The next President should select John Kuhn, superintendent of schools in the little Perrin-Whitt District in Texas as Secretary of Education.
Because John Kuhn has the heart, the vision, the love of children, the courage, the honesty, and the integrity that the position requires. The Department is the kind of bureaucracy that runs itself, no matter who is the Secretary. Like any big organization, it lacks a heart and soul. That’s what the leader should provide. Kuhn has plenty of both.
He first burst onto the national scene with a stunning speech at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Who was this man, we wondered, this man who embraced all children and wanted to do the best for every single one of them?
This is the way his speech started:
Let me speak for all public school educators when I say unequivocally: We will. We say send us your poor, send us your homeless, the children of your afflicted and addicted. Send us your kids who don’t speak English. Send us your special-needs children, we will not turn them away.
But I tell you today, public school teacher, you will fail to take the shattered children of poverty and turn them into the polished products of the private schools. You will be unacceptable, public school teacher. And I say that is your badge of honor. I stand before you today bearing proudly the label of unacceptable because I educate the children they will not educate.
Day after day I take children broken by the poverty our leaders are afraid to confront and I glue their pieces back together. And at the end of my life you can say those children were better for passing through my sphere of influence. I am unacceptable and proud of it.
The poorest Americans need equity, but our nation offers them accountability instead. They need bread, but we give them a stone. We address the soft bigotry of low expectations so that we may ignore the hard racism of inequity. Standardized tests are a poor substitute for justice.
Read the whole speech and watch it here.
John Kuhn doesn’t want to make kids compete for the highest test scores. He doesn’t want to pick winners and losers. He wants to educate all children.
Kuhn recent wrote a book about how the accountability madness started in Texas. I invited Jason Stanford, a fine journalist in Austin, to review Kuhn’s Test and Punish. I hope you will read the review and read the book and learn about a man with a vision that would transform American education.
Jason Stanford writes:
John Kuhn, the superintendent of a small school district northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, could have written several books. He could have written the story about how he became the Howard Beale of school administrators, giving fiery speeches demanding to see the Adequate Yearly Progress of politicians. He could have cast himself as the hero of the anti-testing rebellion, a modern-day William Travis defending the schoolhouse like the Alamo. Instead, Kuhn wrote a sneakily subversive book about the bait & switch that screwed a generation of American students so Texas politicians didn’t have to raise taxes.
The brilliance of Kuhn’s Test-and-Punish: How the Texas Educational Model Gave America Accountability without Equity is the choice to tell the story about how we got into this mess in the first place. And to do that, you have to look at the promise that Texas made to its citizens in its state constitution that, admittedly, is given cursory respect by the local judiciary.
Article 7, Section 1 states:
A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.
A logical conclusion by a layman would be that the legislature had a duty to adequately fund public (“make suitable provision for the support and maintenance”) schools, and as Kuhn elegantly recounts, for a while the poor folks were winning in the courts. The problem is that Texas politicians didn’t want to raise taxes to help poor minorities. Gov. Ann Richards, working under a court order, tried to spread the wealth under a “Robin Hood” plan and lost re-election to George W. Bush who preached the false gospel of accountability.
Wait, what? How did we go from trying to get more money into underfunded public schools in poor neighborhoods to judging poor students by their test scores and calling it “accountability”?
This being Texas, it was a two-step process, and kudos for Kuhn for putting these pieces together.
First, Kuhn followed the money and found John Cornyn, then a lesser light on the Texas Supreme Court and now our senior senator. Cornyn represented the privileged business class on the court and did not agree that adequately funding would yield better schools. Instead—and this was clever—Cornyn ignored the requirement that the legislature “make suitable provision” and focused instead on the word “efficiency.”
This, Kuhn writes, changed everything:
The way Cornyn saw it, the constitutional demand for efficiency required the legislature to establish appropriate educational results, not merely evenhanded fiscal inputs (Farr and Trachtenberg 1999, 33). Cornyn implied that funding in and of itself did not directly equate to educational quality, that other factors were in play, and that the legislature must have some means of measuring basic educational quality in order to ensure efficiency.
This doctrine, originally appearing as a dissent but soon becoming a majority opinion on the court, explains how “accountability would eclipse as the primary consideration for policymakers and education thinkers in the state,” Kuhn writes.
One of those thinkers was a Democratic lawyer whose political ambitions found no purchase in Dallas. He tried running for congress and chaired the county party for a bit.
He found more luck as an advocate for education reform in Dallas, which has traditionally meant the white business elite in North Dallas worrying about what to do about the schools in South Dallas where the black and Hispanic students went. Backed by the business community, Sandy Kress headed up a working group that devised a plan that is “nearly identical to the guiding principles baked into the federal government’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act,” writes Kuhn.
Except there was one important difference early on, and I’m still miffed at Kuhn for finding it because I was hoping to be the first one to write about it.
The Kress committee’s proposal in Dallas ISD different from much of modern educational accountability in one significant way: it called for adjustments to be made in the performance expectations for children coming from impoverished backgrounds. For a Dallas school to be considered successful, its poorest students wouldn’t be required to achieve the same scores as higher-income pupils. This kindler, gentler approach to holding schools accountable for student performance wouldn’t last long.
Given the opening by Cornyn on the Supreme Court, Bush took Kress to Dallas as governor and implemented a plan to use test scores to measure efficiency in education. Only this time, they judged everyone by the same standard, poor and rich, Hispanic, black and white. No excuses.
You know the rest of the story: After two decades, poor kids get worse scores than rich kids. By relieving ourselves of responsibility to improve inputs, we focus exclusively on outputs and wonder why we’re not getting better results. Switching funding equity for efficiency and then making tests the sole measure of accountability combined to give Texas schools “spankings instead of supports,” writes Kuhn. “It was tough love, only without the love.”
Thank goodness Kuhn wrote the book he did. He’s still the William Travis of the Texas testing rebellion, but the research and analysis he invested in Test-and-Punish has given me a broader perspective on the failed ideology that has infected our public schools. Kuhn was one of the people who drew my attention to over-testing in the first place, and now my thinking on the subject owes a new debt to his book.