Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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We're judging schools wrong: IL state supt.

In a telephone interview with the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, Illinois State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith said state education leaders need to focus on the policies and decisions that have been made over time that have resulted in concentrated poverty and an increasing gap in income and wealth in the US.


Tony Smith began serving as Illinois’s state superintendent of education on May 1.

But, he stressed, the lone fact that a kid grows up in a low-income family or in an impoverished neighborhood isn’t enough to condemn that kid to educational struggles throughout his or her schooling—not always.

“In some of the most economically, resource-constrained spaces,” the Daily Herald quoted him as saying, “groups of children are performing really well. It is not solely and singularly predictive if a kid is in a low-income community that they will necessarily have low educational attainment or their school won’t be great. It’s crucial, but it’s not the only thing.

“There are places where adults have made agreements about how to work together, how to pay attention to kids, how to distribute student contacts, how the more veteran teachers will have a heavier course load. … To whom you’re born shouldn’t predict if you go to college or not. As much as that does play out, there are places that buck that pattern and trend, and we have to figure out how to have more of that.

“And yet it’s crucial we pay attention to the lived experience, the stress. The daily wearing down of our kids is actually in their bodies at this point in some of our most distressed communities. We better be finding ways to counsel and support them. Kids need more help if they have that kind of daily grind.”

He said too much of our narrative about schools focuses on blame and on what “other” people need to or should do. The poor should find a job, the rich should pay higher taxes, the so-and-so should do whatever, the conversation goes. And that can and needs to change now, or we’ll worsen or at a minimum perpetuate wealth and income gaps.

And the wider those gaps become, the lower the quality of life is for rich and poor people alike, he suggested. That’s why in Illinois, we need to find a way to fix the school funding formula that makes our application of laws and policies truly equitable, “fix” being an elusive concept.

He described the way Illinois’s system of prorating school funding works with a three-meal-a-day analogy. Suppose I get three meals a day and you only get one. Then, laws and policies come along that look “fair” because each of us will have to give up only one meal. This results in an outcome that is unfair, though, despite what appears to be an “equal” application of a policy. This is how cuts to schools work and why the impact of cuts on schools in poverty is deeper than the impact those same cuts have on schools in more affluent communities.

In the United States, the majority of the poor are white. That is still a hard concept. The greatest number of low-income children in the US are white; however, higher percentages of entire populations—African Americans, some southeast Asian, Latino—are in poverty. The gross number is lower, but the percentage compared to their total population is higher.

This is some of the deepest, most important work we have in front of us.

The move to testing, to evaluation, to trying to figure out equity—that part of NCLB—I think that was a good move to reveal the gaps. But, the insistence on testing more and measuring more does miss the mark. What is the set of opportunities a group of children is missing in a certain neighborhood?—that would be a much more interesting study in my opinion, but it’s harder to do.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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