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Teacher: ‘This is what we have fallen to’

Children learn while they play in a sandbox on a playground at school. (iStock)

“What do children deserve from us?”

That is the question asked and answered in this post about education by Justin Minkel, an elementary school teacher in Arkansas who has been an educator for 15 years.

Selected as the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, he works at a high-performing school where virtually all students live in poverty and most are English-language learners. As for teacher turnover, there is almost none because the school has created a healthy environment for both educators and students. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinMinkel

In 2014, he was one of four teachers who went to the White House and had a frank discussion with President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan about public education, which you can read about here.

What ‘school choice’ means in the era of Trump and DeVos

By Justin Minkel

Picture a child you adore. Your own son or daughter; a niece or nephew; a grandchild. Now think about what you want for that child. What kind of life do you want her to have? What kind of classroom do you want him to walk into every day? What do you want her experience of school, from kindergarten through college, to be?

Here are three possible fates for that child.

Equity: The child you love gets whatever she needs to succeed. If she has a physical disability, or a learning disability, she gets the support she needs in order to thrive. If she is poor, she receives a backpack full of food every Friday so that she won’t go hungry over the weekend. If her family lacks health insurance, she gets access through school to doctor’s visits, eyeglasses, and dental care. If she has experienced trauma, she receives counseling. If her family can’t afford books, her school provides her with a home library. She thrives, despite the obstacles in her life, because the adults in her community have decided she is worth whatever it takes to make sure she gets the chance to live the life she dreams.

Equal resources: The child you love gets the same resources as every other student. He will go to a clean and safe school, with a competent teacher. But if his needs are greater than those of the typical student, gaps will appear. He might go hungry on weekends. Cavities, blurry vision, and illnesses may go unnoticed until they reach crisis level. He gets the same resources as every other child, but he doesn’t experience their degree of success in school or life. Why? Because given the hardships in his life, he needs more than they do to thrive.

Adequacy: The child has a desk, a teacher, and a classroom. The desk is battered, the first-year teacher has an emergency credential instead of a teaching degree, and the classroom has mold growing on the walls. The child is getting the state-mandated number of minutes of literacy, math, and science instruction, according to the monitors from the state department of education who visit with clipboards once a year to ask teachers questions like, “Is at least 20 percent of your science instruction taking place through lab or other hands-on experiences?” (Hint: The right answer is, “Yes.”) Still, that child you love is getting an ugly message that sinks in deep by the end of first grade. She knows she is valued less than students on the other side of the state, in the richer city just across the river, or the children on the north side of town. By the age of 6, she has learned that she matters less than those children. She clearly gets less than they do. What other explanation could there be?

An ugly idea

Adequacy is ugly. The word lacks any sense of aspiration. It implies that inequity is inevitable and all we can strive for is to make the imbalance a bit less cruel. In a republic enamored of its self-description as “the greatest nation on Earth,” we should be ashamed to even utter the word.

The acceptance of adequacy marks a plummet from the dream embodied in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, the notion that separate is inherently unequal. The conviction that even if we provide poor children, children of color, or the sons and daughters of immigrants with the same resources as wealthier, whiter students in richer neighborhoods, we cannot provide them separate systems of education without losing who we aspire to be.

And yet. Though it beggars belief, there exists a level lower than “adequacy.” Consider this true story:

A few years ago, I was on a panel with an Arkansas state representative. During lunch, he said, “If the Republicans take the state house, we’re going to take a hard look at the Arkansas Department of Education’s formula for adequacy.” Translation: We want to spend even less money on the education of the poorest children in our state. When it comes to those children, adequacy is too expensive. They deserve less than that.

 I was gobsmacked. Still, I thought maybe this was some insider brand of behind-closed-doors candor I wasn’t familiar with. But an hour later, when the time came for our panel, he said the same thing in public, with no trace of shame.

This is what we have fallen to. Not equity for our most vulnerable children — which would mean giving them what they need to thrive. Not equality, which would mean providing the same resources to a child in a poor neighborhood as a child in a wealthy neighborhood. Not even adequacy, that word we should be ashamed to speak out loud. But something less.

My high school principal told us at graduation, “The words you speak reveal the shadows of your minds.”

Equity, equality, and adequacy are more than abstract terms. They have consequence.

