Look, I'm Not the Enemy But Investing in Education Without Accountability Just Doesn't Work

Apr 22, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

My recent visit to the Network for Public Education’s annual conference in North Carolina has yielded much fruit. In addition to an extended blog conversation with Peter Greene on the topic of teacher evaluation, teacher/writer Mercedes Schneider wrote an  unflattering profile of me (not her first), though we have never met or spoken. She drew on an interview I did with blogger Jennifer Berkshire a few years ago, referenced a few lines from my panel discussion with Berkshire at the conference, lifted some bio material from our website, threw in a few snarky lines about my funders, and posted a piece that basically says—we can’t trust this guy to have an honest conversation. Alas, trust is important and it has to be earned, so maybe we can start by talking about issues instead of personalities. Let’s start with education funding—an issue I raised during the panel. ( Peter Greene also wrote up a play-by-play.)

More Funding, Less Accountability

Right now,  31 states are at pre-recession levels in education funding and a new series on NPR delves into  persistent funding inequity due to state and local funding formulas. Just one example highlights the inequity: In Chicago Ridge, a low-income suburb outside Chicago, annual per-pupil funding is about $9,794. In Rondout, a high-income suburb, per-pupil funding is about $28,639, nearly three times higher. Collectively or individually, Schneider and her allies have called for more funding for early learning, wraparound services, smaller classes, higher salaries, common planning time, etc. We agree on the need for more funding but we disagree on the argument and the fact that underfunding and inequity is so prevalent suggests their case could be strengthened. For one thing, they are fighting accountability through every means available. Some encourage parents to opt-out of tests tied to accountability. Others resist efforts to intervene in low-performing schools. Most hate teacher evaluation if it includes any measures of student growth. Few will even entertain a discussion about teacher quality in low-income schools, equating it with teacher-bashing. Many also insist that poverty is the real problem driving achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color and they call for more investment in anti-poverty programs. Finally, some even insist that teachers can only do so much for at-risk children and therefore should not be held accountable for outcomes—a Louisiana teacher said this to me at the panel discussion in North Carolina. For the record, I favor dramatically increasing education funding and I may be the only person in America who thinks  it should come from the federal government. To me, it’s crystal clear that states and districts will never equalize funding because of anti-tax, local control politics.

The Argument Just Doesn’t Add Up

The problem is, however, the anti-reform arguments for more education funding and less accountability just don’t add up. Their argument about poverty is self-defeating: [pullquote position="right"]If poverty’s the real problem, why spend more on education?[/pullquote] And their argument that we need more funding even though teachers can only do so much feeds a false narrative that undermines the status and value of the profession. As I said at the panel, to the shock of some who were present, education is the only real ballgame in ending poverty and teachers are the critical players. The safety net—food stamps, Medicaid, etc.— staves off destitution but education is a springboard to the middle class. Ask any middle-class person who grew up in poverty how they climbed the ladder and most of them will cite a particular teacher. All of them will cite education, combined with hard work. For the sake of our children and our teachers, we should stop arguing against accountability and work together to devise a fair, responsible, practical system for measuring our progress and taking responsibility. We should absolutely guard against over-testing or narrowing of the curriculum. We know it’s possible but we lack the will or courage or leadership to sit down together and hash it out. That’s why Congress went ahead and reaffirmed test-based accountability under the new law. Nobody offered a real alternative and still hasn’t.

The Single Best Investment America Can Make

They should stop saying that poverty is destiny when people are proving the opposite every day in schools all across America. Education Trust runs a website called  Dispelling the Myth that profiles high-poverty, high-performing public schools, including plenty of traditional public schools with unionized teachers. Charter management organizations like KIPP, Uncommon and Success Academy are shattering the myth that poor kids can’t learn at the same levels as wealthy kids. This video of a Perspectives charter student in Chicago is further proof. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRS1HdU4Lns And please stop insisting teachers can only do so much when we see teachers doing amazing work everywhere with extremely challenged children. No one expects miracles. We all understand that in a system with 25 million low-income kids, they won’t all show up at school every morning emotionally or mentally prepared, they won’t all succeed and they won’t all go to college. But it’s not too much to ask that every person trained and paid to teach low-income children set high expectations and demonstrate a deep, unshakeable faith in the power of education to make a difference in their lives. Most teachers I know tell me that is exactly why they are in the field. We also know that  lots of middle- and upper-income kids are graduating unprepared for college. You can’t put that on poverty. To really build a case for more education funding, I humbly suggest we unite around a simple, provable message: [pullquote]Education is the single best investment America can make.[/pullquote] It’s the surest path out of poverty. It relies on the hard work of teachers who demonstrate courage and professionalism every day. They should be honored and valued and compensated appropriately. I am not your enemy, Ms. Schneider.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

The Feed