Currently I’m sitting in a coffee shop down the street from a conference hotel. I’ve repaired to the cafe to avoid a session that just doesn’t speak to me today. Next year or the year after, I will likely seek out such a session because I will need that information at that time. This year it would just be so much more information that I could process but not use, then have to process all over again when I do reach that point because policy will have changed by that time anyway.
One speaker, though, a high-ranking college access adviser to the U.S. Dept. of Education, voiced an interesting perspective in the morning general session. Telling the story of his nephew who desired to transfer to a D.C. area university (because his sweetheart had already done so), he marveled at his professional-level brother’s approach to “researching” an appropriate campus for his son. This was a younger child in a family that had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars educating him and his siblings through private high schools and other universities, so presumably had a vested interest in paying close attention to the educational landscape and possessed the wherewithal to do just that.
The speaker marveled at his brother’s approach, dropping in on various campuses unannounced with no appointments for tours or interviews, wandering around and asking students and faculty they “came across” about the university of the moment.
Hearing this, I was struck — as apparently had been the speaker’s intent — by the low level of accountability sought by the visiting student and his family. I was also reminded of the flap recently engendered by the governor of my Third Coast state in chastising an educational sector spokesperson for what he called callous remarks concerning parents of low-income students whose children were often attending struggling public schools. My governor has proposed issuing vouchers for hildren attending public schools that had received grades of Cs, Ds or Fs. The families, said the governor, could use those vouchers to enroll their children into private schools. The catch in his plan from my perspective, though, is that the private schools would not be required to engage in the same accountability assessments that had labeled the public schools as standard or sub-standard in the first place.
According to the governor’s plan, parents — who often knew very little about the educational system — would be the best judges of whether their children were receiving a quality education. Now, keep in mind that many of these families are struggling to maintain a family while living at the poverty level or nearabouts. Many are led by single parents holding multiple jobs to make ends meet. A few have not finished high school themselves and fewer still have acquired post-secondary skills and training. Very few are intimately familiar with an educational system in which the policies and standards are as fluid as mercury.
The offense committed by the educational spokesperson was to call the governor out in all his glowing nakedness. Low-income parents, he said, were essentially too busy holding their families together to be able to effectively monitor their children’s educations at that level. That’s it, that’s all he said — that struggling parents of struggling students were ill-equipped to monitor their students’ progress in the same manner as a public school system that has spent millions of dollars and multiple years developing an accountability system considered one of the best in the nation.
The governor has positioned the spokesperson’s comments as callous and insulting to parents, yet continues full-steam ahead with a so-called “value-added” accountability system that will assess a full 50% of a teacher’s success on the academic outcomes of the students she tends to for a few hours out of the students’ often challenging day. The governor’s new state superintendent presides over an entire division and dozens of professional staffers and consultants to do what the governor insists is something that economically challenged parents with no background in the rapidly changing field can so handily and effectively do on their own.
Methinks the governor is being just a tiny bit ingenuous in this and I wish he would just lighten up on the folks who are really working to help our children succeed at school and in their lives.
Consider the perspective of the high-ranking adviser who acknowledges that his own family pursues educational opportunity through a distorted lens simply because their high-level skills fall in other domains than education. Neither is his comfortable family distracted by the stress of holding the center together every day. That advisor is either much more understanding of the point-of-view of folks who are not specialists in educational issues or he is simply more honest than my governor. I will be charitable here and urge the governor to step out from behind the distractions of his ledger book and political ambitions and consider the landscape from the perspective of those non-wunderkinds he has sworn to lead.
But, of course, the points-of-view of those scrambling to the political pinnacle are different from those scrambling to keep their families’ heads above water.