An Obligation to Destroy

In a recent guest lecture, I provided data on schooling outcomes in Shelby County, TN and asked undergraduate sociology students to assume that systems operate as they should. Their assignment, prior to my arrival, was to determine what design elements led to the following 2013-2014 [outcomes]:

  • 33% of entering kindergarteners ready based on early literacy assessments
  • 36% of 3rd graders reading on grade level
  • 35% of 7th graders proficient in math
  • 11% of 11th graders college proficient based on ACT benchmarks
  • 45% of high school graduates did not enroll in a post-secondary program

No one could come up with a single design element. It wasn’t that they lacked the capacity to think critically about how systems work. They simply could not fathom anyone designing a system to produce those kinds of outcomes. The data were dismaying. Students assumed it was a trick question—a trap.

It wasn’t a trap. We have designed and perpetuate schooling systems in the U.S. that maintain achievement gaps, fuel civic disengagement, and undergird income inequality.

If we are going to improve cradle-to-career outcomes, we have to accept two facts:

  1. Systems are perfectly aligned to produce the persistent negative outcomes we see.
  2. Systems are made up of individuals who, consciously or unconsciously, make choices every day to perpetuate the systems.

We also have to adopt two positions:

  1. It is the job of system leaders who are committed to improving outcomes to destroy their current systems.
  2. Individuals within systems have to acknowledge their roles in perpetuating negative outcomes and make conscious choices to behave differently.

The pathway, albeit crystal clear, is a challenging one. People have been toiling away in school systems, afterschool programs, and youth development organizations for decades and may find it hard to acknowledge how they may have been part of the myriad problems. They have good hearts. They are good people. And even those who are only in it for a paycheck may harbor some belief that they are doing what they should to “help”.

But the facts are that children and adolescents can’t read well enough to access grade level content and adults have a demonstrable lack of skills to demand better job opportunities and wages, including job and advocacy skills.

What are the design elements of the system that produces these outcomes?

Consider a brown-skinned boy entering kindergarten. His initial benchmark assessment says he’s not prepared for kindergarten. He lacks basic pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills.

We have a system that requires children to show up to kindergarten with a specific set of skills to be deemed ready. But we do not have a system to ensure all soon-to-be parents are fully aware of that requirement. That is a choice. We could also choose a system that has no pre-requisite skills for kindergarten, but we seem to be attached to the idea that parents should be completing a specific set of tasks.

We have decided that some children will be behind from the beginning.

If that little boy gets frustrated and kicks another child during reading circle or simply hasn’t yet learned to sit and attend to the teacher in the reading circle, a teacher and principal have more choices to make. Either they can understand that developmental education is part of their purpose, make sure the child continues to have access to instruction, and teach him not to put his hands or feet on other children. Or they can suspend a 5 year old, thereby removing him from instruction, increasing the number of days he is likely to be absent, and labeling him a problem-child.

We apply retributive policies to very young brown-skinned children regardless of gender by choice. Punishment is more important than teaching and learning.

When that child arrives in 3rd grade and doesn’t know the alphabet, no one will know because we don’t assess letter knowledge beyond kindergarten although we know which children leave kindergarten without letter knowledge. Neither the kindergarten teacher nor the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade teacher are responsible for making sure he knows his letters. And it would appear they are not responsible for ensuring children are reading at grade level. Mastery is not a requirement for promotion.

Who is responsible?

Are the teachers who have not been taught how to teach reading responsible? Are the university faculty who have not taught teachers to teach reading responsible? Are the principals who have observed teachers and examined their benchmark data throughout the year responsible? What about central office administrators who determine curriculum, assessments, and schedules? What about community members and parents?

We are all responsible of course. But no one is accountable. Even with all of the language of accountability and teacher and administrator effectiveness measures, we have not yet found a way to ask the teachers and principals of the children who don’t know their alphabet, what were you doing for 9 months? And we have yet to press central office administrators to focus on meeting children’s needs instead of cowering in the face of distant “reformers” who are blinded by aspirations of national acclaim.

The idea of common core standards is a joke without basic literacy skills.

So this little brown-skinned boy who doesn’t know his letters may make it to high school, but it’s not likely he’ll graduate. Given how unprepared he is to go on to a post-secondary program or get a job, his options for self-sufficiency are quite limited.

Educational outcomes are products of our systems. They embody the choices and actions of adults who follow policies and practices that have repeatedly led to the same results.

We can make different choices. We can destroy systems that produce the outcomes we claim to abhor. We can break down barriers and work together to improve outcomes. We can build something new.


  1. Decide what outcomes we want to see.
  2. Align systems to produce those outcomes using the research available.
  3. Break down barriers between sectors and services—collaborate.
  4. Engage in a continuous improvement process to monitor improvements along the way.
  5. Hold individuals and organizations accountable for setting and meeting goals.

This may seem overly simple given the complexity of the problems we face. But having engaged in this work for the last year, I can say that just setting and committing to goals based on research and other evidence is monumentally difficult. Furthermore, our collective commitment to the stories we have told ourselves about who poor people are and of what they are capable makes it challenging to focus on systems and the practices of professionals.

Difficult though it may be, system leaders—men and women leading the organizations that make up systems—have to choose to focus on results and think more comprehensively about what produces those results. Leaders who want better for their communities are obliged to destroy their systems and lead the reconstruction effort that can transform our communities.