debunking the notion that the “skills gap” is the reason we have inequality, he concludes with these paragraphs:
Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.
But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.
But as I noted in my comment, Krugman doesn’t acknowledge another reason the billionaires are promoting the “skills gap”:
Here’s what is happening right now, Dr. Krugman.
The investors have created a “crisis in education” and simultaneously introduced a solution: markets! You see if the monopolistic public schools are expensive, inefficient, and ineffective the solution is to subject public schools to the free market where they will become less costly to taxpayers, far more efficient in the delivery of services, and, yes, miraculously egalitarian. The folks who offer this as the solution to closing the gap between students in affluent districts and students in high-poverty districts conveniently overlook the fact that the “market” has not provided residents in the Bronx with the same array of choices in shopping as the residents in Scarsdale…. But no matter! Even if the market fails to provide equal opportunity for all at least the “wasteful spending” on education will no longer go to those greedy teachers… it will go to the shareholders of the privatized companies who operate the deregulated for-profit charters. As your article implies, those who have the power are not seriously interested in addressing inequality; they are more interested in keeping the power structure just the way it is.
The businessmen promoting the “skills gap” are the same group who are bending the ears of governors and state legislators… and those of us who want to see public education as the means of achieving equity are fighting an uphill battle because the siren song of “free, unregulated markets” resonates with many voters and the idea of using vouchers to attend ANY school resonates with parents who are currently paying out of pocket to attend private schools. In fighting this uphill battle it would be helpful if columnists like Krugman saw what is happening and called out the politicians on it now… before it is too late.
What should be self-evident is often seen as counter-intuitive because we are seemingly conditioned to seek fast, cheap, and easy solutions to problems. As an article in today’s NYTimes suggests, it’s possible that there is a way to address the problem of pre-school misbehavior that require times and complex coordinated efforts but, in the long run, would cost no more than what we are spending now. In “Empathy, Not Explusion, for Preschoolers at Risk, Sara Neufield reports on the positive impact “early childhood mental health consultants” have on the expulsion rates in schools and, more importantly, how they train and support adults surrounding the child instead of blaming the child for his or her misconduct.
In the article Neufield shadows early childhood mental health consultant Lauren Wiley as she works with teachers and parents to help them see that their assumptions, interactions, and behaviors contribute to the misbehavior of at risk children. In effect, Ms. Wiley is developing self-awareness in the adults in the life of the child in an effort to help the adults develop self-awareness in the child, self-awareness that will cause the child’s behavior to change. While some will likely view this as a form of “cultural imperialism”, it is evident that Ms. Wiley and the early childhood mental health consultants do NOT intend to brainwash children or adults but rather to help them deal with mental health issues.
While this program has proven to be effective, it operates on a shoe string and is not widely known:
The partnership receives $200,000 a year in state money to provide early childhood mental health consultation free to any agency that requests it, as capacity allows, along with $270,000 in federal funds to consult in home visitation programs. The partnership says last fiscal year it provided consultation to 59 programs and assisted 139 home visitors and supervisors reaching 1,490 families. A little money goes a long way. But with resources few and needs great, the work is not heavily promoted, and many who could benefit don’t know it exists.
Programs like the one described in this article will be expanding because under the nation’s newly reauthorized child care funding legislation, states must develop plans to reduce preschool expulsions and proven, cost effective programs like the provision of mental health consultants should be replicated. But for this program to really make a difference, much more funding is needed:
If the consultation approach is going to spread, proponents say it’s necessary to standardize and monitor quality. There is also a need to build a workforce with skills and knowledge in mental health, child development, cultural awareness, family dynamics and trauma. The biggest barrier, researchers say, is simply the shortage of government funding.
From my perspective, the colleges should incorporate “… skills and knowledge in mental health, child development, cultural awareness, family dynamics and trauma” in their mandated curriculum for all those enrolled in teaching programs and state departments should be more robust so that the standardization and quality control can be done at that level as opposed to the federal level. Incorporating mental health skills and knowledge in undergraduate and graduate curricula will not have any direct costs to schools and the cost to increase state department staffing is minimal. The cost to provide support to all of the families and children who need mental health services IS substantial… but it could be obtained by redirecting the funds being spent to provide annual assessments that ultimately prove what we already know: children who come from dysfunctional and/or poverty stricken backgrounds perform worse on standardized tests than children who come from highly functional and/or affluent homes. Why continue proving a well known fact when we could use those funds to provide mental health services to children who need it?
Today’s NYTimes features an op ed article by Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler, two administrators from “The Third Way” which the Times identifies as “a centrist institute”. “How to Hold Colleges Accountable” the Third Way’s solution to “the well known” problems with college is wrong in many ways:
- It overlooks the fact that college tuitions have skyrocketed in large measure because virtually every states in the union has trimmed their funding for post secondary education forcing those institutions to either increase tuitions or cut programs.
