My view: Getting education reform right
June 13th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

My view: Getting education reform right

Courtesy DC WhittenburgBy John Kuhn, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: John Kuhn is superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, the same rural Texas school district he attended as a student from kindergarten through 12th grade.

(CNN) - In an election year where the question of our nation’s fiscal future is front and center, we cannot forget that the educational progress of our children is pivotal for renewing U.S. prosperity. Yet more than 10 years after its enactment, there is scant evidence that the Bush-era No Child Left Behind federal law has lived up to its promise to provide a better quality education for students being left behind in public schools. Indeed, we are witnessing its failures in real time, and millions of our neediest children stand in the dust of No Child Left Behind.

While NCLB has made blaming and shaming local schools and individual middle-class educators the centerpiece of education policy, Texas schools are funded through a system, the Target Revenue System, in which each school district is assigned a dollar amount per student that varies according to property wealth. Areas blessed with high property values or mineral wealth automatically have more money pumped into their school systems, which translates directly into newer computers, better books and more qualified teachers for their children.

So while each district is required to offer the same mandated programs and have its students achieve an identical minimum in terms of test scores, attendance rates and graduation rates, the schools in wealthier communities receive more resources with which to achieve the same results. Our kids all run the same race; it’s just that some of them get to wear Nikes, and some get flip flops. Good luck kids.

The bottom line is that Texas is investing millions more to educate children in rich neighborhoods than it is spending to educate the same number of kids in our poor neighborhoods. And if the kids in the poor zip codes fail to achieve high test scores, the federal government reserves blame for their teachers and their school boards, not for the architects of the great brain robbery being perpetrated against children born in the wrong neighborhoods. This goes on nationwide.

In the absence of a new federal education framework authorized by Congress, the Obama administration is granting waivers that will let states off the hook for some key equity measures meant to improve outcomes for struggling students, schools and districts. Although these specific waiver requirements may be new, the direction of the reforms they embrace isn’t much different from NCLB: Measuring outcomes without requiring the appropriate inputs, labeling schools and teachers without appropriate measurements or supports and emphasizing testing in narrow subject areas instead of encouraging a well-rounded and balanced education. Again under the waivers, there is plenty of blame to go around, but none for politicians who through their funding shenanigans cynically rob opportunity from the very same children who end up failing their tests in startling numbers.

This approach continues to ignore the mounting evidence that reform focused exclusively on outcomes actually widens the achievement gap. It also amounts to a refusal to fix the growing inequities in educational funding that exacerbate student underachievement and pose the biggest roadblock to teacher effectiveness. This leaves our teachers – who are being asked to do more with less everyday – continuously on trial under NCLB. Meanwhile, our lawmakers escape scrutiny for not passing policies that will help alleviate these inequities and remediate other out-of-school factors, such as poverty, homelessness and lack of adequate health care – all of which have conclusively devastating effects on student test scores.

We are merely treating the fever we see and ignoring the cancer that causes it.

Perhaps in an effort to address these shortcomings, the administration's fiscal year 2013 budget significantly boosts educational investments, including a request for up to $30 billion to prevent teacher layoffs and address teacher quality and another $30 billion to improve school facilities. However, while these recommended investments are much needed, they are offset by the expansion of competitive grant programs that direct substantial sums away from more inclusive formula-funded programs and toward the few states and organizations that meet specific, but often experimental, requirements — requirements all too often supported by “research” that comes straight from ideology-driven think tanks.

There is no doubt that the stakes are high. Our nation is in the middle of a great demographic shift. Children of color younger than 18 will become a majority of all children in the United States by the end of the decade. These young people largely come from lower-income households in neighborhoods with struggling schools. If we fail to implement the right policy framework that supports achievement for all students, strengthens the teaching profession and strikes the right balance between opportunity and accountability, the United States will find itself falling even further behind in the global economy.

In the end, although salesmen of countless nouveau “miracle” programs will say otherwise, our success or failure in education isn’t the exclusive property of teachers. If anything, many thousands of brave teachers nationwide are trying to undo the harms perpetrated by politicians – both in Texas and in our nation’s capitol – who use budget shortfalls as an excuse to ignore the needs of the most vulnerable (and most under-represented) in our society. We have seen fit to quietly give educational scraps to other people’s children for too long, and now that we see the inescapable results, we would rather tear down the schools than offend the merchants of inequity who inhabit our voting booths — ourselves.

We owe it to ourselves to get education reform right. The 2020 Vision Roadmap: A Pre-K Through Postsecondary Blueprint for Educational Success from the Opportunity to Learn campaign provides a comprehensive reform approach that includes many evidence-informed strategies that give all students a real opportunity to learn. Policymakers, education professionals, parents and other stakeholders should use it to guide the policies and practices they must advance to support our children's dreams and restore our nation's prosperity. Or, we can just keep doing more of the same.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Kuhn.

