'Doc' Howe, President Lyndon Johnson's U.S. commissioner of education, in a Phi Delta Kappa interview with Mark Goldberg in October of 2000, said that, "You test kids who have poor lives and inadequate schooling, flunk them, and say they didn't meet the standards. You must first improve their lives and schooling and then give the test."
Now who would disagree with Howe's words? Certainly not David Berliner, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, perhaps Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier, to mention just a few of the countless progressive educators who are out there thinking first of the kids.
In fact, at first blush we would probably all agree. For how can you teach a child to read who hasn't had enough to eat? And what about the preschooler who has seen his Mom taken from him during the night and who has that mostly on his mind when he arrives at school?
And then there are the homework assignments, always having to be done in the same room with the big screen television set that is never turned off, or even down? Who is going to win that competition?
And then there are the children who get to school in the morning, well almost at 7:30 and almost on time, but they're still half asleep because bedtime was midnight and the alarm went off at 5:30 in order to make the hour long subway and bus ride to school. Are they going to be listening to their teacher?
So is there any sense in teaching, let alone testing kids, whose lives are seriously deficient in proper food and shelter, and the no less important rest and quiet, and most of all, whose lives are mostly without close contacts with caring adults?
The liberal (and yes common sense) response is to say, "let's not blame the kids for their failure in the classroom, let's direct more resources towards improving their lives outside of the classroom," or in Doc Howe's words, "first improve their lives and schooling and then give them the tests."
And what's wrong with this response? Why aren't we all pushing along with Jonathan Kozol to direct increased resources to our impoverished inner city and rural school communities?
Well this sort of response acquired a name, the war on poverty, and it began some 44 years ago, when then President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in his first state of the union speech on January 8, 1964.
Johnson's war created programs such as Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which still exist today. But the poverty rate, the percentage of those falling below a government determined poverty threshold, after an initial reduction due to these programs, has remained steady since then, right up until today, fluctuating between 11 and 15% of the population.
Would another series of anti-poverty programs, comparable in weight and substance to Head Start, food stamps, Medicare et al. bring about another 5% reduction in the poverty level? We'll probably never know because neither republican nor democratic politicians, with the exception of John Edwards who is now out of the presidential race, have any interest in doing one.
Therefore, it's probably just not going to happen, that kids lives are going to be improved outside of school before we get them in school. We get them in school the way they come to us and we have to take them that way and teach and test them.
There are those who have accepted this state of affairs and have decided to go ahead and teach and test regardless of the gaping inadequacies of kids' lives outside of school. These individuals have been properly recognized by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, their "no excuses" meaning that the excuses kids bring to school with them, no less than guns and knives, must be left at the door before coming in.
I think, for example, of the MATCH School, a Commonwealth Charter School in Boston. I sent Doc Howe's not unreasonable statement to the founder of the school, Michael Goldstein. Here is what Goldstein said in response:
"If teachers believe that kids' 'overall lives' must be improved (and this never comes to pass), it undermines the idea of teachers taking responsibility for driving big gains in student learning. [And instead of being accountable, we have teachers saying] "Well of course my students continue to be bad readers, even after a year of my teaching them, for nobody has improved their lives!"
He's right. You have to go ahead with what you have, and most important take responsibility for what you do with what you have. Now I say that realizing with some trepidation that my position comes dangerously close to that of Donald Rumsfeld, who in December of 2004, in response to a question from a member of the Tennessee National Guard, said, "You go to war with the Army you have. [Even if] they're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
But of course the analogy to the war situation doesn't hold. For yes, we could have adequately armed our combat vehicles. But no, we can't by our government programs diminish, let alone do away with, the poverty in people's lives. For this poverty is one of human, not so much material, inadequacy. Afterall we are the world's wealthiest country.
So yes, we have to do as Michael Goldstein does at the MATCH School. We have to teach our kids, whether or not they've had a good night at home before walking into our classrooms, and we have to hold them accountable for their learning, or not learning, while they are there.
For otherwise we are abandoning them to be members of another failed generation, the second or third since Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964, not to mention all those undocumented generations of impoverished kids that came before.