- It overlooks the fact that more and more colleges are relying on low paid adjunct staff instead of tenure track teachers, a factor that contributes to the lack of solid teaching in colleges.
- It overlooks the fact that colleges are offering “luxurious dormitories (and) lavish student activity centers” because students and parents expect those to be a part of the college experience… not because they want to spend money foolishly.
- It advocates that colleges be measured based on the earnings of graduates ten years later… thereby reinforcing the notion that the mission of college should be career preparation and not the development of thoughtfulness as Frank Bruni rightly advocated in yesterday’s newspaper.
- It oversells the value of data reporting. Cowan and Kessler assert that “More informed student choice would put pressure on colleges to focus on academic outcomes rather than on student amenities and athletics. This data could be broken down by gender, race, income and major.” As noted above, “student amenities” are an important consideration for most middle class parents and if they don’t know the impact of NCAA championships in major sports they need to read ESPN.
They are right on one point: Congress should take taxpayers off the hook for student loans. As Cowan and Kessler note:
Right now, no matter how high tuition climbs, there is always a federal loan to make up the difference between price and aid.
Just as new mortgage laws require banks to hold on to some of the mortgages they issue before bundling and selling the loans — so that they have an incentive to avoid making bad loans — so too should colleges be held responsible for a portion of student-loan defaults, which stood just shy of 14 percent in 2013.
When students default, colleges should have to cover some portion — maybe 5 percent of the yearly principal and interest — to share some of the burden; right now, the taxpayers are on the hook for 100 percent. Colleges that genuinely focus on educating low-income students should not be punished for doing so, but high-turnover schools that consistently enroll students while failing to graduate them should be pushed out of business.
So from this non-centrist’s perspective, the best way to hold colleges accountable is to regulate for-profit schools that “consistently enroll students while failing to graduate them”, forgive the loans those colleges gave to misled students, and seize all their assets before they are “pushed out of business”. At the same time, the federal government should institute some kind of hold-harmless funding requirement to states whereby the amount allocated for state schools would have to remain constant in order for the state funded colleges to offer student loans. Finally, colleges who employ a majority of their staff as adjuncts should not be eligible for loans. Those actions would restore funding accountability to state governments, implement staffing accountability to colleges, and end the usurious loan practices for-profit colleges put in place.
As readers of this blog undoubtedly realize, I am a retired school superintendent who spent his entire career in education working with teachers’ unions, unions who represented non-instructional employees, and, in one case, unions who represented administrators. Over my 29 years leading school districts I negotiated dozens of contracts, heard scores of grievances, and participated in several proceedings involving collective bargaining disputes and employee discipline. With one exception, I was able to work harmoniously with the union leadership and with a few exceptions was able to reach an amicable settlement when disputes arose. In ALL cases, though, I understood that the union leaders were doing what they needed to do to represent their membership. They wanted to make sure that the decisions the school board, I, and my fellow administrators made were not arbitrary and capricious. They wanted to make certain the working conditions were safe for employees and, consequently, safe for students. They wanted to make certain we adhered to the rules and regulations in the contract both parties agreed to in the collective bargaining process, rules that could be modified periodically when the contracts were reviewed in the negotiations process.
Nick Kristoff, a NYTimes columnist who has often criticized unions, offered a mea culpa in today’s essay titled “The Cost of a Decline in Unions”. After an opening paragraph that highlights some egregious examples of union behavior, Kristoff acknowledges that on balance unions strengthen the earnings of workers. He also acknowledges that while unions may contribute to some dysfunction in the economy, they serve as a counterbalance to the avariciousness of businesses:
I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.
I think it’s easy for politicians to vilify unions, especially in an era where many well educated at-will employees in the private sector have lost jobs, pensions, and benefits… and other at-will employees in the fast food, hospitality, and retail sectors of the economy work irregular and unpredictable hours at minimum wage levels. It’s easy for politicians to encourage resentment among the unemployed and at-will employees who wish they had contracts that guaranteed decent wages, manageable and predictable hours of work, and safe working conditions. It’s easy for politicians to bemoan the high costs of government contracts that require the employment of union members. And, alas, it’s increasingly difficult for those same politicians to call for higher wages because they are beholden to lobbyists who are paying for their campaigns… lobbyists who want to increase profits by suppressing wages, limiting benefits and pensions, and cutting corners on safety in the workplace.
Kristoff, though, falls short in the end because he equivocates on his support for public unions, using an “expert” to support his ambivalence:
Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”
He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.
