Universal Public Education is the Canary in the American Coal Mine

(Updated 2018 post)

In my opinion, the single greatest failing of society during the decades when we Boomers were ostensibly in societal “power” was our failure to create an effective public education system that provides every American child with a reasonable foundation of knowledge and skills needed to pursue happiness. Note that I am not suggesting America has an obligation to provide happiness, just the obligation to provide the knowledge and skills needed to pursue it. Universal public education is how America has attempted to support the pursuit of happiness since before the turn of the 20th century, but it is now the canary in the American coal mine of equality, and if some Conservatives have their way, the canary will soon be breathing its last breath. (See The War between Equality and Liberty)

My immigrant grandparents and great grandparents came to this country to access equal opportunity for their children, and millions of other immigrants did the same. My grandparents and parents were provided equality of opportunity thanks to Progressives’ support of universal public education, but today, millions of poor children are being denied the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills needed to pursue the American Dream. This is not the result of overt policy; rather, it is an insidious denial born of a belief among too many Americans that poverty cannot be overcome because it is an inevitability that results from inherent deficiencies in people of color.

This belief structure has been an impediment to fostering a commitment to create a cadre of teachers and administrators who have the knowledge and skills and belief in the capacity of all kids to learn, which are all essential for kids’ success in America’s Have-not Schools. Educators in Have-not Schools must be proficient in the application of practices that have been identified as best practices, either by the juried work of academicians or by the careful study and replication of practices identified by teacher peers. Politicians must show equal proficiency in the wise and equitable distribution of funding: not the Progressive practice of throwing money at educational fads, fancy technology, and shiny buildings, nor Conservatives’ propensity to divert resources to their advantaged children under the guise of vouchers, charters and religious schools. Rather, policy makers must provide the funds needed to train educators how to implement tried and true instructional best practices as well as proven emotional and social support practices.

Another substantial change that must occur is the attitudinal way training is approached by the typical American educator. In my experience, most see training as an elective experience: “I’ll apply the practice if it makes sense to me.” This is contrary to my experience in business where, if a company provides training, which is costly, it is an unquestioned given that every trainee is expected to implement whatever it is they are trained to do. Further, principals and other educational managers often reveal their lack of commitment to and even their lack of comprehension regarding what teachers need to do, which creates a climate in which teachers cannot be adequately supported or held accountable for the fidelity of implementation.

With sufficient political support and will, sufficient individual commitment on the part of administrators and teachers, and training in essential knowledge and pedagogical skills, educators in Have-not Schools can lead students to success by conquering the following difficult challenges:

  • Low teacher expectations for disadvantaged students
  • Lack of educator knowledge of motivation theory
  • Lack of educator understanding of the essential instructional alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  • Educator failure to consistently apply verified best practices
  • Eliminating the use of standardized testing to evaluate student achievement and teacher effectiveness
  • Lack of trauma-informed classrooms

The above factors do make student achievement in Have-not Schools far, far more difficult than the efforts required of educators in advantaged schools, and the last—the lack of trauma-informed classrooms—is a key variable in explaining the disparity in achievement between Have and Have-not children because the percentage of disadvantaged children suffering from toxic shock (trauma) in Have-not Schools is significantly higher than the proportion of traumatized students found in schools populated by advantaged students.

As reported in Supporting Students Affected by Trauma

There is nothing new about the presence of traumatized children in our schools; often without realizing it, teachers have been dealing with trauma’s impact for generations. What is new is that trauma researchers can now explain the hidden story behind many classroom difficulties that hamper our educational systems. The idea that school can moderate the effects of trauma is supported by research from both developmental psychologists and trauma experts. According to researchers and practitioners, at school, traumatized children can forge strong relationships with caring adults and learn in a supportive environment. Teachers play an important role by connecting traumatized children to a safe and predictable school community and enabling them to become competent learners.

In addition to Supporting Students Affected by Trauma, here are two other articles that I encourage you to read and digest: Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools and A Practitioner’s Guide to Educating Traumatized Children. While the data indicates that students affected by trauma is proportionately higher in schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns, such trauma is also present in advantaged neighborhoods as well, for example …

(In a) study comparing middle school students in the Philadelphia metropolitan area attending an urban middle school and a suburban middle school, researchers found a strikingly high prevalence of exposure to violence and victimization in both groups: 89% of suburban and 96% of urban middle school students knew someone who had been robbed, assaulted, or murdered; 57% of suburban and 88% of urban middle school students had witnessed someone being robbed, assaulted, or murdered; (and) 40% of suburban and 67% of urban middle school students had been a victim of violence.

(Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools)

While trauma experienced by students is not restricted to the poor, 1) there is a significant difference in the proportion of students affected, and 2) it can be assumed that more resources and emotional support is likely to be found in advantaged communities. For the poor, society’s greatest potential resource for ameliorating the toxic effects of poverty is universal public education—IF it is firing on all cylinders—and never has it been needed more than it is today. According to The State of America’s Children 2020, one in six children are poor, which makes them “the poorest age group in the country.” The report asserts that poverty not only stunts children’s development, (it creates) “opportunity gaps that can last a lifetime and harm the nation’s economy.” As noted in the report …

Poor children are more likely to have poor academic achievement, drop out of high school and later become unemployed, experience economic hardship and be involved in the criminal justice system. Children who experience poverty are also more likely to be poor at age 30 than children who never experience poverty (and) lost productivity, worsened health and increased crime stemming from child poverty cost the nation about $700 billion dollars a year, or about 3.5 percent of GDP.

(The State of America’s Children 2020)

A recent Forbes headline—Largest Increase In U.S. Poverty Recorded In 2020—means that the plight of a significant number of our children will suffer lifelong harm unless we, as a society, do something to ensure that all children are provided with educators who have high expectations of them and who understand and apply motivation theory, educators who understand the importance of aligning what Fenwick English first called what is “written, taught and tested” and who implement the practice, educators who know how to and are held accountable for implementing best practices and who are not burdened with the improper use of standardized testing, and educators who know how to create trauma-informed classrooms.

The Army of Liberty has been on the march against universal public education for years because they want their tax dollars to be spent on their kids and because they do not want their tax dollars wasted on what they perceive to be “failing schools.” The soldiers of liberty have not been swayed by prophets and messiahs who have called for compassion for the poor. They have no apparent concern about Jesus’ assertion regarding the impossibility of rich folks getting into Heaven, nor do they heed JFK’s warning (that I have quoted in my posts at least a dozen times), which is much more about self-preservation than compassion:

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

(John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Speech)

Quality universal public education is the canary in the American coal mine. Such an educational system is, in my view, the only societal undertaking that has the capacity to provide the millions of children who are poor with the emotional strength and intellectual mastery needed to pursue happiness in contemporary America. The canary is not yet dead, but it is gasping, and if we do nothing to bring fresh air to our poor children, the canary will die, and if it does, Advantaged America, as it thinks itself to be, will die soon after, smothered by its suffocating blanket of privilege.

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