The Real Victims in School Reform Battles Are Kids Who Can Be Taught and Aren't

The response to my article here last week about school reform proves one thing. I'm doing a poor job presenting school reform.

The entire issue, in fact, is being framed in the responses to the article as a kind of combination civil rights question and job security dilemma for teachers and principals. I'm not saying those are not significant corollaries. But they are not what school reform is about.

See also: - Carolyn Davis Comes Out Swinging Against School Reform, in Defense of Principals' Jobs

Two days ago on my show on KNON Radio (Get Off My Lawn, 10 a.m. Saturdays), my guest was a DISD teacher who has come up with his own way of teaching math in language comprehensible to poor kids who have no resources or backup at home. Far be it from me to suggest that my guest has invented a new Rosetta Stone of mathematics instruction. That's not why I had him on.

He was on the show to convey one idea. It's a simple one. And it's huge -- way bigger than any of us. It's this:

They can be taught.

That's what school reform is about. It's an explosive concept that turns the whole social logic of our nation inside out. It blows up the protective armor of apathy we all hide behind. And by we, I'm talking about arch-conservatives who say they can't be taught because they have lousy parents; I'm talking about liberals who say we'll teach them right after we abolish poverty; I'm talking about white people hiding in enclaves; I'm talking about successful black and Latino people hiding in the same enclaves. And those are just the easy targets.

Here's the really trough painful one for me. I'm also talking about the young female teacher who called in, her voice leaden with grief, pity, compassion and despair. She talked about her students who come to school not just unable to read but not knowing what reading is, barely able to speak. She loves them because they are splendid. But at the end of every school day she must turn them out again to parents who will stagger the streets all night searching for crack. In her voice was great sadness but also horror.

Those children can be taught.

The rock on which the new school reform movement stands is massive statistical evidence, no longer even considered controversial, that children from the very worst beginnings and environments can be brought to full literacy and math competency by the end of third grade. From that point on, their destinies are changed. They are now students instead of prisoners in training.

My experience with people on this issue has been this: Once they see that single truth, once that torch appears before them in the night, they can get a little crazy.

Think about it. Every year we funnel thousands of children straight from school to prison. The statistical determinacy of their fate is so absolute that we could prowl the maternity wards and rubber-stamp it on their foreheads: PRISON. This newborn child is hereby sentenced by statistics alone to spend the rest of his or her life in hell.

Once we know that we can defeat that fate, that we can save that child, then we should all be driven little bit crazy by the fact that we're not doing it. Think of it as children floating past us in an open sewage ditch. We are standing on the banks. We could pull them out. That we fail to save them should make us all stark raving mad.

The school reformers tend to fortify themselves behind some tough rhetoric, in part because they know what kind of war they face with all of the people whose jobs are on the line. But that rhetoric -- and apparently a lot of what I have offered here on the subject -- flies right past the truth.

If it can be done, why is it not done? What does it say about us that we fail to make it happen, no matter what the costs in human dislocation?

But, wait. What about the people who fear that dislocation, the teachers who have been out there trying? Don't they have a lot more standing and a lot more credibility than anybody else?

Maybe. But this is not about you or me. There is only one question for any of us to answer. If it is possible to bring these children to full literacy by the end of the third grade -- and it is -- then why is it not getting done?

This is what I wish the school reformers would do: stop talking to suits. Get out into the neighborhoods. Get out on the street. Tell the parents. Yeah. The crack-heads. The drunks. Or maybe the hard-working poor people who are not crack-heads or drunks but move to a new address just ahead of the bill collector every two months because their minimum wage jobs won't pay for food and shelter.

Tell them that there is a way for their children to be lifted out of this misery. Convince them that their children can be saved. And then, fine, turn back at me. Point back at the principals and teachers. Turn back and point to the conservatives and the liberals and everybody else you can think of and tell those parents, "These people are arguing with each other instead of doing what needs to be done to save your children."

Maybe the grief and the horror in that teacher's voice on my radio show Saturday should be in all our hearts when we ponder these questions. But you know what's even more powerful? Hope. We can't be mastered by grief, because grief misses the truth. The real truth is hope. It's the gleam in the eye of that child who gets it for the first time, the first glimmer of hope in the eye of a parent. That's what school reform is about. One truth.

They can be taught.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze