Executive Corner

Bombing Children Into the Stone Age

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


Last spring, one of the television networks showed the movie Failsafe as a live performance. Failsafe was written at the height of the Cold War and featured a confrontation between Russia and the United States that ended in the United States accidentally launching missiles at Moscow. To prevent a full-scale nuclear war, the American president agreed to drop nuclear bombs on New York City as a sign of good faith to Russia to prove that we were not interested in starting World War III.

The movie is a disturbing view of our history and a moral lesson of how close humanity can come to societal suicide. If we use Failsafe as a metaphor for our current approach to educational improvement, we see similar disturbing overtones.

For years public education has been under threat. Some even suggest a conspiracy is operating to destroy public education. Beginning with "A Nation at Risk," America has been told its public schools are failing and that drastic action is needed. In fact, that report pointed out that if this failure had been imposed on us by a foreign power it would be considered an act of war. While those of us in schools understand the rhetoric was overblown and the accusations of failure were exaggerated, we also know we are not doing all we should for all our children.

Improvement must be made much faster now than in the past. Further, today’s economy demands higher skills, even in formerly low-skill jobs. That means we can no longer tolerate some of our kids doing well and some not. The needs of the changing workplace are one reason behind the standards movement and the current emphasis on testing to those standards.

Minding the Gap
Now let me strike while the irony is hot. The whole school reform movement is built on the assumption that we must bring all our children to higher standards. It could be convincingly argued that many of our kids are already there. Most children who go to schools in middle-class or affluent areas have adequate skills for the current workplace and many of them have higher skills than their future jobs will demand. However, children who go to school where there are concentrations of poor children tend to have a more difficult time of it. Efforts at improvement, by definition, are aimed at those children since they are the ones not meeting the standards. In essence, the whole standards movement targets poor children as its ultimate goal.

Yet the system that has been devised to help them seems singularly inappropriate to the task. The theory behind higher standards is that holding lower expectations for these children is racist and will hold these children back from future success.

This is true, but a difference exists between expectations and standards. Standards are somewhat arbitrary external creations of what someone else thinks someone else should do. Expectations are internal manifestations of what a person comes to believe about what they should do for themselves. Developing higher expectations for low-income kids is appropriate. But standards arbitrarily developed by others are too often disconnected from children’s lives.

Now, we lay on top of that a high-stakes test that says that in one fell swoop we will determine not only whether you have mastered the standards but also whether you are capable of moving to the next step in the process. It is a perverse form of Monopoly that says that if you pass the test you can pass Go and collect your reward. Fail and you are held back in jail. Again, the brunt of these tests is aimed at poor children. Middle-class children can pass them.

All this might make some sense if we provided resources to the targeted children to prepare them for these attacks. If low-income children had higher per-pupil support, the best teachers, the finest facilities and great curriculum, all this might make sense. But we know that is rarely the case. So we are targeting the very children who get the least to shoulder the heaviest burden. They are the victims of the system we have created.

Creating the Means
This brings me back to Failsafe. While we can blame governors and state legislators who are ignorant about education or who have failed to correct the inequities over which they preside, it is educational leaders who are constructing the accountability systems that lead to the destruction of some of our children.

Educators are doing that out of political expediency to prove we can be accountable. While we did not create the ends, we are the architects of the means. In essence, we are creating educational systems that are bombing some of our children back to the Stone Age so that we can preserve the public education system for the rest. We can protest that "The devil made us do it," but our silence and acquiescence marks us for responsibility. We are the ones sacrificing one city so the others may live. While this might be politically smart and helpful to our own survival, I am not sure it is conscionable.

Yes, we must be accountable to the public. Yes, we must raise the bar for all children and most especially for those at the bottom. But we have to give them the support necessary to survive. They must be given shelter. If we are going to go down the path to higher standards and high-stakes testing, we must make certain that those who are targeted fall under an umbrella of support and safety that is our responsibility to provide. Anything less from a school leader is no profile in courage.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org