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I want to tell you a secret: America really doesn’t care what happens to poor people and most black people. There, I said it.
In my position as a Teacher of the Year and a teacher leader (an ambiguous term at best), I am supposed to be a voice and hold positions on a host of ed policy issues: teaching evaluations, charter schools, test refusal, and (fights over) Common Core come to mind. I am so sick of reading about McCleary (Washington’s ongoing intragovernmental battle for equitable funding for K-12) I don’t know what to do with myself. But, increasingly I find myself tuning out of these conversations. As a nation, we’re nibbling around the edges with accountability measures and other reforms, but we’re ignoring the immutable core issue: much of white and wealthy America is perfectly happy with segregated schools and inequity in funding. We have the schools we have, because people who can afford better get better. And sadly, people who can’t afford better just get less — less experienced teachers, inadequate funding and inferior facilities.
There is simple lack of political will. The situation in education is analogous to the status of gun control. Last June, @DPJHodges tweeted that “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Unless dozens of members of Congress are themselves directly impacted by gun violence, there is no major gun legislation coming anytime soon. We have retreated to our camps; there is no turning back. It is the same with school funding and school segregation.
If you are reading this, you’ve probably seen the images coming out of Detroit Public Schools: buckled floors, toilets without seats, roaches, mold and even mushrooms growing in damp, disgusting, mildewy classrooms. Like the images of American torture and abuse last decade in Abu Ghraib, these images should have shocked the nation. Instead, they elicited a collective national shrug, stretch and yawn.
The View from the Burbs is Sweet. Through white flight and suburbanization, wealthy and middle class families have completely insulated themselves from educational inequality. They send their kids to homogeneous schools and they do what it takes, politically at the local level, to ensure they’re well-funded, well-staffed, with opportunities for enrichment and exploration. Poor families lack competent and engaged administration (see Chicago, Detroit, etc), the levy money (locally, see Highline), capital budgets (see rural Central, WA), and the political capital wealthier families enjoy.
Ask yourself, would suburban schools ever be allowed to decay like what we saw in Detroit? Nope. What’s happening in Detroit could never happen in Auburn Hills; what’s happening in Chicago could never happen in Evanston; what’s happening in South Seattle could never happen in Issaquah or Bellevue. Middle class America would never allow the conditions that have become normalized in poor and brown America to stand for their kids.
This past week I attended a convening of the 56 State & Territorial Teachers of the Year in San Antonio. There I spoke to a veteran teacher (17 years in the classroom) from Maryland. Her school is located five miles from the nation’s capitol and in her career, she has never taught a white student. Never. Her county and its schools are completely segregated. We aren’t in this together.
This week, I also encountered a tweet from @mdawriter that stopped me cold in my tracks: “61% of Blacks, 55% of Hispanics support gov’t intervention to address school segregation. Vast majority of whites (72%) say nope!” They’re perfectly satisfied with situation as is. Integration? Busing? Redrawing of school or district boundaries? Nope, nope, nope.
So what is to be done? The pessimist in me says nothing can be done. Polite society has walled itself off and policymakers are largely indifferent. Better funding for schools is and will remain elusive, because middle class and wealthy people have been conditioned over the last 35 years to think of themselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens. They consistently oppose higher taxes — especially tax expenditures for programs for “the other.”
I’d offer that the answer lies in the teaching profession itself.
If you ain’t talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain’t listening. Teacher quality matters. Too many in the profession are quick to awfulize students in poverty to rationalize poor results. Better teaching inspires students and gets better results. Better teaching engages students and keeps them in classrooms, rather than the streets. Better teaching is the one thing we never really talk about. Better teaching is the only mechanism we have left.
Our most needy students need our best teachers, yet our highest need schools have the least experienced teachers, the most turnover and are becoming burnout factories for those who remain. All the existing structural incentives for effective educators push them toward work in suburban schools, where they’ll be better supported and the workload is sustainable. Nobody wants to talk about this.
I am done with charter fights and Common Core spats. You won’t hear me carping for (or against) Danielson’s Framework. If you’re looking for me in the near future, you won’t find me at the edu-fundraiser or non-profit luncheon with a parking lot full of Teslas. For my own sake and the sake of my kids, I will be supporting organizations and people putting in work in these areas:
Fighting the impacts of systemic racism and white supremacy in our schools and among teachers.
Helping, through my speaking opportunities, to recruit passionate people, especially people of color, into the profession.
Supporting policies aimed at identifying, developing and retaining effective teachers.
Advocating for the creation of systems that encourage our most effective and passionate teachers to stay in the profession and supporting them in working with our most needy schools.
Encouraging policymakers to make the work of effective teachers rewarding and sustainable by trusting them and not burdening them with new and ever-changing mandates.
Giving teachers opportunities to lead, within the profession, while remaining in the classroom.
Take what you will from what is and isn’t on that list.
Now that we’ve made it this far, I realize I may have misspoken at the top — I am not done with ed policy discussions — but I am done with ones that don’t have to do with teaching.
Nathan Bowling is the Washington State Teacher of the Year, a 2016 National Teacher of the Year and the author of the NateBowling.com blog.