“There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal people.”—Thomas Jefferson
While there may be disagreement about how to improve our lowest performing school, both Arne Duncan and the public agree that they must get better. Ironically, just as the interest in schools is peaking the economy is rapidly eroding any chances we have of turning these schools around.
The reality is that a bad economy adversely affects us all. While we all suffer when budgets are slashed, some are hurt more than others. In education, those students who have the least and who can least afford it as well as the schools that serve those students, are hurt the most. While fewer teachers, larger classes, and fewer resources hurt all students, they devastate schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students. Already high-performing schools are working hard to maintain excellence, but, most of these schools are made up of middle class students whose parents will make up for any deficiencies. Under-resourced schools, many of which are located in the poorest areas of the country, must make double-digit gains every year just to catch up have no backup plan. Many of their parents are undereducated themselves and are working two and three jobs just to survive.
Simply put, our neediest students need the most help. Under-resourced students arrive at school already behind their middle class peers and they rely on us to do whatever it takes to help close the gap. Whatever these students need—food, clothing, medical care, psychological services, social services–it is up to us to provide it. Hunger makes learning more difficult.
We had hoped that the most recent federal assistance could save many teacher jobs. However, according to the principals I have talked to, the money from the emergency jobs bill is not trickling down to schools fast enough to save jobs this school year. It was simply too late. Because states don’t need to spend the money until the end of the next school year, many are holding on to the funds in fear that next year will be even worse.
Doing more with less is quickly becoming a worn out cliché. It is one thing to have a bad budget year, but how many bad years in a row can a school weather. Raising student achievement in the face of massive layoffs and draconian budget cuts is a lot harder than it sounds. One principal I know has had a 12% increase in student population over the past two years while his staff has been cut 20%. Cutting staff in the face of increasing enrollment normally spells disaster. Despite the cuts, his school has made AYP the last two years. However, to make AYP this year, the school must achieve double-digit gains in both reading and math with more students and deep staff cuts. Worse yet, it appears that there will be more cuts next year.
School systems across the country are being forced to make huge, across-the-board cuts—teachers, support staff, maintenance, and technology. Not only will students have fewer course choices, but also their classes will be larger, have less technology, and overall fewer resources.
Some experts will tell you that the only fair way to make these cuts is to make them equally across all schools and all levels. While it is certainly more convenient to manage a budget that way, the fact is that some cuts directly impact under-resourced students much more than they do their middle class counterparts.
For example, one highly regarded suburban school system has decided to make students pay $75 for every Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam. While I am not contesting the need to make these budget cuts, I know from personal experience that this policy will have little impact on middle class students. However, it will unfairly target disadvantaged students and will significantly reduce the number of poor and under-resourced students who take these college-level courses. Requiring students to pay for these tests will reduce the number of students who take the courses, and will effectively undo years of progress and the efforts of a whole host of teachers, counselors, and administrators to raise expectations and skill levels.
This “one size fits all mentality” victimizes under-resourced students and slams the door of opportunity in their faces. This practice will directly prevent many students from attending college who could have reversed the destiny of their entire family by being the first to graduate from college. For many of these students, not taking these courses will be the difference between going to college and not. For other students, it will mean a loss of scholarship money, which will have essentially the same effect.
The last time we went through cuts of this kind, there was a significant drop in the number of disadvantaged students taking IB courses at our school. As soon as the policy was reinstated a year later, the numbers bounced back. If the policy had been in effect more than a year, the damage most likely would have been irreparable. What took our diverse, high-poverty school years to accomplish was undone in a single year. Our tireless work to improve reading, writing, and math skills in an attempt to prepare students to take advanced courses was undone by this strategy.
The same people who ask if school cafeterias are necessary are the same people who ask how could $75 make that much difference? The fact is that it isn’t that big of a deal to middle class families, but to students who depend on the school for two meals every day, and, in some cases the clothes on their backs, $75 is the difference between eating, paying the rent, and taking and not taking a course.
Despite that fact that our PTA raised money to guarantee that every test would be paid for, we had the same kind of drop in IB course enrollment that we see in applic
ations for federally subsidized lunches when students transition from middle to high school. Ask high school principals and they will tell you that their applications for free and reduced-price meals are about 30% lower than their elementary and middle-level feeder schools. Why? Many high school students are simply too proud or too embarrassed to admit that they cannot afford to buy lunch.
Incidentally, that previously mentioned high school that has experienced a rise in enrollment and a 20% drop in staff now has only one guidance counselor for its 850 students. Now, who do you think will miss the counselor the most, the middle class students whose parents attended college themselves and who can afford to obtain private college-counseling or the under-resourced students whose parents have never set foot on a college campus and can barely pay the rent?
The Bottom Line
School leaders are in the unenviable position of deciding who will live educationally and who will die educationally. Decision-makers who insist that, unless every school has a particular resource, no school in that system will have that resource, think that they are being fair, when, in reality, they are singling out their neediest students and forcing them to compete on an uneven playing field. As leaders, we must make every effort to ensure that the cuts that we are forced to make do not target our weakest and neediest students. We must speak for those who have no voice.