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Paul Cummins: The Elephant in the Classroom

Posted on Nov 13, 2006

By Paul Cummins

(Page 2)

This proliferation of social problems receives lip service, but few realize the impact of these problems upon schools. Consider: a massive infusion of non-English-speaking students—in some schools more than 50 languages are spoken. Consider: in some neighborhoods there are two and three families living in one- or two-bedroom apartments whose conditions afford students no possibility of studying or doing homework. Consider: in many of these neighborhoods gangs rule, and from 3 p.m. to darkness the streets and parks are unsafe. Where then do inner-city children go and what can they do? Consider: in many neighborhoods drug dealing, crime, and violence are daily occurrences; consequently many children come to school frightened, sometimes abused, or physically undernourished. The pitifully understaffed schools are expected to deal with these problems as well as teaching academic skills—and, frequently, all of this is expected to be carried out in overcrowded classrooms.

The implications and requirements that these relatively new social conditions impose on schools are enormous. To make serious improvements would necessitate:

1. in many middle schools and high schools, cutting class size in half, which would necessitate
2. hiring 100 percent more teachers—which would necessitate
3. repairing campuses and building more schools and classrooms and
4. hiring more counselors, special education specialists, ESL teachers and
5. creating after-school programs for latchkey children and youth.

That would be just a start. Yet each of these requirements would require substantial new funding. There’s that elephant.


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But for some reason the elephant seems to be invisible. Poverty and its companions, poor health systems, poor housing, and poor schools, seem to be off society’s radar screen. Forty-five years ago Michael Harrington noted that “The other America, the America of poverty, is hidden today in a way that it never was before. Its millions are socially invisible to the rest of us.” 5 Similarly, a year before Harrington, James Bryant Conant argued in his Slums and Suburbs that “The contrast in money available to schools in a wealthy suburb and to the schools in a large city jolts one’s notions of the meaning of equality of opportunity.” 6

As concerned as Conant and Harrington may have been in 1961-62, matters have worsened since then. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that inner-city children, rather than the smaller per-pupil funding they receive, actually require more funds in order to compensate for their social deprivation. Bruce D. Baker, a reviewer of several such studies, concludes that children from economically deprived backgrounds would require 35 percent more spending than the average costs, and children with limited English proficiency will require spending around 100 percent above average.7 Anything short of this amount is likely to perpetuate failure.

A recent Rand Corporation study that was commissioned to discover the complex reasons behind California’s underperformance in K-12 education reached several important conclusions.8 First, California’s per-pupil expenditures were third lowest in the nation, as mentioned earlier in this chapter. Reasoning that perhaps one explanation for California’s difficulties could be found in its disproportionate number of immigrants, the Rand economists statistically corrected for this disparity among the states. This time, California’s expenditures came out dead last! But then a completely unexpected result emerged: Texas, with a similarly large minority population, which had languished along with California near the bottom of the per-pupil spending rankings, vaulted to first place when the data was adjusted for minority enrollments. In other words, unlike California, Texas has actually faced up to the challenge of trying to provide a decent education to non-English-speaking children and children of poverty, primarily by means of universal preschool for low-income children. As Rand’s lead economist explained in a recent briefing, this achievement was driven almost entirely by Texas’ business leaders who, to their credit, realized that providing a substandard education to Texas’ low-income and non-English-speaking students would in the long run immensely impair Texas’ economic prospects and its competitiveness. It does not even require an extra helping of the milk of human kindness to see that funding public education adequately is the correct thing; in the case of the Texas business community, even simple self-interest will do.

The consequences attached to failing or succeeding in this gigantic effort are enormous. In a real sense, both our nation’s soul and its essential viability are at stake. If we become a hopelessly and irreversibly two-tiered society with the few very rich flourishing and the many poor living in degraded conditions, we will have shattered the American dream of a democratic, just, and fair society. We will have become an oligarchy-aristocracy-plutocracy, but will no longer be a democracy. How we regard and treat our schools will be a major determinant of what path we choose. We are already well down the road towards oligarchy; it is almost too late to change. Almost.


5 Michael Harrington, “The Other America” (New York, Penguin Books, 1962), p. 3.
6 James Bryant Conant, “Slums and Suburbs” (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 10.
7 Bruce D. Baker, “The Emerging Shape of Educational Adequacy” (Journal of Education Finance, Winter 2005), pp. 259-287.
8 Stephen J. Carroll et al., “California’s K-12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing?” (The Rand Corporation, RAND/MG-186-EDU, 2005).

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By William Hart, November 27, 2006 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you throw money at a problem , you get more of it, you don’t even see the problem , it’s socialism and communism programming only in our schools , it’s not even about education any more , WELCOME to AMERIKA it’s not missed spelled . You need to do your home work. when is the last time someone said WE will give the people more freedoms ????????????????????????????????????????? START BY PUTING GOD BACK IN AMERIKA < or live in HELL !!!!!!!!!!!!!

