Failing our Poor Students: A Crisis of Morality and Character

About Dan McConnell

Husband, father, and teacher. Hoping to earn full redemption through the written word and shaping the dangerous young minds of tomorrow.

Our schools aren’t failing, we all are.

When outcomes for our poorest students are the concern, education reform advocates like to point to”failing schools”, but it’s not just about schools. It isn’t out-of-touch middle class parents, teachers and their unions, or civil rights organizations willing to challenge the “school choice” narrative. Those are only convenient scapegoats for people calling themselves “education reformers”- a group that includes politicians and appointees, high-profile edu-personalities, editorialists and writers on social media and blogs… The list is long, but includes few with any experience in the classroom or in public education. Not many, either, willing to openly engage in critical thought and more honest conversations about what has been done and is being done to public education, schools, parents, children and communities. Meanwhile our neediest families and children look for something more substantive than school choice and reform rhetoric. While the focus of much of that propaganda is on portraying helpless parents waiting for superman, disempowered by entrenched bureaucracies and ineffective teachers, the truth they are all too well aware of might be a different one. A growing number of parents know that disappearing opportunities and stagnant wages are leaving them and their families behind, and their children will end up facing the hidden consequences-one of them likely being decreased academic outcomes and opportunities.

That’s part of the real failing. It’s further revealed in both the widening economic and opportunities gap between the poorest and the wealthiest, and the growing number of children living in poverty. Not only should that be a topic of more outcomes-conversations than it has been, it should also be a source of shame according to this 2014 article by Christopher Ingrahm. Ingrahm writes:

With 32.2 percent of children living below this [poverty] line, the U.S. ranks 36th out of the 41 wealthy countries included in the UNICEF report. By contrast, only 5.3 percent of Norwegian kids currently meet this definition of poverty…. For the richest country in the world to also have one of the world’s highest childhood poverty rates is, frankly, an embarrassment. Like our high infant mortality rate, child poverty in the U.S. reflects the failure of policymakers to seriously grapple with the challenges facing the most vulnerable members of society. (Christopher Ingrahm “Child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world”)

Instead of being ashamed, though; instead of honestly addressing poverty and its correlated impacts, policymakers and pundits continue to cook up “choice” narratives to sell like meth to a growing population of desperate people. It even seems as if they want to be thanked for their thoughtfulness. You can probably imagine, for example, the earnest and caring expression and that well-practiced empathy-for-show tone of politicians like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan responding to cancer victims who might be dead without the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”). They are so happy for that sick person facing the possibility of losing their insurance- because they have managed to even live this long!

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We’re saddled by leaders lacking real morality

That whole attitude and approach reveals a lack of morality and an ongoing purge of empathy- not just from public policy, but an attempt to remove it from our society as a whole. The suggestions are that choice = more freedom and rights; that choice and caring are commodities, and that treating them as such is the way to go because:

1) everyone will get as much choice and caring as they can afford, and

2) we need to envision how wonderful it will be when government gets out of our choice and caring business.

In terms of health care the way it would work is that everyone can choose plans in a more open and competitive market. And competition, according to choicers, will drive prices down and make delivery of services more efficient. What they don’t say is that the wealthy who will get a tax break after repeal of the ACA have no worries. Their brand of choice is a much more secure and responsive sort. Like their financial security, clean drinking water and air quality, unspoiled neighborhoods and views…the health care for them and their families will be of the highest quality. They will be able to afford it (even more so after the tax breaks), and it will probably be the sort health care often described as a “Cadillac plan”. The poor and desperate will hope for a plan that is something like a “Rusty old Ford Pinto up on cinder blocks plan”.

Hey…it might not be goin’ anywhere, but when it’s raining you can climb in, curl up and catch a nap (insert  sympathetic, encouraging, Republican smile)!

Christ…does the supposed religious party know Christ? That’s a personal and possibly offensive question, I know, but not as offensive as the disingenuous religiosity of a party that clearly worships dollars and serves the amoral hoarders of wealth and wagers of war against the working classes and poor. Morally bankrupt and spiritually empty is the best way I can describe the paradigm of “choice” when it comes to an obligation like taking care of your fellow man. A little preachy, I know, but I watch and listen to politicians on both sides of the aisle who know our country is spending billions dropping bombs on families far away, in multiple countries. And yet that is not opened up for “choice” discussions for the American people and taxpayers. In other words, our tax dollars can be used to destroy quality of lives for poor people and the innocent children abroad, but it’s just not right to spend too many of those dollars on enhancing the lives and opportunities for the poor here.

