When you are a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States, slight turns of phrase carry more weight than they do for ordinary citizens. Former Senator and Secretary of State and front runner for the Democratic Party nomination for President Hillary Clinton is no exception. For example, charter school advocates took multiple turns on the fainting couch when Secretary Clinton made the entirely accurate observation that many of our “high flying” charter schools do not have the same student characteristics as district schools. For a candidate who has deep and lasting ties to organizations favoring today’s education reform and personal connections to figures like Eli Broad who are advancing plans to rapidly and massively increase charter schools, it was quite an observation which did not go unnoticed by charter advocates – or by supporters of public education.
More recently, Secretary Clinton gave public education advocates pause when, on the campaign trail in Iowa and in the midst of a larger talk about schools, she said, “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, you know, that may not be good for the kids.”
Her comment set off a flurry of responses, mostly negative, from numerous sources for several reasons. First, the question of schools doing “better than average” raised eyebrows as determining average performance means adding all schools’ together and then dividing the by the number of schools — in the case of K-12 public education, that’s well over 98,000 schools, a substantial portion of which would have to be “below average” because that’s how math works. Some have posed that her comment meant half of all schools would be open to being closed, but that would only be fully true if the target was “median.” Further, no matter how well schools do, there will, by definition, always be those who are “below average.” Conceptually, it is entirely possible for every school in the country to be doing exceptionally well for all children, and there were still be schools that are below the average.
Also of concern is the implication that schools should be closed, which is one of the central tools of today’s education reform that seeks to label, pressure, and ultimately close schools using standardized test based metrics. Secretary Clinton almost casually mentioned one of the core aspects of education reform as practiced in the United States, indicative of how normalized the concept is even with the growing understanding that market disruption in education ends up hurting the children it claims to help, especially black and Latino children who bear the brunt of school closure as policy. While the federal government has only a peripheral role in policy choices like this, it has played a significant role in encouraging, incentivizing, and funding the expansion of charter schools which can establish themselves in closed schools. Secretary Clinton’s remarks carried the specter of this continuing during a Clinton administration.
So it is hardly surprising that her campaign was treated to swift and pointed remarks:
First, the good news: The context of Secretary Clinton’s remarks were in a talk about supporting public schools in Iowa, specifically schools widely regarded as doing a good job but in danger because of Iowa’s particular budgeting laws. Senior Spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained that Secretary Clinton was speaking against Iowa’s Governor starving rural school districts with shrinking tax bases and that her career was “a commitment to fixing struggling schools, not shutting them down.” It is undeniable that her short comment about “below average” schools came in the context of remarks that were broadly supportive of public schools struggling in the face of policies that unfairly deny them necessary resources:
And so for the life of me, I don’t understand why your state government — and I know Governor Brandstad vetoed the money that would’ve come to help this school, and it was a bipartisan agreement. Y’know those are hard to come by these days. You had a bipartisan agreement in your legislature for more one-time student funding to help deal with some of the financial challenges that districts like this one have.
And Governor Brandstad vetoed it. Yet at the same time you have these laws which require if you have a deficit you may not be able to be a school district. It doesn’t make sense to me. When you- When you- Something is not broke, don’t break it. Right?
And this school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better-than-average job. Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids. But when you have a district that is doing a good job, it seems kinda counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.
The full talk is longer than an hour if even more context is needed:
For the sake of argument, I can also accept that “below average” was meant as a clumsy proxy for “not good.” That’s an acceptable colloquial use, and I do not personally believe that Secretary Clinton would mean below the mathematical definition of average; she’s far too intelligent to not know what it means. Secretary Clinton absolutely did not mean that we should seek to close nearly half the schools in the country, as was almost gleefully reported in a variety of right wing media outlets (who in their normal daily business, it should be noted for irony’s sake, are all too happy to bash public schools full of unionized teachers).
Of course, there is also bad news. Peter Greene of Curmudgucation very astutely observed that the context does not exactly absolve Secretary Clinton:
Clinton used “below average” as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what “below average” really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what’s going on in education reform. If she doesn’t understand that, she doesn’t understand some of the most fundamental problems we’re facing.
Clinton’s glib use of “wouldn’t keep any school open” shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in “closing” a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she’s glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.
This is essentially correct in my opinion, and, as mentioned above, it indicates just how normalized the current language of accountability and threats to schools is without our political landscape. Schools are measured as successes and failures using distant measurements that are absent any locally understood input, and then they are threatened until those measures rise – or the school is closed and frequently turned over to a private operator with absolutely no accountability to local democratic institutions. Secretary Clinton may have been, to her credit, talking about the insanity of a state government financially starving local schools, but she signaled that the essential framework of No Child Left Behind is still alive and well in our political discourse. Given that the new Every Student Succeeds Acts simultaneously maintains annual testing and leaves significant aspects of using that data in school accountability to the states, the tone from Washington will still matter for how the states pursue the law’s requirements.
