About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

bitter teacherThere is a conundrum facing American K-12 education. It is the same conundrum that has always faced American K-12 education.

How do we educate “those” kids?

“Those” refers to the kids who are dealing with any (or all) of a host of disadvantages. They are from the “wrong” side of the tracks. They are from the “wrong” neighborhood. They come from the “wrong” language background. They are the “wrong” race. They are poor. They are homeless.

Some education watchers cringe when they are confronted with a direct acknowledgment that our society favors (and has always favored) certain groups of children over others. It’s a tough pill to swallow, because America, we were taught, is the land of opportunity. As a result, many of us reject this idea–that some people come into this world, come into a classroom, having had the deck stacked against them.

Most public school teachers, I would bet, don’t reject this idea. Most would likely nod knowingly at the thought that some kids start the race far behind, not because of disability, not because of lack of guts or grit or genius on the child’s part. But, bluntly, because our circumstances are mean and we allow them to be that way.

That means that we are mean. Ouch.

The typical reply by those in the edbiz who don’t want to wander down the scary path of honesty-about-inequality-and-racism is to demagogue by saying “all children can learn” and thereby imply that folks saying what I just said–that some kids are getting the shaft here–are really kind of racist. You don’t think black kids are as smart as white kids? (Of course they are.) You don’t think poor kids can learn? (Of course they can.) You don’t think immigrant kids are bright? Einstein was an immigrant. (No, that isn’t what I’m saying, and you are deliberately misunderstanding me.)

Note: I don’t lump black kids, poor kids, and immigrant kids into a group because all black kids are poor and all immigrant kids are poor. I lump them into a group because they are all vulnerable to mistreatments both subtle and abject by the power structure we have in place; mistreatments that, if we are honest, often go uncorrected for generations.

But if I’m not saying poor kids can’t learn, then why is there a conundrum? If poor kids can learn, then they just need great teachers, right?


They need so much more than that.

If they are to reach the heights we–via our high expectations–are demanding of them, then poor kids need great teachers PLUS. And the PLUS would be (for them AND their parents) the clothes, food, supplies, conveniences, and experiences that they are often lacking. Those things all cost money, which they don’t have. That means that integral to our education problem is the fact that the little guy has less money compared to the Richie Riches of our society than any time since 1928. That’s not an educational problem per se, but its fingerprints are all over our education system.

If they are to reach the heights we–via our high expectations–are demanding of them, then black and brown kids need great teachers PLUS. And the PLUS would be (for them AND their parents) the opportunities and equitable treatment they are often lacking, not to mention positive, confidence-building experiences in a society that systematically proffers indignities big and small. That’s not an educational problem per se, but its fingerprints are all over our education system.

Education reformers who obsess over teacher quality, curriculum, and testing are missing well over half the story. You can’t solve a math problem if you refuse to wrestle with the inconvenient variables.

Yes, poor teaching must be confronted and eliminated. Yes, poor teacher training, where it exists, must be corrected. Yes, all students need and deserve a viable curriculum. Yes, teachers of disadvantaged students must expect appropriate academic results no matter what hurts the kids bring to the classroom. All that is true.

But it isn’t enough.

This is where our modern education reformers become an almost-identical facsimile of a previous generation of industry-inspired reformers who found their way to education system betterment. In fact, this story has already been written. When Henry Ford was our Bill Gates and the Industrial Revolution was our Internet Age, scientific management became all the rage. Taylorism, named for developer Frederick Taylor, was another name for scientific management, and it roared through the factories and assembly lines of America around the turn of the century, bringing with it efficiency and labor productivity. Those who embraced scientific management carefully studied workflows and motion and human resource investments. Using these theories, they regularly increased profitability, making more money for factory owners and shareholders.

In the early 1900s, business minds applied their genius for profit to America’s nascent public schools world. After all, what is a child other than an outcome?

And that is exactly the question, isn’t it? Just how quantifiable is a child?

I don’t believe the Taylorist reduces a child to a test score out of malice, but rather out of single-mindedness.