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Filed under: Issues • NCLB • Policy • Race to the Top • Testing • Voices
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. jhlang

    Reform in its truest sense begins with stabilizing the middle class and funding education equitably.

    June 25, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • Bob Johns

      Reform parenting is what is needed. Plocie in the schools to protect sutdents – think to protect teachers.l Teachers are to educate your children not raise them. Dumpping them off at schoolo, then dumping them in front of the TV until all hours of the night is not parenting – its breeding!

      June 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  2. Momof4

    There is not a simple solution to improving our schools. Many things like class size, good teachers, parental involvement and student motivation are all factors in our children’s education. From personal experience I don’t think that just throwing money at the problem helps. For example, our school put a smartboard in every classroom. The problem is that half of the teachers cannot or will not use them. Our teachers are so well paid that many refuse to retire. At least 2 of my children’s teachers were found wandering the school lost. The teacher’s union is so strong that it is almost impossible to remove a teacher. Some of our worst teachers have become administrators. I’ve had to explain to our principle why it was important for 3rd graders to memorize their times tables. Unless there is an efficient way to remove poor teachers and administrators from our school systems then pouring money into the system will not do anything to improve our children’s education.

    June 21, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • aflarend

      As a physics teacher, your comment about smart boards hit home . Without asking if we wanted/needed/could use them, smart boards appeared in our rooms, covering the middle half of the whiteboard, basically leaving small space on either side. That is horrible. There is not enough room for me to adequately demonstrate solving a physics problem with 2 equations and 2 unknowns. There is not enough room for students to write their lab results for peer review. The whiteboard becomes a focus for passivity in the classroom. Physics is not conducive to a smart board. Is it however, conducive to hands on group problem solving which a smart board does not add anything new. All I needed was a projector, but I was not consulted. Wasted money.
      The purpose of this rant was to show that you cannot not simply judge a teacher by whether they use the latest gadget. Some of the deepest learning my students do is with a pop up toy that costs 50 cents. And you do not know why your teachers are not retiring. We need to base our educational decisions on real and deep evidence, not agendas and hearsay. For example, there is a well established relationship between socioeconomic status and school achievement however funding is not based on this fact.

      June 21, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  3. Mike

    I can drop 2Trillion dollars on poor schools, but if the students do not want to learn and will just steal and break all the new equipment, then i am sorry, i can not do anything. Can't force the horse to drink the water. It all has to do with the PARENTS, why can no single idiotic commentator realize this. There's a reason why wealthy kids have wealthy parents, that's because their grandparents probably encouraged them to try their best.

    Oh well, it will be fun to see how education will turn out to be in the future.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  4. jakporch

    Welcome to a blog you are best blog writer, you write correct thing. I am fan of you. I read every blog of you.

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    June 18, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  5. R deniro

    Defence? Ha ha take a look at the secure perimeter the fed established , some of the WORLDS worst enemies were presidents of the united states. U S best armed and least defended nation in history

    June 15, 2012 at 3:56 am |
  6. al;jk

    Education, after our economy is back up to speed, should be the #1 investment. Defense should be after education. It is the most important long-term fuel for society

    June 14, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • pogojo

      Defense is the #1 job of the government, this should be a state issue not a fed issue, if your state has bad eduication at least you can move to another with a better system, if the fed control it you have no choices just a bad system.

      June 14, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Josh

      al;jk – When you total federal, state and local investment, that is already happening.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  7. kathleenrobinson425

    Funding affects the teacher to student ratio. More learning, student engagement, questioning, immediate observing and assessing, and clarifying will happen in a room with 20 students than a room with 32 students. Simply put, higher learning will take place and more students will "get it." And they are enthusiastically vocal when they say, "Oh, I get it!"

    June 14, 2012 at 3:40 am |
  8. Stu Nahan

    Problem is mexicos mentally challenged culture. LOGIC used to be a course of study. Growing your brain is painful unless it involves a personal passion like auto racing, yyay

    June 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  9. Kathleen Robinson

    John Kuhn is so right about the disparate funding; the schools with the lowest socio-economic populations, thus the students with the least advantages for advancement, (often students of color, and many poverty-level white students, whose parents have had even less education then their children,) receive the least funding. The result is, these schools have had to lay off teachers and work with overcrowded classrooms, which in turn results in more time with discipline than teaching. Teachers have no time for the students eager to be engaged and challenged, no time for the student lagging behind and frustrated. In between lies mediocracy.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  10. jay

    I would ask, what does it cost, on average to educate a child? Is it state dependent?

    June 13, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Josh

      Yes, it depends upon the cost of living of the area, because salaries are the driving factor.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm |