Ending the one-sided conversation

Ending the one-sided conversation

A new book shows how fear and bad data are used to influence education policy
John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt CISD in Texas, is the author of "Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education."

In 1836, William B. Travis, leading Texan forces fighting at the Alamo, issued a plea for reinforcements, “To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World.” The defiant letter is often regarded by historians as important as the Declaration of Independence.

Travis’s sentiments were echoed 175 years later by John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt CISD in Texas. His own “Alamo Letter” begins:

“Gentlemen, I am besieged, by a hundred or more of the Legislators under Rick Perry. I have sustained a continual bombardment of increased high-stakes testing and accountability-related bureaucracy and a cannonade of gross underfunding for 10 years at least and have lost several good men and women. The ruling party has demanded another round of pay cuts and furloughs, while the schoolhouse be put to the sword and our children’s lunch money be taken to keep taxes low for big business. I am answering the demand with a (figurative) cannon shot ... I shall never surrender the fight for the children of Perrin.”

Kuhn’s new book Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education (Teachers College Press, 2014), continues the fight with a call for sensible reform.

As the title of your book suggests, politicians and corporate interests have long used fear to influence public opinion, whether it’s for war, health care or education.

There’s a lot of marketing involved to try and get policies in place that you may want in place because of your ideology. One of the real quick and easy ways to try to get support for that is to scare people.

I read “A Nation at Risk” and the report from Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein that said, “The physical safety of America is at risk because of our public education system.” At some point you have to stop and say, “Is this exaggerated? Is this being blown out of proportion to advance some sort of cause?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that, absolutely, there is a lot of hyperbole and a lot of fear mongering that goes on when it comes to education politics and, really, politics in general.

You wrote, “Public opinion about me and my occupation seems to have shifted for the worse”—highlighting teachers as takers. When did that begin?

The first time I noticed it was in 2006 when I watched a Jon Stossel report on ABC’s 20/20 show called “Stupid in America.” I still remember it vividly. I remember saying, “Wow, teachers are the bad guys. How did that happen?”

It surprised me, because I had kind of this naïve idea that teachers are public servants and they serve the community, and they really don’t get paid a lot to do what they do. I grew up the son of a firefighter. I was always really proud of my dad and the self-sacrifice that goes with risking your life to serve the community.

I never risked my life as a teacher, but I always felt like I gave more than I took, and I always felt that way about my colleagues and coworkers.

Resentment toward teachers and public education has always been there, to some extent, because of taxation that’s needed to pay salaries of those people. The question that’s more interesting to me is: When did it become a mainstream thought process, embraced by both parties? I would say that’s been a really recent development.

How recently? Are we talking about No Child Left Behind or earlier?

“A Nation at Risk” certainly laid the groundwork for it, but I think the education accountability movement—begun in Texas with Gov. George W. Bush and ushered onto the national stage as NCLB—definitely amped up the conversation. It started the conversation with this kind of assumption of deficiency.

The biggest concern I’ve always had is that accountability systems completely disregard the funding differences that schools face. You can be a low-funded school or you can be a high-funded school, but you still have to get your kids to score exactly the same on their standardized tests. You are setting up the low-funded schools for failure.

Teachers take the brunt of the blame for failure. Is there an objective measure to ensure that schools have the best teachers and can do their jobs?

I don’t think you’ll ever get a totally objective measure, but you can construct a fair and reasonable measure that gets at the quality of education. You can’t do it by obsessively looking at scores on a math and reading test, which is basically what we’ve done.

It’s a relentless nitpicking of public schools—often to make partisan political points—about how we’re protecting the taxpayer and that sort of thing. In my mind, there’s a difference between protecting the taxpayer and political theater about protecting the taxpayer that really has detrimental impact on the actual public services that you say you are holding accountable.

Every new administration, on the state or federal level, wants to institute a new education system, something that will fix it once and for all.

In my experience as a teacher, even at the local level, I think it’s real tempting for educators and education policymakers to fall for fads in education. I think the reason for that is we’re all desperate to get good results. Kids’ futures depend on what kind of education they get, so we want to get results.

There’s no shortage of people out there, both at the local level and probably at the state and federal policymaker levels, of people promoting different products and approaches that they say will be the magic bullet. Unfortunately, I think sometimes we get suckered pretty easily in education and we want to believe that this latest approach will fix everything.

Does the Common Core fall into that category?

The promise of the Common Core and the promise of a lot of these education reforms is to provide kids in different areas of the United States with equitable curriculum and equitable teacher quality. That’s a noble thing to do, to say, “No matter where you live, we want you to have access to the same rigorous curriculum and the same quality of teacher.” Those are very good things to press for.

What troubles me is that the conversation stops right there. If we just fix the schools, everything will be hunky dory.

But that has muted a broader conversation about a more expansive equity that we need to have in order to get actual academic results, especially in our most impoverished neighborhoods. When we mute that conversation, I think we do a huge disservice to our kids and to our teachers’ ability to be successful.

In this climate there’s little incentive for teachers to speak out without fear of retribution.

That’s why most of them don’t. Most teachers are wise not to stir up trouble and speak out politically.

What’s really troubling to me is teachers don’t even really vote in large numbers. I think that’s problematic. At the same time, our policymakers should be eliciting teacher input in policy conversations and decisions.

I’m not saying we should listen only to teachers and students when it comes to education policy, but what we’ve done is essentially stopped listening to them.

My experience working with teachers is they are very conscientious people. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with really want to do a great job. And they do need help. And when they ask for help, I think it’s important that we hear them out.

One of the solutions you offer in your book is to enlist better gatekeepers in educator prep programs. Explain what you mean.

I’ve read quite a bit about the policies and practices that were enacted in Finland. We always hear about how great Finland’s education system is. We also know that Finland has much lower rates of child poverty than the United States does, so a lot of people will dismiss their good results by saying, “Well, it’s a different population of kids”—which is true.

At the same time, Finland made big improvements in the student test results on international test scores. They saw gains. They worked very hard to ensure equity.

We’ve done a really terrible job of that in the United States when it comes to school funding. We don’t even attempt to fund our schools equitably.

They also focused on the quality of their teaching staff and they made it tougher to become a teacher. I think that’s something that the United States could look at and learn from.

You say, “Reform should be done by educators, not to them.” How can we change to that attitude?

I think they are starting to do that. I see a silver lining to the so-called education reform wars. This noisy conversation that we’re having is actually paying off with some positive changes.

The collaboration that is needed as a lot of these top-down reforms are implemented is happening because parents and teachers are starting to speak up. It is no longer a one-sided conversation where teachers and parents just take what they are given by politicians and business lobbyists.

Tim Goral is senior editor.


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