This reflects a lasting concern among scholars and advocates for public education that in the 32 years since A Nation At Risk was published and in the almost 15 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the call for accountability in our education system has been entirely unidirectional – with schools and teachers called upon to lift students and communities from poverty and inequality while the rest of society is called upon to do exactly nothing. David Berliner wrote about this issue a decade ago as NCLB was coming into full force:
All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”
To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.
It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.
The severity of this problem in many of our communities cannot be overstated. Consider Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada. According to the Nevada DOE, Whitney is a “two star” school out of a possible five stars with only 40 points out of 100 on the state’s accountability scale in the academic year ending in 2012. Data for subgroups, such as children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English, show lower performance at Whitney than for similar children statewide, and Whitney’s overall test based performance and growth measured by tests is much lower than state averages.
Using these external measures we would have to concede that Whitney Elementary is “below average” for academics both in the mathematical sense and in the colloquial sense. Is that the bottom line, however? Is this a school that, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “may not be good for the kids”?
I ask because I learned about this school via a story on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, where co-host Celeste Headlee investigated the trying circumstances of America’s working poor and homeless families in the run up to the 2012 election. Her reporting took her to Las Vegas to a family whose children attend Whitney. I recommend reading this transcript with a box of tissues nearby:
Headlee: Rick’s kids go to the Whitney School where half of the kids are homeless. At the Whitney, the school provides meals not just for the school day but for the weekend as well. Kim Butterfield is a teaching assistant at Whitney. She says her students are clearly hungry and desperate.
Butterfield: I work in the cafeteria for lunch duty, and a lot of times I would see children putting ketchup packets in their pockets, lots of them, to take home for – what they do is put a little water in them to make ketchup soup. And just noticing the kids were very hungry, all the time.
Headlee: Without those free school meals many of these kids would not have anything to eat. Instead of talking about TV shows or music or Facebook, these kids talk about food and how it feels to be hungry.
Child: We don’t have any dinner at home. It’s already happened five times.
Headlee: How does that feel?
Child: Well, it felt kind of weird because it felt like I was kind of getting dizzy one time.
Headlee: And like Rick’s kids, the rest of the students at the Whitney also worry about their families. Eight year old Steven says he tries hard in class, but he can’t stop thinking about his pregnant mother.
Steven: We don’t have enough money to get the food for the baby. I feel really sad for it, so that’s why mother thinks we’re going to give it to adoption. But I’m not sure if it costs money and the good thing about it is my mother gets to choose who it is.
Headlee: Another student, Leslie, is six but without the bubbling energy we often associate with first graders. In hushed tones, Leslie describes what appeared on her dinner table one night.
Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.
Headlee: Eating rats? Is that something that happens – a lot or it happened just once?
Headlee: Once. Was that because she ran out of food? Yeah. How did that make you feel?
Sherrie Gahn, Principal at Whitney, explained what occupies her students’ minds that distracts from their academics: “The dream here is that these children will be on the same level playing field as any other child in America. We know that doesn’t happen because they are in such survival mode and they can’t possibly learn because they are not thinking about learning. They are thinking about their shoes hurting or where they are going to go to sleep at night or if they are going to have a place to sleep at night or their tummies are grumbling.”
Let’s be frank: Whitney is obviously an extreme example of the kinds of schools where students come from struggling families and communities. However, because of our outsized child poverty rate where 45% of children live in families that are either in or near poverty and because of our high rates of income segregation, there are a staggering number of schools classified as “high poverty” by the federal government, meaning that more than 75% of students are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program. In the 2007-2008 school year, there were 16,122 such public elementary and secondary schools in America, 18% of all public K-12 public schools. While the children at Whitney are in exceptionally dire straights, there many thousands of schools whose students’ families are only a few paychecks from joining them.
With that in mind, I dare anyone to look at a school that is literally all that is standing between its children and daily hunger and call it a failure – or even “below average”. Go on. Try.
Berliner’s concept of “two-way accountability” is absolutely essential here. The teachers and administrators at most of our most poverty stricken schools want what is best for their children. But for decades, they have labored in a policy environment that demands that they lift those children from poverty while the rest of society accepts zero responsibility for the policies that have ravaged their communities. Our child poverty rate is not natural law. In many ways it is a choice that could be addressed by policy as other nations have done.
If Secretary Clinton wants to talk about education in terms that evoke accountability, I challenge her to only do so when similarly challenging our society and our economy to be equally accountable for opportunity and for providing the resources needed for equitable opportunity to become our norm. I challenge her to talk about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. I challenge her to talk about the estimated $197 billion in capital improvements needed in our school facilities just to get all schools to “good” condition. I challenge her to call for full wrap around services in all “high poverty” schools and to increase Title I funding available to schools serving poor children in general. In short, I challenge her to change the conversation on accountability to one reflected in the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.
She was right on that. She should take up that challenge now.