And how are the children?

By Sondra Samuels
Guest Commentator

Their well-being belongs at the center of all our decisions

After living in Botswana, Africa for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I visited Kenya, where members of the Masai tribe greeted me warmly.

The Masai are known for their elaborate adornment and fearless warriors. Little did I know at the time the true warmth in their traditional greeting, “Kasserian Ingera,” which means, “And how are the children?”

This greeting, often exchanged between Masai warriors, speaks volumes about their values as highlighted in a sermon by Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill: “‘And how are the children?’ is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being.

“Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, ‘All the children are well,’ meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place, that Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities.

“‘All the children are well’ means that life is good,” said Dr. O’Neill. “It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.”

As we contemplate the peace and safety of children in our “American tribe,” there is no greater risk to their future success, our country’s economic well-being, our global competitiveness, or our national security than our failure to educate all of our children irrespective of race, income or zip code.

Nationally, with only a 12 percent proficiency rate for Black fourth-grade boys in reading and only 12 percent for eighth-grade Black boys in math, it is safe to say that all the children are not doing well! Let’s heed the wisdom of the Masai and commit to a tradition of greeting with the same question, “And how are the children?”

Just think of the revolution that would happen if we dared to place the achievement of our children at the center of all our decisions and held the education establishment accountable for actually educating the children we pay them to educate.

School leaders from around the country are beginning to get it. In a Washington Post article entitled, “How to Fix Our Schools — A Manifesto,” 15 school superintendents (including our former Minneapolis superintendent Carol Johnson, now leading Boston public schools) responsible for the education of over 2.5 million children stated the following: “We know that the task of reforming the country’s public schools begins with us. It is our obligation to enhance the personal growth and academic achievement of our students, and we must be accountable for how our schools perform.”

To that end, the superintendents suggested a number of ways to address what they called a “crisis in public education that favors adults over the children”:

• Getting the best teacher in front of every child now. To do this, teachers should be hired and fired based on their performance as measured by how well students perform, are engaged, and are motivated to learn instead of by how long a teacher has been teaching. Also, the current policy of “last in, first out” (the teachers hired last are let go first when cuts are made) preclude principals from making personnel choices based on performance, which negatively impacts student achievement.

•Make charter schools a viable option. Children need great public schools now,   whether they are public district or public charter. Our only evaluation criteria should be how well the children are performing.

• Give parents a better pool of schools to choose from. Middle-class families with the ability to move to a neighborhood with high-performing schools, or the means to pay tuition for their children to attend one, inherently have choice.

All parents, no matter their income or zip code, deserve the flexibility to choose which school will be best for their children. On this controversial point the superintendents state, “That starts with having the courage to replace or substantially restructure persistently low-performing schools that continuously fail our students. Closing a neighborhood school — whether it’s in Southeast D.C., Harlem, Denver or Chicago — is a difficult decision that can be very emotional for a community. But no one ever said leadership is easy.”

• Professionalize teaching. District leaders should have the ability to pay the scores of great teachers we have in our classrooms today significantly more money, especially those who are willing to teach hard subjects and to teach in challenged neighborhoods.

Agree with the superintendents from around the country or not, I hope we can all agree that our highest value as a community must be on the well-being of our children and on their achievement. As weighty decisions are made in the coming weeks, I hope the question “And how are the children?” is at the center of our public debate.

With that one question, let’s start a revolution!

Sondra Samuels’ “Everything’s Possible” column appears monthly in the MSR. She welcomes reader responses to