Things I Know 146 of 365: It’s our sights, not our size, that matters

Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.

Mark Bittman

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, the student population of the ten largest school districts in the United States was 3,939,071.

That same census data put the U.S. population at 307,006,550.

In 2009, ten school districts were responsible for the education of roughly 1.2 percent of the nation’s population.

As Sam Chaltain once said to me, American schools are the only public institutions to directly interact with 90 percent of the population.

America’s public schools are too big to fail.

A recent NPR report on talks currently taking place between the School District of Philadelphia and the City Commission regarding financial support from the city referred to the district as a “perpetually hungry child.”

I can see the comparison. Schools are hungry. They’ve always been hungry.

In dealing with a $629 million shortfall this year, I’d say the district is turning to the commission as a soup kitchen, not a buffet.

What’s clear beyond that admission is difficult to tell.

The $48.6 billion channeled to education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created change, but seemingly thoughtless change. The states and districts rushing to claim money for their coffers were as varied as Augustus Gloop and that starving child my mother always told me was waiting for whatever I didn’t eat at dinner.

If your state or district received any portion of the $48.6 billion, I’m willing to guess few people can point to where it was spent. If they can, I’ll go double or nothing the majority of recipients can’t give you a clear answer of how ARRA improved the lives of the students we serve.

I say lives because improving learning requires more than improving tests and textbooks. School lunch, transportation, socio-emotional counseling and a slew of other supports are all part of the web of public education. To think otherwise is to think too small and miss seeing the whole board.

In a 2009 Leaning Point and Mission Measurement brief on assessing the effectiveness of the stimulus, reported one interviewee saying, “States need to think of this as an inheritance and do something they wouldn’t normally do. They should be thinking about putting in a high-efficiency heating system and not just paying the mortgage.”

While some recipients did just that, others made investments equivalent to hiring a gardener.

The thinking was too small, the guidelines too restrictive.

I used to work at a magnet school that recruited only the lowest achieving students in the district. (No easy sell.)

Each time I would approach my principal with a new and oftentimes strange idea for instruction, he would approve it.

One day, I asked him why.

“We know that doing everything as usual doesn’t work with these kids,” he told me, “So, we need to try new things.”

The country understands half of the advice, but is missing the critical point.

If the encouragement is to buy the educational equivalent of high-efficiency heading systems, the caveat is those systems need to be fueled by the same coal that’s always been coming down the chute.

Nothing in the Education Department’s four assurances required for the receipt of further ARRA funds suggests a holistic or even humanist approach to education. Initially part of the 2007 America Competes Act the four requirements are:

  • Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities;
  • Establishing pre-K-to college and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement;
  • Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and in the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly students who are most in need;
  • Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

The systems built on and fueled by such requirements inspire compliance, not creativity. The classrooms made manifest by such systems inspire the same.

Our primary worry should not be that America’s public schools are too big to fail, but that its students will be too compliant to succeed.