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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 12/12/2011

A superintendent calls school reformers’ bluff

This was written by John Kuhn, the superintendent of a small public school district in Texas.

By John Kuhn

As a public school administrator, I have been a steadfast critic of the legacy of No Child Left Behind. But I’ve recently figured out a way that school reformers can get me on their side. It’s very simple.

My concern has long been that the test-based focus of NCLB and the insistence on assigning labels to struggling schools has really been about convincing Americans that public schools are failing in order to justify privatizing the system — to the benefit, of course, of investors, not children. Why think anything else, when “higher standards” are accompanied by slashed education budgets, continuing inequities in school funding, and continued efforts to roll back public sector employee rights?

But reformers such as former Washington D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Sandy Kress — a lawyer who was a principal architect of the school accountability system in Texas (during the administration of then gov. George W. Bush) which served as the basis for NCLB — assure us that all their reforms are really about the children.

They repeatedly call on get teachers and administrators to quit making excuses and hold themselves accountable for the educational outcomes of poor and minority students. Who could be against that?

Well, I’m calling their bluff. Let’s see if it really is all about the children.

NCLB has done one important thing: By disaggregating data, it has forced teachers and administrators like me to agonize over the outcomes of our neediest students.

But after 10 years, it is clear that NCLB’s reforms haven’t spurred miracles, and it is time that the profound problem of inequality is addressed. The deck is stacked against kids who live in poverty not just because their schools are on average worse than others, but also because of the circumstances of their lives when they leave campus.

Itt’s time that we admit that it isn’t just teachers holding back poor and minority students back. The problems are societal.

So I’m calling on reformers — Kress and Rhee included — to lend support for a new kind of reform, one that steps outside the schoolhouse and shares the onus for achievement with more than just teachers.

I’m calling for data-driven equality, modeled on Kress’s work, expanding it to force greater societal changes that will help teachers bridge the achievement gap.

Let the 50 states disaggregate equality-related data by ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and let us rank the states and reward them for closing all the societal inequalities that are truly at the heart of our achievement gap. There should be an incentive for voters to elect lawmakers who will craft policies that minimize inequalities.

Let’s have national benchmarks for equality in incarceration, equality in college enrollment, equality in health coverage, equality in income levels, employment rates, rates of drug addiction and child abuse.

Let the states figure out how to close their gaps, but reward results. Citizens in states whose data shows progress toward equality benchmarks should be rewarded with a lower federal income tax rate.

Note that the states can figure out how to get there, so no one can accuse me of urging socialist fixes to inequality. I don’t care how you fix it, just fix it. As a teacher I am calling on society to do its part to save these kids! The kind of plan I am describing leaves mechanisms to the states — it merely incentivizes equality.

We should all insist that our leaders build a system that guarantees the demise of inequity on these shores. Let’s move together toward a broader social accountability, driven by data and gauged by progress toward statistical, measurable, social equality.

Here’s an incentive: As a state moves closer to demonstrable equality according to data, then Washington could reduce the federal income tax rates charged to citizens in that state. Let citizens who opt for equality in so doing opt for lower taxes and more individual liberties. Incentivize equality, and see if kids don’t do better in school.

Let’s publish the data in newspapers. Let’s label all 50 states once a year. Let the states stand on their records and compare their progress. Let’s ensure that no more American Dreams get deferred because of unequal opportunity.

Today some 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Are we going to pretend forever that it is acceptable to ignore the needs of children outside the schoolhouse and blame teachers and principals for everything that happens inside?

As soon as the data shows that the average black student has the same opportunity to live and learn and hope and dream in America as the average white student, and as soon as the data shows that the average poor kid drinks water just as clean and breathes air just as pure as the average rich kid, then educators like me will no longer cry foul when this society sends us children and says: Get them all over the same hurdle.

And so I as an educator now say to a nation exactly what it has said to me for years: No excuses! Just get results.

Disaggregating data forced me to pay attention to minority students. Let’s force society to agonize over equality like teachers now agonize over test scores!

Give me equal children, and I guarantee you that my fellow public school teachers and I will produce graduates who will create a brighter future for this nation than you or I ever dreamed possible.

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