Teachers Who Stay, Parents and Kids Who Don’t

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

For us non-educational-professional observers, news that the Kansas City School District has been dis-accredited by the State Education Department brings the sweet taste of schadenfreude. Under the Winston Churchill principle –“everyone who uses buildings is entitled to be an architectural critic”– everyone who’s been to school is similarly authorized, even if –horrors–we’re non-credentialed. And to us, the KCSD is a particularly interesting case, because its recent downward trajectory towards industry embarrassment status started out in 1982 with the management take-over by the educational experts of the Federal Court System, in whose august legal opinion the KCSD wasn’t doing sufficiently well for its students. Now, it’s deemed by the State Ed Dep’t to be so bad that parents can legally yank their kids and send them elsewhere on the KCSD dime in pursuit of reading and math Proficiency. (Not that the kids’ prospects are all that much better elsewhere in Kansas or, indeed, elsewhere in the US public K-12 system, because the Federal stats show that 2/3 of them never achieve Reading and Math Proficiency in their undeserved grade-to-grade promotion through to graduation and the diplomas they can’t quite read and comprehend.) KC famously built –by court order –planetaria and fencing labs, UN debate halls and Olympic swimming pools, but somehow none of that legally-imposed architectural embellishment changed the (in)abilities to understand letters and numbers, all 36 of them. If we’re now “enjoying the misfortune of others”, it’s because we –all us non-credentialed dummies– saw this coming. Your Humble Scribe in particular, who earlier had labored under the direction of John Henry Martin, retired New York State school superintendent who had just invented the Magnet Schools concept, was among those first forced to question the ephemeral notion that such pleasant and pricey digs would instill, if not love-of-learning (which most of us grade-school kids never had much of) then at least acceptance of obligation-to-memorize, which was deeply inculcated by fearsome parents and principals. And the KCSD became a symbol of that failure-of-theoretical-fantasies. Achievement was, in fact, slightly higher before the fed take-over than after. That was because the better students were pulled out by their parents.

The conventional wisdom –the Progressive Party Line, if you will– has been that the abject failure at KCSD, with a local taxpayer bill (no-vote allowed) of over $2 billion and counting, with low achievement test scores before the federal Court system took over, and afterwards, too, with middle-class flight, first white and now black, was all the fault of those selfish middle-class white parents who, unbelievably, wouldn’t leave their kids in schools where physical assault by fellow-“students” went un-noticed by “teachers”; but now that the middle-class of all ethnicities is fleeing such districts as KC, and Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, and even little Yonkers-on-the-Hudson, the racist accusation is wearing thin. Now gaining an acceptability toe-hold in a very few academic circles, but not, of course, Progressive ones, is the not-new (but until now totally rejected) thesis that school failure (as in KCSD) isn’t the schools’ fault but –gasp– the “students'” fault. Probably the earliest book on the subject is Robert Rubel’s 1977 “The Unruly School.” This little volume is one of very few wherein the author tackles the Politically Incorrect subject of Students-Who-Won’t-Learn: not as forcefully as it should be done, with no mention of the pre-’60’s decades, when the SWWL problem didn’t exist; and with almost no mention of the folly of judging teacher effectiveness by student (non)achievement, when the teachers who has even a few of these SWWL’s assigned to his classroom is doomed to failure, while another, fortunate to be free of SWWL’s, can expect a more favorable set of real student achievements (in the pre-’60’s, all students made proficient or they weren’t promoted to the next grade) and thus a more favorable performance evaluation. Then, in the ’90’s, Rubel was followed by authors Laurence Steinberg in “Beyond the Classroom” (see particularly pp. 62-77 on “disengaged students”) and Charles Murray in “Losing Ground” (see particularly pp. 173-189 for the role of peer pressure in SWWL behavior, and pp. 200-220, for the role of new-in-the-’60’s governmental rules denying teachers the power to curtail SWWL behavior, with the resulting downward pressure on the achievement of all other students in the classroom). Both Steinberg and Murray argue that disengagement and disruption are voluntary behaviors, once forbidden, now accepted; that equipping schools with magnetic planetaria and swimming pools doesn’t change such behaviors; and that students over most of the IQ range could master the grade-school material if they wanted to and as they were once expected to. In a trenchant quote, Steinberg writes, “…disengagement is not a reaction to too much pressure or to classes that are too difficult, but a response to having too little demanded of them and the absence of any consequences for failing to meet even these minimal demands.” But, for the K-12 systems, there have been consequences. One is the middle-class withdrawal of their children from such dysfunctional schools, magnetic or not; and the other is the impending administrator effort to (a little Obama-era political street lingo, here) throw their own teachers under the bus with the evaluation shovel.

And now there’s a nation-wide State-by-State drive for non-consequence. Since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, requiring that schools produce almost 100% Proficient students by 2014, most schools and all States haven’t considered making the required Annual Yearly Progress towards that not-very-remarkable goal any sort of priority; so now they’re pushing for waivers. From once-red/now blue Vermont to once-blue/now-red Tennessee, politicians are arguing for waivers as essential for more “academic freedom” (TN’s Governor Haslam) and against “artificially targeting all schools as failing” (VT’s Deputy Ed Commissioner Knopf). In that sort of we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-achievement-badges-for-results political context, it’s small wonder that parents with rational expectations (a little Chicago-School-of-Economics lingo there) are sending their kids elsewhere, and teachers with rational expectations (the really good ones) are opting to leave while those without (the really-not-good-ones) are opting to stay. The Kansas State Ed Department has just made the whole debacle highly visible by admitting failure in the once-a-magnetic-benchmark Kansas City School District case.

Indeed, as the cowboys-at-the-train-station in “Oklahoma” sang, long before this demolition of public education began to take shape, “everything’s up to date in Kansas City; they’ve gone about as far as they can go.”