Kristoff’s ALMOST right: we should strengthen unions in all spheres of the economy for by demonizing unions in ANY sector we demonize them everywhere… and without unions the workers have no means of pushing back as employers race to the bottom in wages, eliminate benefits, and sidestep what workplace regulations remain in place.
The Nation ran an article a few days ago that reinforced my appreciation for spending my career as a public school administrator in the Northeast part of the United States and made me wonder where we are headed as a nation in the future. “The Movement to Put a Church in Every School is Growing” describes how fundamentalist denominations in the Florida are not only using space in public schools on Sundays, but they are doing it rent free and they are intent on using their foothold in the school space to promote religion. In describing a church housed in a school in Apopka, FL, writer Katherine Stewart reports:
At 10 am, the crowd files into the auditorium to hear the Gospel. Every Sunday, Apopka High School turns into Venue Church. Its motto: “Partnering with schools and communities to serve students and families to gain the privilege of sharing the love of Jesus for eternal impact.”
Venue now operates inside three public schools in Orange County, Florida, including Apopka, and it has no plans to leave. Indeed,the church proudly announces its goal: “To plant a congregation in every Central Florida school zone in the next 10 years.”
In the late 1970s I recall that the Supreme Court determined that schools had to offer clubs for religion of students wanted them and later cases made it clear that schools could rent space to churches. In virtually every district where I worked space was rented to churches on Sunday in what appeared to be a win-win situation: the schools charged for custodial costs, space, and HVAC and the churches avoided going into debt to pay for a facility or, in some cases, had a place to meet while a church underwent repairs. The kinds of “partnerships” described in Stewart’s article, though, are precisely the kinds of inculcation that school boards I worked for feared… and the notion of letting anyone use space for free was against the grain of the frugal districts I led.
But based on this article, it is evident that two factors are converging to expand the involvement of churches in public education: deep budget cuts that encourage schools to seek additional revenues through the rental of space; and the need to engage volunteers in the process of education.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I came across another article on this topic from The Blaze, a conservative media outlet, titled “Is This a Key to Fixing America’s Public Schools?” The article from the Faith Section of this blog by Billy Hallowell describes a project launched by Kip Jacob, pastor of the 2,000-member SouthLake Foursquare Church in West Linn, Oregon, in 2008 to help Roosevelt HS, a public school that was in danger of closure because of its deficiencies. Seven years later, thanks to the intervention of church volunteers and the help of “Nike and other groups” the school has turned around completely. The description of the church’s involvement is heartwarming and problematic. Heartwarming because it is engaging many non-parents in the life of children who need food, clothing and shelter in addition to instructional support. Problematic because it explicitly involves a religious institution in the life of a publicly funded institution. Reverend Jacob seems to be aware of this issue even as the involvement of his congregation deepens:
Jacob said that the relationship between SouthLake Foursquare Church and Roosevelt is still going strong seven years later and that the house of worship actually pays a staff member who has an office inside of the school to serve as a liaison, matching school needs with appropriate members of the church.
“We have a coordinator that matches volunteers in the church with the school’s needs,” Jacob said, noting that church members are on site weekly, if not daily, to help out. “I think it speaks to the need that the public schools are experiencing.”
The pastor made it clear, though, that no proselytization goes on and that church members are instructed to avoid religious sectarianism. Their goal, according to Jacob, is to simply “fill gaps when they are needed.”
“If we go in without a religious agenda and let the works speak for themselves, I think there’s a great openness for that,” he said. “We’re really careful that on the school property and on school grounds there’s not any proselytizing.”
Reverend Jacob isn’t proselytizing within the school, but he is proselytizing among his fellow ministers:
Those good deeds have extended beyond the community as well, with Jacob creating Be Undivided, a two-year-old program that offers resources to churches looking to forge similar relationships with schools in their communities.
“Any church could … enter into a partnership with a school if it’s done right,” he told TheBlaze. “The primary thing is going in without an agenda. We’ve been able to have impact and it’s been mutually transforming. It transformed us as well.”
In Portland, alone, there are already 250 church-school partnerships, with churches in 20 U.S. cities participating in some level. Find out more about the program here.
I love the idea of partnerships of the kind Reverend Jacob describes… but am deeply unsettled by the kind of partnerships described in The Nation and, being a pragmatist, wonder how it will be possible for public schools to avoid having the “Be Undivided” model devolve into the kind of model described in Florida. Moreover, I can’t see how the level of non-sectarian volunteerism can solve the deep-seated problem of poverty in our country… though I could imagine a presidential candidate suggesting that “A Thousand Points of Light” might be better than a “government bureaucracy”. Come to think of it, we’ve been there and done that over two decades ago and we’ve seen how that worked out.
I hope we will “Be United” behind our governments efforts to solve the problems of public schools instead of being “undivided” between church and state.
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