An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times reminded me that somebody needs to write a book — maybe I’ll do it — called What White People Think Black People Think.
The essay by David Leonhardt was headlined “A winning political issue hiding in plain sight.” It said political research has revealed the previously hidden fact that black people want a good education for their kids. I read it and thought, “When did that get hidden?”
Leonhardt pointed to a market study during the recent, totally weird Alabama Senate race showing that black audiences responded less positively to a TV ad about an older, skeevy white man making out on the floor with a teenage girl than to a TV ad about black children getting a good education. I don’t get the surprise. I am no advertising expert, but I think I would always bet my money on the ad that seems less likely to make viewers throw up.
During the Alabama race, a political consulting outfit called Priorities America tested different ads to see which one would be more successful in an effort to “lift African-American voter turnout.” Leonhardt said Priorities USA was “surprised” to find that ads talking about sexual escapades and the Ku Klux Klan were less effective at motivating black people to vote than ads talking about black kids getting ahead in school.
Leonhardt went on to make an excellent point. He said education is much more important than President Donald Trump to people out here in fly-over land. That’s indisputably true. Generally speaking, people’s children are way more important to them than Trump. Nature does that to us. It’s kind of how the species propagates itself.
So, sure, talking to us about education in some truly meaningful way would get our attention. But what way? To say what to us?
Leonhardt sets up an opposition between people who value education as a cultural and economic asset versus what he calls “education skepticism,” a term he uses as an umbrella to cover all those folks out there with stories to tell about public education being broken. And he seems to suggest that education is a better issue for Democrats than Republicans, for liberals than for conservatives.
Ah, but when I consult our experiences here in Dallas, where schools often are the single most important issue in a local election, I just don’t see it breaking that way. Here, relatively conservative (white) candidates such as Dallas Independent School District board of trustees member Dustin Marshall campaign for better schools for poor minority kids, while relatively liberal (black) candidates such as DISD trustee Bernadette Nutall resist reform and fight hard to maintain the status quo.
How can that be? Oh, easy. When you peel that onion, real school reform and real change involve accountability and turnover. You could pay teachers more than professional athletes, but if, in the process, you didn’t get rid of the teachers who can’t teach, then all you would have for your efforts would be would be rich teachers who can’t teach.
How do you know who can teach? You test the kids. Research has shown for decades that the same kids who learn nothing from a bad teacher can learn a lot from a good one. Seems pretty obvious, right? You might wonder who would push back against that idea. The answer is teachers, some of them, anyway.
The op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News yesterday published a lament by a DISD high school math teacher complaining that her teaching experience was being spoiled by three things: 1) testing, 2) the presence of electronic calculators in the classroom and 3) the imposition of a new merit-based pay system (called the Teacher Excellence Initiative) in place of the old strict seniority system for calculating raises. Those three items seem to put the teacher, Rosemary Curts, squarely under Leonhardt’s education skepticism umbrella.
Curts wrote, “Unfortunately, frequent high-stakes testing under Dallas ISD's Teacher Excellence Initiative makes me feel as though I rarely have time to teach kids the fun of math because I'm so busy teaching them how to find the right answers to multiple-choice questions.”
I am always heart-tugged toward sympathy for these complaints when I first hear them because I love teachers. By the way, if you want to start a list, I also love puppies and Key lime pie. But every time I start getting all sympathetic, the next shoe falls.
“My classes' test scores might be lower than they could be,” Curts writes, “but I'd rather have a student score 70 percent while actually solving problems than score 100 percent because they know what buttons to press.”
Wait a minute. Seventy? You’ve got system that teaches kids to love math and opens the mystery to them and makes a fun game of it and lights their minds on fire, and they get a 70? Versus 100?
I’m sorry, but I’m kind of thinking about the future here, the long range. If it’s my kid in your class, I’m going to say bring back the calculators and the merit pay because I want this kid to get into college. And, no offense, but are there any open desks down the hall in that real mean lady’s classroom?
The teachers’ unions are a big factor here. There used to be more diversity of thought in them. The late Albert Shanker, president of the United Federation of Teachers from 1964-85, endorsed a system of merit pay for teachers based on student test scores. His idea was highly qualified, mainly on an assumption of uniform national testing. But the fact remains that in that era, some union leaders took Shanker’s lead in remaining open to merit pay of some kind.
Now it’s all anathema. The teacher unions here and nationally remain committed to ripping out merit pay root and branch. Dallas has one of the nation’s most comprehensive merit pay systems for teachers, proven effective with each new year of data since the school board adopted the merit pay system in 2014.
Before merit pay, which gives incentive raises to top teachers, the highest teacher turnover was at the top, among those teachers whose students had the highest test scores. Now there is virtually no turnover at the top and high turnover among the teachers whose students have the lowest scores.
And right there is where we run into something that probably runs deeper and is more problematic politically than anything the unions could stir. For many American adults, apparently without regard to race and maybe without even a hard-wired connection to class, pushing out teachers because they are not competent seems mean and maybe even … Trumpian. I mean, he’s the “you’re fired” guy, right? Liberals don’t fire people. Do they?
Nowhere in Dallas is school reform regarded with greater skepticism than among black elected officials, for whom merit pay and an array of other improvement efforts have become code for rich white people trying to tell black people what do with their kids. The February Lakewood/East Dallas Advocate Magazine carried a terrific article by Keri Mitchell, depicting in painstaking and painful detail that hostility.
Black school board trustees have opposed even programs designed to deliver special subsidies to schools in their trustee districts simply because they didn’t devise the programs themselves. Part of Mitchell’s reporting was especially pungent for me: She spoke to trustee Nutall about an article I wrote last year headlined “The worst enemies poor black kids have are black.”
“We are the worst public enemy to black children in Dallas?” Nutall says in Mitchell’s piece. “That was hurtful.”
Right. You know what? You may not believe this, but it was hurtful for me to write it. On a personal level, I really like and admire Nutall. She’s very bright. She’s tough. She has a sense of humor. But I think she and the other African-American trustees are willing to screw over black kids in order to protect friends and supporters who work for the school system.
And here we are back at the big New York Times breakthrough: Black people care more about their kids than they do about the Ku Klux Klan or the skeevy guy. Yes. Everyone cares more about their kids than the Klan or the skeevy guy. That’s not a racial thing. That’s a human species thing.
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We care more about our kids than we care even about Trump. Amazing, especially when you think about what kids are like. Next time you get stuck in a restaurant full of them, look around. Nature must take us by the neck and impose some huge genetic imperative on us, or why else would we subject ourselves? And I’m just talking about being in the restaurant.
But, no, that doesn’t make education an easy issue for Democrats. Or Republicans. It doesn’t even make the education of black children an easy issue for black parents. It’s all fraught with complexity, contradiction and political peril because, frankly, turning out new human beings is the hardest, most complicated thing we do on this Earth. It’s a mess.
Saying you want better education is just so much blah-blah-blah. Saying you want free education is blah-blah. Here is what’s hard: Tell us specifically what you propose to do pedagogically. How do you propose to better teach children?
I admire Dustin Marshall and I admire Bernadette Nutall because they’re both down in that very trench duking it out over those very issues. But most of the time when I hear national candidates trying to get the education issue to break clean Democratic or clean Republican, I just think, “What’s old Stormy Daniels up to today?”