So we have replaced Henry Ford with Bill Gates, and we have replaced the tendency to import factory bells and shifts into our schools–which are still there, of course–with a tendency to give every child an iPad and create a nationwide data base for innumerable points of data (so that we may, for example, compare the results of our children with asthma who are Asian-American and receiving free lunches to our children with ADHD who are Native American and whose parents are divorced). It’s the same game, only bigger. It’s Taylorism on steroids.

Taylorism wasn’t all bad. Like every educational fad, it produced some lasting positive changes and some lasting negative changes, and a whole lot of shuffling of deck chairs that didn’t amount to much but kept everyone nicely occupied. Today’s education reform movement will likewise engender some improvements. But what the technocrat and the progressive dazzled by the technocrat don’t understand are the massive limitations that their preferred methodologies entail.

They are here to save the world with spreadsheets, some algorithms, a database, and some software.

Taylorism solved some tiny problems about time management and hiring practices. It fiddled at the margins of education. But before, during, and after the scientific management fad reigned in our schools, one thing held true: the deepest problems we still ran away from. They are politically tough, and we aren’t.

In other words, the modern techno-Taylorist looks at failing, hurting children (who would become brittle adults) with appropriate sympathy but then concludes that we realistically can’t do much about the racism and the unequal distribution of resources that hollow them out, so let’s not worry about that. Let the politicians sort that out (because, yeah, we should believe they’ll fix it). In the meantime, here are some cool gee-whiz gadgets and strategies that can really make a difference.

A tiny difference, truth be told.

We realistically can’t do much about the big immutable injustices that persist here, or so we all conspire to believe. That word “realistically” is a huge cop-out. It also reduces us all to enablers of the most unjust among us. And so we all work madly around the giant boulder that none of us wants to touch. But that doesn’t mean we can’t move it. It just means we aren’t willing to try.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are the biggest of today’s technocratic big ideas, and they are the one aspect of reform that may stick with us indefinitely, like school bells still hanging around from a previous era’s reforms. The CCSS are intended as something akin to building codes for learning, a list of targets that will remind Americans from coast-to-coast what their children should be learning in a given grade level, and they will remind teachers from coast-to-coast what their students should be commanding by the end of the term. I am not writing from a Common Core state, but it makes little difference. My state has its own standards, and there will shortly be vast political pressure to compete with the 45 states that have adopted CCSS, so I predict a certain evolutionary inevitability–the standards of those states that have rejected CCSS will, over time, become almost identical to CCSS in content, if not in name. This may be something the federal government is counting on when it grants waivers to states that haven’t adopted CCSS.

I don’t get as fired up in opposition to CCSS as many of my friends, because a standard is a standard is a standard. Since I started in education I’ve always taught under standards, and they are mildly constricting but I always had the freedom I needed to close the door and make my classes my own. That said, I philosophically agree with my friends who oppose the whole idea of standardizing education. I agree that children should have flexibility to pursue their passions, while also receiving some sort of guarantee that they will get a solid foundation in the basics. I agree that teachers need freedom and that paint-by-numbers education is boring and uninspiring. Standards–if implemented improperly–can become a top-down soul-sucking exercise in killing the fundamental promise of education. And standards tied to high stakes inevitably beget workbooks and a test prep focus that together conspire to sideline the teacher and his or her creativity and devolve education to mere training in basic skills and test-taking strategies.

This isn’t a prediction; it has already happened. High stakes inevitably reduce education to discrete skills training over the specific standards determined to be most likely to appear on the test. It can’t be avoided; self-interest demands such an approach to education. But champions of the standards insist that this time it will be different; this time the standards will merely “guide instruction.” Do you hear how kindly that sounds? (Those champions, of course, have no power over how the standards are implemented, so their assurances are long on hope and short on certainty.) We are encouraged repeatedly to see the promise of the CCSS standards and to ignore the scars of prior test-based reforms.

