Education reformers like Michelle Rhee like to claim that if we only toss out "ineffective teachers" and evaluate all students on an even metric, we will discover the magic key to educating all of our children, even those who live in poverty and
December 19, 2011

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Education reformers like Michelle Rhee like to claim that if we only toss out "ineffective teachers" and evaluate all students on an even metric, we will discover the magic key to educating all of our children, even those who live in poverty and those challenged by language and/or cultural barriers. They argue that reform will mean giving parents choices about where their children are educated, too, which will somehow magically create performance where none existed in the past. These conclusions are based on a near-cultlike belief in the power of metrics and objective measurement of students' success. They also believe that removing children from their communities is the most effective way to improve their educational success.

All of that is code for privatizing public education, and the reasons for privatization are legion, but none are particularly related to giving America's children a quality education. There's a long discussion to be had about for-profit education and other issues, but I was given an opportunity to consider another paradigm last week, one that has a great deal of promise for America's students and teachers.

The Backstory

In West Virginia, McDowell County's children have many challenges in front of them. After financial irregularities were discovered ten years ago, their public schools were taken over by the state. Ten years later, the financial issues are resolved, but face ongoing challenges with regard to the education of their children (see video at the top).

Gayle Manchin, wife of US Senator Joe Manchin, former First Lady of West Virginia, and Vice Chair of the State Board of Education was troubled by the consistent problems plaguing students in McDowell County, and wanted to come up with a new solution to the issues they face up there. She reached out to the very dynamic Randi Weingarten, president of AFT and all-around amazing person, and a new approach was born.

McDowell County: Strong People, Big Challenges

What you need to understand about McDowell County and others like it: Poverty is not just a side issue. It's a meaningful and major impediment to educating students. There is a direct correlation between impoverished students and learning ability. Students who are hungry aren't thinking about learning; they're thinking about food. Students whose families are challenged with drug addiction and health problems aren't thinking about learning; they're thinking about what they've come from and where they will return. This isn't theory. It's documented fact (PDF).

The students scored below norms in all years and grades tested; students who lived in poverty scored significantly worse than other students; schools with the highest percentages of poor students scored significantly worse initially, but closed the gap slightly as time progressed. Numerous individual studies have found similar results. In his fiscal 2010 budget proposal, President Barack Obama called for neighborhoods modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone to improve the lives of children living in poverty (Aarons, 2009).

Here's another fact: Rural poverty is very different from urban poverty. Rural areas with high poverty rates tend to also lack basic services like broadband Internet access, roads or means to get from their homes to schools, extracurricular activity opportunities, and other critical services which are available to urban areas, even when impoverished. There is a completely different set of circumstances.

Reconnecting McDowell, in the words of AFT President Randi Weingarten, means that "neither demography nor geography should determine destiny." That's a tall order. One look at the geography of McDowell County might daunt anyone but the bravest of souls. This Washington Post photo essay tells the story well. On Friday, I was driven to Welch, the county seat. Roads in and out of the area are narrow, steep, winding, and sometimes dangerous.


Geography and demography; remoteness and poverty. McDowell County was, at one time, the most prosperous county in West Virginia. It is coal country, serious coal country. What infrastructure exists is there because government and the coal industry put it in place to facilitate coal mining. The only flat surfaces I saw in the area were there because of mountaintop removal. Otherwise, everything abuts steep hills and mountains, limiting recreational opportunities for young people and businesses. There is a drive-in restaurant, but no only one movie theater in the area (thanks for the correction, commenter matttad!), or malls, or other areas where youth enjoy congregating. But mostly, there isn't really an incentive right now to develop businesses like that with the attendant challenges. As with most company towns, when the mines close, the prosperity and population move on. If they're able. For those who are not, they find themselves in communities with limited opportunity and resources to shift to another focus for prosperity.

Enough background. What is Reconnecting McDowell all about?

Reconnecting McDowell is an attempt to create a new community paradigm with area public schools as the hub. It is as much about community revitalization as it is about school performance. It is based on the premise, first and foremost, that learning requires an environment free of interfering factors like hunger, homelessness, drug addiction, health challenges and poverty. It is a group of partners, corporate and nonprofit, coming together to address challenges and barriers facing communities and schools in McDowell County.


Because this effort requires a long-term commitment, each of the partners will (or has already) sign a covenant signalling their commitment. I was present Friday for the unveiling of the project and commitment by the AFT,, United Mine Workers, Cisco Systems, and Frontier Communications. Their covenant is this:

In sum, our pledge is to create a new reality, starting with our commitment to the children of McDowell County—to help their community build a new personal, institutional and programmatic infrastructure for success. And it is our promise to one another to work together to achieve that goal.

The foundations of the covenant are education, transportation and infrastructure, health and social services for students and their families, housing, jobs and economic development.

This is a radical departure from the "educational reform" embraced by the likes of Bill Gates and the Michelle Rhee happy techie-metrics camps. It speaks to the underlying social covenant we all have with each other, not to simply paste bandaids and money on top of fundamental problems, but instead to confront those problems head-on.

Beyond the radical and innovative nature of the covenant itself, there is this: This effort is the product of a monumental effort by the American Federation of Teachers. Yes indeed, the group who is coordinating this (alongside Gayle Manchin) is the AFT, who the right wing (and sometimes even the left!) wants to paint as some kind of socialist group whose only interest is in preserving teacher tenure and union inroads in school districts. This project should make people sit up and see that it is only groups like the AFT who have the reach and the influence to encourage corporations and charities to come together to address community issues inside the context of educational achievement.

Reconnecting McDowell transcends our current politics in so many ways. It is an intersection of public and private interests united with these principles in common: Community is key to educational success. Each community is unique and presents unique challenges. In order to improve education, conditions in the community as a whole can and must be addressed through partnerships to bring infrastructure, social services, and industry to struggling communities. As the overall condition of the community improves, so too will children's educational success.

Imagine the possibilities if poverty is addressed as part of a larger concern about education, in the context of individual communities' needs. That is what the AFT and its partners imagine for McDowell County, and for other communities facing similar challenges going forward. In time, the community could be as colorful as local artist Tom Acosta imagined it to be. This wonderful mural is painted on the side of a building going into Welch. It's beautiful, inviting, and charming.


As you pass by the mural, the front of the building comes into view.


The businesses are vacant. Windows are boarded up. There is trash hidden in a stairwell. The "For Rent" sign is faded. These are today's realities, but the residents and leaders of McDowell County imagine better times ahead with hard work and willing partners.

[First in a series about West Virginia and the unique challenges faced by students and communities there]

Note: All photos are mine, some taken from a moving vehicle near sundown. Forgive their blur.

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