They mean the difference between a caring and competent kindergarten teacher, and a teacher hired for no other qualification than lack of a criminal record. The difference between a school that is safe, comfortable, and inviting, and a school with mold growing on the walls or snakes coming up through the classroom floor. The difference between a nation that believes in every child and a nation that has given up on those who are too poor, too brown, too different, or too difficult to teach.

Again, picture that child you love. What does she deserve from the adults charged with her care? What value do we assign to her life?

What do children deserve from us?

At the annual National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) conference this summer, I heard reasons for hope and causes for alarm. I heard clear visions of equity and I listened to clever justifications for providing something less than adequacy to the most vulnerable children in America.

On a panel of three African American male teachers, I heard a notion that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that I often witness when it comes to teaching African American boys. These men did not espouse the “tough love” and “no excuses” that affluent and predominantly white philanthropists often prescribe to other people’s children. They talked about a simpler, deeper approach: love.

Middle school science teacher Corey Carter told us: “I ask myself, ‘How can I love them the way they need to be loved? How can I teach them what they deserve to know?’”

We also heard from Jason Botel, who until recently was deputy assistant secretary to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made the new U.S. Department of Education’s case that it’s more about how efficiently money is spent than how much the administration wants to cut from the education budget: $9 billion, an amount that crosses beyond “unprecedented” to “unhinged.”

While Botel faced no overt hostility from the roomful of teachers and principals, he did face a direct challenge from every single teacher who stood up to speak. Minnesota Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher told him: “My students don’t feel safe, particularly my transgender students and my immigrant students. And they feel unsafe as a direct result of the policies and rhetoric coming out of the department — including some terrible messages recently about consent.”

The day after the NNSTOY conference ended, I was part of the Day on the Hill, where Teachers of the Year attended about 90 meetings with senators, representatives, and legislative assistants. In Rep. Steve Womack’s office, I listened to a wily justification from a legislative aide for the $2.4 billion the House sought to cut from the education budget: “We would encourage you not to compare this year’s education budget to last year’s, but to how much President Trump wanted to cut. If funding for education goes down, but not down by as much as the President wanted, we consider that a win.”

Malcolm X had the right response to this brand of rhetoric: “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.”

We have to ask ourselves what the children in our care are getting from the people charged with ensuring their right to a true education. Are the legislators, administrators, and school board members in our own state ensuring equity for the children who need school most? Or have we allowed them to descend from equity to adequacy, and still lower, until even the notion of adequacy seems a luxury too lavish for children born poor?

What can we do?

Advocating for America’s most vulnerable children can be daunting, but it starts with simple actions. Look up your state representative or the members of your state’s Education Committee. Get in touch with your school board members. Contact your representative in the U.S. House — this link makes it easy — or find your senator’s information here. If you don’t have a nuanced grasp of education policy, simply tell them not to cut the education budget. Ask whether they truly think that the problem with our schools is that they are overfunded. Ask why school zones in your district are contorted into a tortured geometry that makes children of color attend different schools than white students. Demand a clear answer for how they could possibly believe that the minimal funding your state’s poorest children receive in the name of “adequacy” is more than those children deserve.

Introduce yourself as a teacher, a parent, a citizen. Ask a direct question; share your experience; articulate what you believe and why. Remind that legislator, legislative assistant, or school board member of their responsibility to children who depend on the integrity of adults for any chance at a joyful and meaningful life. Tell a story about a child you care deeply about, and explain how her life would be impacted by the proposed cuts. Thank them for their time, then follow up a few weeks later. After their next vote on an issue that impacts children, either thank them or make your displeasure known.

As activist Maggie Kuhn said: “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind — even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.”

It’s temping to say, “The pendulum will swing back. It always does.” But that pendulum, as NNSTOY Executive Director Katherine Bassett reminded participants at this year’s Teacher of the Year conference, does not swing on its own. We move the pendulum. If there were ever a time to swing it back the other direction, it is now.

Philadelphia Principal Sharif El-Mekki began his session at the NNSTOY conference with this statement:

“If you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the Civil Rights movement, and what role you would play, realize that you are in it right now.”

Imagine the face of that child you love most on Earth. Ignite your fierce intention to defend her right to the life she dreams. Now extend that fierce love to every child. To children who live in neighborhoods very different from your own, who endure struggles no child should have to face. Be their champion, too.

As educator Sharif El-Mekki told us, “You were born in the right time. There is more work to be done.”

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