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By Tomorrow College Talk, November 15, 2006 at 3:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ll write about the college cost tomorrow, as I will FILL UP the “comment” space.

I see this from both sides.

I had a brother in law - Medical School Dept Head and Chair, just retired from a top public major university (rated top X, by different reports).

Most Sincerely,
Concerned Mother

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By NO quality education, empty promises!, November 15, 2006 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is NO quality education anymore, just “watered down” learning.

Incompetent Teachers

Teachers (some)  in our district aren’t even Degreed. They lie to the state about the stats.

Incompetent Principals that only care about their own butts and retirement packages.

Incompetent State Oversight of “rubber stamp” everything to valid their own pay checks.

Pass the buck and liability to the local school boards.  What a joke! I complain to the state oversight and it was “pass the BUCK”!

Funding does not exist, but yet we have bridges built to NOWHERE @ millions of dollars all approved by the GOP murderers.

The state records show some teachers aren’t even coming close to the mean state score for that grade or subject…..but nothing is DONE TO the TEACHER.  She still keep their jobs!  I find this criminal state behavior!

Not enough books in the classroom.  We don’t even have the state min. for the dictionarys
needed for the language tests.

Science books so old that you have “MOLD” on them dated 1998.  They don’t even come close to state standards at all.  God only knows what they show the state relative to the
little spot checks.  Maybe comic books.

Teachers “sleeping ” in classrooms. Yes we could use some pillows in out classrooms for 2 teachers.

Teachers select not to give out any homework.

Teachers that are to lazy to check what homework is given out.

Teachers writing answers to state test on the chalk boards BEFORE the test is given.

Teachers screaming don’t fire me for NON_ PERORMANCE.  Unions protect the dirt bags. I would LOVE to send them to a jail cell.

Teachers buying supplies out of the peanuts that they are paid. We have teachers that are buying some supplies from “walmart”.

The largest “killer to a child”, a school district that has no curriculum MAPPING by date, page, book, assignment given, rubrics assigned.  No lay-out of any type or nature is the worst of all. 

Or it is written so broad that an elephant can and will fit in same.  Has ZERO meaning.

No school director “pulling papers” to verify what teacher stated in the lesson plan is actually taught.

Teachers return tests, quizes and other papers 4 weeks later.  Wake UP.

NO CHECKS, NO BALANCES, in the state. A total FAILURE! You talk of a Do Nothing Congress…..we have a Do Nothing State “Enforcement”.  Grade F!

And a governor that is holding the people “hostage” just till Jan 2007.
Next year a new one comes in.  Will he produce?

Thank God this RED Governor is leaving!  Return him to   “Sender”!!  Nothing more than a grandstander with a mouth!

Concerned Mother

The USA is setting our children up for “EDUCATION FAILURE”!

PS>  I support state testing but hell make it worth being tested.  I currently spent over 1200.00 per child for actual school books
(the ones YOUR school would buy)
during the school year.  And another 500.00 for everyday school supplies per child. Our school is to CHEAP to supply or budget for same.  I spend
another 2500.00 per child in education enrichment per child per year.
  I use KUMON with each child @ 85.00 per child
per month.  I produce high yield education
results with each of my girls as proven by private testing.  I spend an average of 900.00 for AP Literature books for the girls to read daily from for an entire year.

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By nikto, November 14, 2006 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

NCLB is destroying Public Education by setting it up for privatization via phony failing “evaluations”.

This is going on right now, in schools across the nation, while the public sleeps.

Wake up, America, your public schools are being done away with!!!!

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By Roger Roth, November 13, 2006 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is all redundant.  Until there is a consensus on what “a quality education” is, we’ll get nowhere.  So long as the job of public schools is to make students marketable to coporate employers, education will fail, no matter how much is spent on it.  If that’s going to be the job, then let corporations and businesses train their workforce.  Schools need to teach kids how to think rationally, how to read, how to write, and how to live and contribute in a democratic society.  This is a huge job.  The mess is Iraq demonstrates lack of rational thinking, ignorance of religion and history, as well as inability to negotiate. Interesting, schools are now teaching anti-bullying strategies, which I agree with. The Get-a-Good-Education-So-You-Can-Get-A-Good-Job thing has to go.  This is the new milennium, and it calls for new skills.  How do we rid the world of poverty, war and greed?  How do we advance the cause of world-wide human rights?  How do we open dialogue and how do we sustain it?  How do we end, once and for all, Darfurs?  Until education starts to solidly address these questions, in my mind, It Ain’t Quality!

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By Jonathan Lundell, November 13, 2006 at 8:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A historical quibble: the impact of the Serrano decisions earlier in the 1970s, that had the effect of transferring public school funding from local districts to the state, was more profound than that of Prop 13. To be sure, Prop 13 didn’t help, but after Serrano, school funding was effectively coming from the state’s general fund, to which property taxes we only one input.

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