This speech was delivered at a recent Save Texas Schools rally in Austin by John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District. There is something of a revolt against standardized testing occurring in Texas, which I wrote about here. It is in that climate that Kuhn gave this speech, which was first published on Anthony Cody’s Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.
Kuhn has repeatedly called out school reformers who support treating public education like a business. Last year, he issued an open letter to Texas lawmakers that was modeled on the famous letter that William Barret Travis sent from the Alamo right before it fell in 1836. You can read both letters here. He also wrote a poem called “Reform Me,” which you can read here.
Though Kuhn’s speech refers directly to Texas, it speaks to education reform issues across the country.
Here’s Kuhn’s speech:
When a government fails to safeguard the development of its most vulnerable children and fails to ensure the advancement of their well-being;
When the Constitution no longer guides its leaders and the people must sue the state to force it to honor its promises;
When moderation is lost by those in power alongside honest dealing and the greater good, then that government must be held accountable in the court of public opinion. A statement of our just grievances is in order.
This government has failed to establish an equitable system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources; and more shameful yet, possessed of the wise words of our fathers who recorded that “a people must be educated” for liberty to survive.
This government has allowed state testing to become a perversion, growing like Johnson grass through the garden of learning and choking to death all knowledge that isn’t on the test, killing ancient wisdom like debate, logic, and ethics--deep human learning that once provided this state a renewable crop of leaders who knew courage instead of expedience, truth instead of spin, and personal risk for the public good instead of personal enrichment and reelection at all costs.
This government has eroded the authority of locally elected school boards to make decisions about everything from school calendars to curriculum, replacing local control with Austin control and local blame. They have no confidence in local trustees or the voters who put them in office.
This government has found the money to pay the Pearson Corporation $500 million for a test while cutting $5 billion from the fund that pays for teacher salaries.
This government has financed never-ending tax breaks for incredibly wealthy businesses by wringing our classrooms like a washcloth.
This government has mandated so much remediation in tested subjects that vocational training won’t fit into student schedules; this government has imperiously decided that all children are college bound whether they like it or not.
It has encouraged the proliferation of tax-funded for-profit schools that kick out and keep out the students who are hardest to teach, because when it’s about profit, it’s not about kids.
This government’s representatives have repeatedly lied to the voters, shamelessly calling a $5 billion cut an increase.
This government has chosen to fund favored schoolchildren at two and three times the rate allocated for less favored children, whose only offense is living in the wrong Texas zip codes;
It has created a strict accountability system for teachers while NOT developing any system whatsoever to illuminate the progress of politicians in remediating out-of-school factors that devastate student test scores; factors like parental unemployment go unmeasured, racial income disparities — that’s a gap no one tries to close — child homelessness is irrelevant, crime and incarceration rates for fathers are too unimportant to track, rates of drug use and child abuse and preventable illness do not matter because those are factors that lay squarely within the politicians’ realm of responsibility, and they just keep getting worse. But they don’t want to talk about the gaps in their data; they want to decry the status quo in classrooms and preserve the status quo in Austin.
If the teacher is the quarterback, Congress is the offensive line. Their performance impacts our performance, but they keep letting us get sacked by poverty, broken homes, student mobility, hunger, health care. And they just say “Oops” as that linebacker blows by them and buries his facemask in our chest. Then we get back to the huddle and they say, “You gotta complete your passes.” We’re aware of that. Make your blocks, legislators. Give us time to stand in the pocket and throw good passes. Do your job. It doesn’t take a great quarterback rating to win games; it takes a team effort.
Have the elected officials in Austin made adequate yearly progress? Nobody knows, because they keep their achievement gaps swept safely under a rug so they can’t be criticized, so they can’t be held accountable for decades of zero progress. The human cost of their failures is staggering, but our politicians have seen fit to create an accountability system that holds least accountable those with the most power and influence.
This government has strangled true learning at the local level because of its addiction to bureaucratic coercion.
Tragically, this government has lost sight of the exceptionalism of our state’s character and has repeatedly lamented the quality of our students based on nothing but the comparison of their test scores to those of students in Europe and Asia, as if greatness doesn’t exist outside of a standardized test; it has forgotten that the tests that make Texans great have never been taken with pencil and paper but rather were tests of bone and spirit taken at places like the Alamo and San Jacinto. Inside the Apollo capsule and on foreign shores, our kids have never failed the tests that matter. Our kids have passed countless tests of courage and ingenuity, tests of mettle and character and resilience.
This government has neglected the classics and has called on our children to become technicians instead of humans, regurgitators of math and science facts, who produce well-rounded bubbles in place of well-rounded souls; it has sought to make our children quantifiable shells of people, their guiding light of curiosity snuffed out by an idiot’s opinion of what constitutes a human education.
These and other grievances were patiently borne by the teachers of Texas, until they reached that point at which patience is no longer a virtue. We appealed to our government last spring in this very spot, called upon those in power to encourage and support the teachers who day by day struggle to educate the poorest children in the most neglected corners of our state. Yet they responded to our entreaties with new condemnations of the work we do. Our appeals have been made in vain.
We are forced to the melancholy conclusion that this government favors business interests that want a profit-based education system that would enrich investors, rather than a publicly owned system that enriches our children.
You can keep your for-profit schools. I want a locally elected school board that answers to me, to parents and local taxpayers, not to shareholders. I want a quality public education for ALL Texas children. I want adequate and equitable funding, so that families in every part of Texas can count on the consistent quality of our public school system like we count on the consistent quality of our interstate highway system, because we don’t want to wreck our children any more than we want to wreck our cars.
Texas officials, you build your hateful machine that blames teachers for the failures of politicians; we’ll still be here teaching when your engine of shame is laid upon the scrapheap of history. For now, we’ll bravely take these lashes you give because we know that — no matter what you say — the only crime of the public school teacher in 2012 is his or her willingness to embrace and teach broken children. If that’s a crime, then find us guilty. If caring for the least of these makes us unacceptable, then bring on your label gun. We’re not afraid.
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