“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” —James Baldwin Any time there’s an education debate, people tend to say that students in a particular place are “all our children.” For some, the phrase is a sweet little euphemism, and for others it is a flat-out lie. The reality is that in most cases, there is no “our” children—there’s “your” children and then there’s “my” children. According to the newly released Education Post poll, for example, 63 percent of white parents said that it is “very important” for their children to attend college. That number goes up to 94 percent if you include parents who say it is “somewhat important” for their children to go to college. Those are high numbers. But they sharply drop when you tweak the question. Of those same parents, only 34 percent agreed that it was important for other people’s children to attend college. Whose children did you say they were again?
The Best and the BrightestThe collective responsibility for “our” children breaks down once again during the typical charter versus district school debate. The poll shows that parents are two times more likely to say public charters offer low-income communities options, rather than agree with the view that charters drain resources and high-achieving students away from traditional schools. This is progress, though I wonder if the 35 percent of parents who see charters as community brain-drainers would agree that selective enrollment, magnet and private schools are even more culpable? In Chicago, for example, the most elite and high-performing schools require kids to test in, taking only the best and the brightest as their own. Yet I rarely, if ever, hear educators and parents protesting the existence of these schools. Instead, they continue to slam charters, which must accept any student, achievers and underachievers alike, whose name gets pulled from a blind lottery.
The Bottom LineAnother way the “our” children rhetoric gets turned on its head is with the student-based school funding model. In Chicago, this can create a wicked distinction between “us” and “them” because student enrollment figures can directly impact a school’s bottom line. Every empty seat is cash out (the potential loss of staff positions), and every filled seat is cash in (job security). Forget standardized testing—this funding system, while fair, has turned enrollment into a high-stakes, cut-throat, job-jeopardizing, zero-sum game of survival. The fear of students transferring out, be it charter to charter, district to district, district to charter, or charter to district, perpetuates the “my” kids and “your” kids mentality. I once saw a well-established, high-performing charter school administrator go into a mild panic when a new charter school opened up down the street. Until that point, I thought only district school educators shrieked the common refrain: “That new charter will steal our kids!” I wanted to ask, “Aren’t our kids their kids, too? And their kids our kids? Aren’t they all ‘our’ kids?” Of course, the competition to outperform similar schools on standardized tests has added to this confusion about which kids to root for. How can a principal claim that the kids in the community belong to all of us if he gets upset that the kids at a nearby school did better on the test than his students? Is it honest to expect educators to collaborate to build better outcomes for all students, if the system forces us to constantly compete against one another?
What Do We Do With Poll Data?Polling data can be confusing. Parents often answer questions about what’s best for all kids with just their kids in mind. We all know that every kid is different and can have polar opposite needs, so how should we use parent surveys to make large-scale reforms in education? Let’s take the parent-led opt-out movement against standardized testing as an example. How should state education chiefs respond to these parents when Education Post’s national polling data shows parents are almost equally divided: 49 percent of parents think there’s too much testing in schools, 40 percent say amount of testing is just right, and 8 percent say there isn’t enough testing? Plus, a solid 60 percent agree that their child’s test scores accurately reflect their academic grades. I don’t know how to fix this phenomenon among parents, but I’ve found one way to help educators truly live the “our” children mantra: Every teacher and administrator could decide to enroll their own biological children in the schools where they work. Talk about a fast-track path to genuine education reform! That’s the surest way to make all the students at their school “our” children without full-blown adoption. This would up the ante for everybody involved, particularly those educational gatekeepers who so nonchalantly can explain away the academic and social-emotional failures of other people’s children as the inevitable side effect of poverty. As a mom who has always enrolled my own kids in schools where I’ve taught—be it in the ghetto or on the nicer side of town—I’ve found my sense of urgency for providing a quality education at my school is unmatched compared to many of my colleagues who have their kids at different schools or those who have no kids at all. I’m not saying that my colleagues don’t work as hard as I do, but they aren’t necessarily as willing to put their jobs on the line to call out the policies and people who are hindering schools from providing an excellent education to their students. Finding the courage to step up and speak out is easier when one of your students is one you also tuck into bed at night. My professor in graduate school once told me that people overwhelmingly tend to rate themselves above average. So when it comes to matters of education, what’s best for “our” children depends on whose kids you’re really talking about: yours or mine?
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames' award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.