Yeah, Let’s Focus on Our Students!

Linda Oyon

Cross-posted from

In a recent Scientific American article, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson for Betsy DeVos said “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs.” As good as that sounds, it is total bullshit.

Here’s the deal. As much as its proponents try to tell us otherwise, school choice does NOT put the focus on students, because the “choice” is largely that of the commercial school, not the student. We know for example that private schools have total control over what students they accept, irrespective of the students’ funding sources (taxpayer-funded vouchers included.) Charter schools are by law required to accept all, but we also know they enroll much lower percentages of special needs students, those of color, and those in poverty.

As for the secretary’s belief that we should put the “focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries,” puhleeeeeeeaaasssee! This is just a thinly veiled swipe at community district schools. In Arizona, over 80% of our students attend these district schools where facility maintenance and repair is severely underfunded and there are no “artificially constructed boundaries” since we’ve had open enrollment since 1994.

Incidentally, “ensuring every child has access” is not the same as “providing every child….” Access refers to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something.” But, it takes more than the right or opportunity, it takes the means not only to get into the school, but to get to the school and survive the school. That’s not how it works in a district school which takes all comers, and works to provide each student what they need to succeed. And, they continue to serve the student even if that student’s test scores don’t make the school look good.

The piece de resistance in the DOE statement though, is “that fits their unique needs.” Wow! Isn’t that a great sound bite? Unfortunately, it is totally undoable and DeVos knows it.

In America, one in five children live in poverty. This reality, not inadequately funded schools and under appreciated teachers, is their major hurdle to a good education. What these students need is more than district schools are charged with, or have the capacity to provide. There is just no way commercial schools will do better at bridging that gap.

It amazes me how adept the privatization advocates have been at messaging. They’ve convinced parents that school choice is the answer and that “voting with their feet” is empowering. But as a fellow blogger pointed out recently, when parents “vote with their feet” to leave district schools for greener grass, all they are really doing is relinquishing influence. There is no school choice option (aside from homeschooling) that provides a parent as much say in their child’s education as does the district school with its locally-elected governing board. Parents and taxpayers alike have the right to be heard at public board meetings and, if their elected governing board members are not responsive to parent’s concerns, they can be recalled or replaced via elections.

Yes, we should all be focused on the students. So let’s do that, okay? Let’s properly fund our local community district schools where over 80% of our students are, instead of reaching for the shiny object being dangled to distract us. Let’s demand our tax dollars are spent where there is full accountability and transparency with locally-elected governing boards responsible for producing a good return on our investment. Let’s demand our teachers are adequately compensated and treated like professionals. Let’s in other words…put our money where our mouth is. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice about where to send their kids. Every public school should be a high quality one.


  1. In 1870, Ignatz Semmelweiss became one of the first, if not the first scientist to not only discover the germ theory of disease but to solve it for his patients. He required his doctors to immerse their hands and arms in a chlorine solution before delivering babies. Overnight, his death rate dropped from 10% to 3%.

    Instead of the acclaim he deserved, the medical profession rained ridicule and derision down on him to the point he was committed and died a horrible death in an insane asylum.

    The medical profession was culturally trapped. Culture is a brain system completely separate and apart from rational logic.

    We would know that education is culturally trapped if we could prove, as Semmelweiss did, the current results are far from optimal, especially for children of color living in poverty.

    By the fifth grade, children at the tenth percentile read two minutes a day. Even at the 90th percentile, they only read 20 minutes a day.

    Do you really believe that’s the best we can do for these children? with 360 minutes available in a typical school day?

    Students may do even less math. I just read a research study out of California where they focused on one district’s innovative technique for teaching math. In a 3 month evaluation, the district outperformed national averages by 10% – but in a buried observation, they noted that 8% of the students did not do a single math problem in the 3 month period research period.

    Students of color gained about 23 points on the AzMerit test, about 10% less than Caucasian students, meaning that the ethnic achievement gap expands as students go through school, leaving minorities further and further behind.

    Is that the best we can do for them?

    Things were far more complex than the medical profession and researchers could understand in 1870. There are a 100,000 principals and 3 million teachers. These people aren’t dumb, many are just incredible. But, the evidence suggests that the cultural trap overwhelms those who are willing to break out.

    School choice is the only way to solve this issue and break out of the cultural trap. Government monopolies find it incredibly hard to change. Classrooms, districts, schools and classrooms look exactly the same as in 1840.

    I had a number of my students, some regarded as mediocre at the beginning of the year, move 100 points on the AZMerit test.

    This year will test whether it was a statistical fluke.

    My slowest student did 10,000 math problems (I only work on math, if I solve this, reading is next). And, I estimate that she will do 20,000 math problems this year.

    My hardest working student did 55,000 math problems.

    My students may have done more math than any other classroom of students in the United States. They averaged 39 minutes of math work per day for the entire year. As a result, I am seeing things that I have never seen described in research studies.

    Math practice and intelligence developed where you see the problem with your eyes and express the answer with your fingers is only partially available when you hear the problem with your ears and must express the answer verbally.

    Fluid intelligence development may require specialized software that trains 6 different paths- not just one path.

    Its obvious that I have solved the motivation part of the issue. Many of my students are willing to work themselves to death and the others are getting slowly stronger. Now, comes the part of ensuring that they are doing the exact right problems in the exact right way to ensure their maximum academic development.

    What’s the point of all this? If you can prove that one class of minority students living in poverty can move at a 100 points per year – not just closing the ethnic achievement gap but reversing it in one year, that means that every class in the United States could do the same thing.

    • The Dow is up 89 points which proves. . . . What exactly? That John again makes no sense whatsoever, certainly.

      • Are you serious? Do you really think our public school system comes close to achieving anything close to the potential of our students who live in poverty?

        2 minutes of reading a day as they pass through 5th grade.

        Can’t add 5+4 without using their fingers?

        Can only read (painfully) 20 words a minute and can only recognize half the words in simple text. Which means they have no functional reading ability.

        No sense at all? Who is exploring what these children are capable of?
        It should be everyone who cares about education of the public.

  2. for many years yours and the education lobbys complaining have fallen on the voters death ears. in arizona the voters will tell you. your candidate was hillary clinton. she was not the voters of arizona’s choice. you will say your not talking about that. the arizona voters will say. yeah we know you don’t now! the voters of arixona hated hillary clinton ;but like the education lobby? I don’t think so. if past elections here in arizona are any indication. trump appealed to voters why don’t you try instead of elitism.

    • Gosh, I don’t know censored, why don’t you maybe try to be just a little less hateful? FYI, Trump only won in Arizona by 4 points, that isn’t exactly a run a way indictment that our voters HATED Hillary. And oh by the way, just who are you referring to when you talk about the “education lobby?” In a December 2016 poll in Arizona, over 70% of voters said they believe we need to spend more on education and by voting for Prop 123, they backed that up. It seems to me that YOUR hatred of Hillary is clouding your view about how much Arizona voters support their public education!

      • linda I dont hate hillary. her iraq war vote for personal gain made her unfit for office. I tried to hold my nose and vote for her. but dnc shenanigans against bernie prevented this. polls mean nothing votes mean something as the last election proved. 4 p0ints was because latinos came out to vote against sheriff joe. demographics are swinging our way slowly. my point is you need new and better arguments to convince the voters until the latino vote does it for you.

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