How this relates to “education reform”

That disconnected attitude regarding poverty and health care carries over to how the nation’s schools are approached by reformers. The wealthy crafting the narratives that drive reform, along with the policy-makers doing their dirty work, already enjoy the most of what the world has to offer. They enjoy the best and feel entitled to even more, so they will weave whatever B.S. is required to distract you in order to capitalize on the resources belonging to the entire public. This is done by convincing the lower classes to fight each other over the scraps, and to make this destructive approach more palatable, famous faces (e.g. Bill Gates, Michele Rhee, Campbell Brown…) and rhetorical distractions (the threat of pervert teachers, rubber rooms and the constitutional crime of tenure, “poverty is not an excuse”, etc.)  are utilized. The situation needs to appear so dire to the masses that even our national security has been called into question because of how failing our schools are and how nefarious unions and teachers with tenure are.

Just consider the time we have already wasted using the buzz-words “education reform”. That truly meaningful goal (reforming education) has sat waiting on the sidelines while a lot of effort has been spent scrutinizing and attempting to reform  schooling, which is another matter altogether.

There is a difference, you see. There is a difference between education and schooling, and yes-we could be and need to be doing schooling better, but true education reform is where our focus should be, and effective education is prerequisite to effective schooling. In The End of Education Neil Postman wrote “I know that education is not the same thing as schooling and that in fact not much of our education takes place in school”. He fleshes out the contrast by describing each something like this:

  • Schooling encompasses only so much of the day; starts some number of years after life begins; takes breaks for holidays and summer vacation; excused absences due to illness…
  • Education, on the other hand, happens everywhere all the time, whether in school or out of school.

The focus of education (by this definition) is almost never on the acquisition of specific academic skills, although having those skills is a t help in navigating life as one goes about getting educated. The influences on education include economic and social class, family and home, parenting style, community, media, advertising… There are continuous and infinite experiences and interactions people have with the world around them from day one to…well, however many days they get. In other words, education is the curriculum that the entire world provides the developing learner. So the condition of poverty, naturally, has a great influence over the education received and the academic and life outcomes that result. You absorb and adopt the rules of conduct and mores of your family and the community you are born into and raised into. Your level of economic and emotional security and stability imparts a set of understandings, skills and behaviors that help you to function within those conditions. It isn’t destiny, it’s not an excuse, it isn’t any of those catchy taglines reform advocates and teacher union attackers favor…But for the children living in poverty it is a powerful and relentless educator. It takes no breaks, and has no boundaries, excused absences or scheduling constraints. And It refuses to be ignored.

Our society holds up as ideal an undeniable lack of character

If “education reform” is the goal, then, we have wasted time swatting haphazardly at something more like “schooling reform”. At the same time, the education our people are getting runs counter to almost everything desirable for sound moral judgement, good character, capable learners and citizenry, and better academic outcomes. Forget the simple cognitive dissonance of the clowns on Fox News who rabidly defend publicly displayed manger scenes at Christmas time but adamantly support bans on immigrant refugees. In the efforts labeled as education reform we have spent too much time concerned with nuts, bolts and blame for what happens within the context of schooling, waaay too little time worried about the crisis of character and morality in the world all around us that makes schooling a greater challenge. Focusing on tests and data and formulas (e.g., VAM, SGP…) all targeting the ends of schooling-these do little but give data-sticians and politicians ways to dismiss or ignore the means of the education that is really happening. Finding someone or someone else to blame; refusal to step up and address what our poorest really need; turning around the withdrawal of care and moral obligation and instead creating a market and a sales pitch of “choice”…

And that’s just the tux and tails version of the shitty education we are all being offered. The streaming 24/7 version is much worse, and it falls most heavily on our poorest and their children. We have been “Honey Boo-Boo and Mama June’d” to a place where other people’s outrageous behavior offers a make-believe path to a 15 minutes of fame version of self-respect. The most recent “Cash me outside…” girl has been just one more example and as time passes it becomes more clear that our leaders are led and fed by the “free market” and they all are coming up empty in their “good character accounts”. Their cooking of “choice”- meth and defending the sales of mind-and-body poison, while refusing to bring the resources of jobs, social supports, and respect for schooling to our poorest communities is where the target for our obligation for education reform lies-not in attacking schools and inventing new ones to sell to those who can choose and choose well for their children. By demonstrating the character and moral conviction to do better at reforming how we are educating and informing the citizenry, we can also demonstrate how serious we are about better academic outcomes.

 

Failing our Poor Students

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About the Author:

Husband, father, and teacher. Hoping to earn full redemption through the written word and shaping the dangerous young minds of tomorrow.

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