During our school board retreat today, our vice-chairman called the need to dramatically improve our low-performing schools a “moral imperative.” We have the levers for change at our disposal: research shows that principals and classroom teachers can make a signficiant and lasting difference in improving student academic performance. His empassioned and eloquent call for change made me think of something another board member shared with me recently. If scientists studying a lake found only one or two fish of the same species dying they would likely attribute the deaths to natural causes. If all the fish in the lake began dying, or if one particular type of fish began dying enmasse, the scientists would raise the alarm about environmental factors and start assessing what is present in the lake that is so toxic to these fish. Her question to me, which echoes our board vice-chairman’s remarks, was simple. When the evidence is so overwhelming that students of color, particularly African-American children, and students who come from poor families, are not doing well in our schools, why do we assume this is caused by the students and their families and not by the school environment? The fish are dying. When are we going to quit blaming their parents and start looking at the lake? It’s a good question.
Archive for September, 2009
Why is everyone so angry? For those of us in public education, outbursts like Senator Wilson’s shout “You Lie” at the President are nothing new. We hear angry accusations everyday, along with the underlying assumption of ill intent, the sneer of disrespect. It was disheartening to see our President treated this way, and not particularly comforting to learn from an NPR historian that decorum at this hallowed event has been steadily eroding since the Clinton administration. I spend a fair amount of time each week helping folks understand that we really don’t spend all our time in central office plotting how to make folks miserable, or that teachers and principals aren’t purposefully trying to keep children from learning to read, write or “do” math. The assumption of incompetence can be a bit galling at times, but I find that easier to deal with than the doubts about integrity, the assumption of some stain of guilt or lack, of truthfulness, of good intent, or shared values or goals. An early mentor of mine once said “that credibility is like virginity, you only lose it one time.” Of course, this advice was given when facts still seemed essential to matters of truth or opinion. It’s hard to have a civil debate when facts are viewed as inconsequential, when positions matter more than sound public policy, when style masquerades as substance, and when talk radio is considered credible.