Now, when people argue back and forth about whether the Common Core State Standards were a plot driven by Bill Gates (whose foundation donated millions to ensure their taking root), I find it quite obvious that they are “a plot,” in that a plot is a plan. Was this “orchestrated”? Well, of course it was, in that “orchestrating” something means planning it out in advance.

The real fight isn’t over whether the CCSS was planned by an ‘in-group’ of billionaires and politicians and foundations for years before they were implemented, or whether cash-strapped states had little real choice in accepting them due to the carrots dangled by the federal government in exchange for acceptance. Everyone knows those two facts to be true, whether they will cop to them or not. The real fight is over the sinister connotation of words like “plot” and “orchestrated.”

The argument is over whether this plan was meant to help poor children have certain guarantees as to the quality of the education they will receive (the “benign view” of CCSS) or whether the CCSS are the nuclear bomb of a long-running scheme to devalue and then privatize large portions of the American public education system (the “malignant view” of CCSS).

I personally think it’s both.

I won’t ascribe positive impulses to BIll Gates himself, but I know that there are foundations and individuals supporting CCSS that are very supportive of public education. In other words, there are pro-education voices that are for CCSS. This leads me to conclude that it is possible to see these national standards as beneficial without necessarily being part of a cabal that wants to destroy public education.

I won’t ascribe negative impulses to Bill Gates himself, either, but I know that there are foundations and individuals supporting CCSS that have supported private school vouchers and unregulated charter schools and mass school closings and scientifically (and ethically) dubious value-added teacher evaluation protocols. This leads me to conclude that it is possible to see these national standards as highly valuable in an ongoing effort to destroy public education and build in its place a free market education system.

Is Bill Gates a philanthropist? Yes.

Is he a businessman? Yes.

Is he a technocrat? Yes.

Does he mean well? Maybe, maybe not. No one really knows what his end game is, except him. Benign view folks see him as a do-gooder (in the positive sense). Malignant view folks see him as an interloper (in the destructive sense).

Does he utilize his foundation’s money and his political clout to implement his ideas outside the restrictive confines of democracy? Yes.

Do people “on the ground” appreciate his benevolence or resent his manipulation? Yes, and yes.

Will CCSS finally fix the education of poor children? Or will it finally be the great checkmate in the school reform wars, convincing America once and for all that her public education experiment is a lumbering failure and should be replaced with agile undemocratic schools? I think the answer to this is neither.

The best and worst case scenarios won’t pan out. They rarely do. CCSS will ultimately become another school bell ringing to remind us of the good intentions and limited thinking of a generation of education reformers. The alignment of curriculum is really a great deal like the alignment of class schedules and salary schedules that reform ancestors devised. These are the products of outsiders ordering things in the schoolhouse, while disorder gleefully reigns in the streets and the homes and the workplaces.

The wizards of education–these galloping technocrats with blogs and speaking gigs and paid-for white papers–give us all hope that we can fix our children without tackling the big issues that confront our society. That hope is ultimately hollow.

They toot horns and host a polished event called “PISA Day” to tout American student test scores as compared to Singaporean student test scores. (Spoiler: it wasn’t good news.) But the technocrats, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, are men without chests. They are all brain and no heart. They put their tooting horns far away when it comes time to compare child poverty rates. There is no “child poverty day.” They put away their tooting horns when it comes time to compare levels of income inequality among the developed countries.

In short, if all you mull is academic, you aren’t studying the whole problem and you won’t find the solution. The scariest thing for a poor child in America is a technocrat who has convinced himself or herself that he or she has all the data that matters, the key to all the right prescriptions. The technocrat is selectively blind to much of what matters most.

There is a conundrum facing American K-12 education. It is the same conundrum that we faced in 1890, and it is the same conundrum we will face when CCSS has been guiding instruction in all our schools for decades. The conundrum will outlast the reforms, because scientific managers and technocrats all fail to get at the roots.

How do we educate “those” kids?

The wizardry of technocrats, sadly, is insufficient to solve our problems. Their prescriptions may assuage some of them a bit, and then again they may not. I appreciate their concern, but I would love it if they would focus on everything that matters.

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