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Commentary: The state is failing the students who can't pass its tests

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Let’s be very specific about last week’s breaking news in education: The state will be paying nearly $400,000 to a consultant to tell us why Kansas City, one of Missouri’s three unaccredited school districts, is failing. As in the other two unaccredited districts — Riverview Gardens and Normandy — Kansas City students are predominantly African American and live in communities that are economically disadvantaged. All three districts, as well as St. Louis (again) are having a hard time getting a sufficient number of kids to pass the state’s high-stakes tests — MAP and end-of-course exams — that Missouri children take every spring.

This is such a puzzler that even the well-intentioned Missouri Board of Education can’t put its finger on any root causes or probable solutions. So in flows a half a million dollars from a couple of foundations — the folks who make Hallmark cards and other folks who are gung-ho about entrepreneurship.

“What we’re after is the causes for the failure in unaccredited districts, then what we can do to eliminate or minimize the causes of that failure,” said Peter Herschend, president, Missouri State Board of Education.

I suppose it’s much easier to pretend you don’t know why something’s happening, to throw up your arms and pay someone else to tell you why, than to consider the possibility that what we are looking at across this whole country is not an achievement gap but an education debt, to borrow scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings’ phrase. People who have some say in these matters owe other people’s children the quality education they have deserved all along.

How about we use that $385Gs to buy and equitably distribute books, up-to-date maps, computers and other much-needed supplies directly to the classrooms in unaccredited districts and admit that the causes of unaccreditation are:

  1. The social, economic, residential and racial isolation of entire communities;
  2. The resulting decline of property values, leading to a shrunken tax base to support these schools;
  3. The draconian demands and pernicious effects of standardizing teaching, standardizing learning and standardized testing, testing and more testing that gag and constrain the pedagogical art and craft of professional educators;
  4. A century-old model of group testing and sorting that leaves no room for children to be human beings who are in the process of learning meaningful new things every day at an individual pace and for individual and community purpose.

Minimizing and eliminating “the causes of that failure” will require:

  1. Understanding that education for academic excellence and education for raising test scores are incompatible missions. Test-prep makes for curriculum that is the opposite of excellent. That’s why so many children from high-wealth and high-income communities go to school and also pay someone else to prep their kids for high-stakes tests. The accountability conversation needs to begin here.
  2. Empowering the expertise and unbelievable resilience of the classroom teachers, building administrators, and others who have been standing by children with integrity and professional know-how in a climate often characterized by educational brutality and incompetence;
  3. Equitably distributing human and material resources (helping hands and lots of good stuff) across the wider community — enlarging our concept of what community means — so that having little wealth or working a low-wage job doesn’t mean your child completes worksheets all day long from Labor Day to Memorial Day.

That’s about it. A diagnosis and a treatment plan. It took me a half hour to write and I offer it free of charge.
A closing word problem for those who like similes:

State education officials are like a classroom teacher. This teacher has three kids — all cousins — who never attain her objectives, never understand the lesson, do not “get with the program,” do not pass her tests. They keep on failing while everyone else is passing. What does this teacher do?

  1.  She keeps on doing the same thing over and over. She keeps on giving the same test. She introduces some different standards. She tests to the new standards. She never questions her own actions and expectations — the relationship between how she’s teaching and how these cousins are learning and what that interaction might have to do with “their” failure. She shakes her head, expresses sorrow and remorse, and finally obtains a grant to pay a consultant to figure out what’s wrong with those three kids.

Alas, the terrible thing about this word problem is that it’s not multiple choice. In Missouri, the answer’s always A.
I sound angry, but I do not sound half as angry as I feel.

Schaenen writes and teaches in St. Louis. She is an instructional coach in Normandy School District.

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