Education Arguments Don’t Solve Education Realities

Travis Burchart
14 min readMar 29, 2024

A well-written title isn’t required to convey facts; it has the singular job of putting a hook in your eye. This title and subtitle, from Frederick Hess, Executive Editor of Education Next, does its job well:

Should Schools Be Rewarded for Absenteeism? | The soft bigotry of low expectations is back and bigger than ever

Hess recounts his conversation with a superintendent. The conversation centers around one thing: the superintendent’s insistence (and Hess’ rebuttal) that despite chronic absenteeism, a school should receive more (or the same) funding.[1]

Why Context Matters

There’s something spiteful in what Hess says out of context … i.e., “bigotry”:

Walking away, I found myself wistful for the days when there was widespread agreement that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was a bad thing.

The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” comes from a 1999 speech from President George Bush, Jr. This is how Bush used it:

“Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards,” Bush remarked. “I say it is discrimination to require anything less — the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The phrase, coined by his chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, captures well the widespread indifference toward the persistently appalling academic performance of African-American and Latino students in our nation’s public schools.

Bush points his finger at a widespread problem in education … i.e., as a society, we are all guilty of indifference. Both fair and accurate. But Hess uses it in a different way; he makes the leap from absenteeism to discrimination based on one man’s struggles. From the high castle, Hess sees bigotry; from the trenches, the superintendent sees reality:

“Almost half our kids missed at least ten days last year,” he [the superintendent] was saying. “A third missed at least 40 days. That’s double what we saw five years ago. … None of our costs decline when kids aren’t there. We still need to pay all our staff, purchase all our materials — nothing changes”

For Bush, “soft bigotry” triggers solutions from a place of unlimited (i.e., presidential) power.[2] Apply the same “soft bigotry” to the superintendent, and you distort one man’s unique (and less powerful) reality.[3] That reality and its complexity, which Hess ignores, reveals its desperation in two related concepts.

1) Money, specifically, the lack thereof. Money is the life blood of education; without it, schools don’t exist … no teachers, no bus drivers, no teaching assistants, no counselors. For some schools, it cuts much deeper … no 3D printers, no STEM labs, no esports programs, no smart boards, no [fill in the luxury].

2) Comparison … i.e., what the haves have and what the have-nots can only hope for. Because of money, education is ultimately survival of the fittest. My wife — a 25+ year teacher — teaches at a wonderful public school that boasts:

· a 50-foot, high-definition planetarium

· a multimillion-dollar Olympic-sized swimming pool

· a 9,000-seat football stadium

· an International Baccalaureate Program

· an International Scholars Program

· a 250+ member marching band that performed in the Rose Bowl parade

Because of money — bond issues and fundraising and parent donations — my wife’s school is not only surviving, it’s thriving. Her school sits on the opposite pole from “soft bigotry”; it’s a school — unlike many other schools — of “rigorous abundance.”

What You Call It Isn’t Always What It Is

There’s also a “truthiness” to Hess’ accusation … i.e., “rewarded for absenteeism.” True: the discussion is about absenteeism. True-ish: the superintendent is seeking a reward. An argument (vs. reality) often depends on how you frame it. For Hess, it boils down to a “reward” argument, but this discounts any reality of neglect. Because when a school suffers from only “70 percent of kids … on a given day,” the story doesn’t end there:

1) with 30% missing on a given day, is that in one classroom or spread across many? Obviously, it’s the latter, which means that in an elementary school of 500 students, 17 classrooms, and approximately 28 students overcrowding each class, 30% missing on a given day moves the average classroom size to a more legal[4] and more manageable 20 students per class. Absenteeism isn’t good; neither are crowded classrooms and overworked teachers.[5]

2) with 30% missing on a given day, can it be assumed that a school still has proper funding for the other 70%? In some districts, maybe, but for years, many schools have been understaffed or underfunded (especially schools serving minorities and low-income students)[6] Like compounded interest, compounded neglect builds up over time.

3) with 30% missing on a given day, is this “missing” in direct correlation to underfunding? To solve absenteeism, Hess’ suggestion is to “rethink transportation.” But what if, from the get got, there isn’t any transportation to rethink? What if transportation, in its current state, is eternally underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced?

4) for the 70% attending on a given day, how many certified/non-emergency teachers, teaching assistants, counselors, and substitutes are on site to service these remaining students? A school running at less than 100% capacity might also be running at less than 100% staff.

Hess’ “reward” argument eventually devolves into a back and forth on the who and why of “absenteeism.” On one side, the superintendent (living this reality day after day) defines the concrete “who” as:

· marginalized kids in struggling communities

· students who work and watch their siblings

· students who are homeless

· migrant students and families

On the other side, Hess defines the speculative “why” of absenteeism:

Some kids face more challenges than others. Absolutely. But I don’t buy that schools are helpless. They can ensure they’re worth attending and have staff talk to families or knock on doors. They need to rethink transportation, educate parents, and set expectations. It takes work but it’s doable.

To Hess, the why is simple … a failure of “doable” work.[7] Specifics don’t matter. The who doesn’t matter, obstacles don’t matter, location doesn’t matter, parent involvement doesn’t matter, money doesn’t matter, teacher retention doesn’t matter, resources don’t matter … whatever the situation, all you need is a little sweat and gumption. This is its own “soft bigotry.” It’s the opposite of “low expectations”; it’s the soft bigotry of “superficial solutions.”[8]

Because it’s superficial to tell a struggling school to “ensure they’re worth attending.” Is this done by dipping into the mythical marketing budget? Is it a matter of hiring a six-figure football coach[9] to create a winning culture? Is it the construction of a sprawling, 125,000-square-foot, $25M collegiate academy, with lecture halls, cafes, and a virtual learning center?

It’s just as superficial to “rethink transportation.” How? How does a school rethink bussing if it can’t get enough underpaid drivers?[10] Does “rethinking” come before or after a school finds the budget money to attract more help?

It’s also a superficial solution to “knock on doors.” Who’s doing the figurative and/or literal knocking? Hess says “staff”; I hear “teachers.” So are teachers expected to teach, buy their own school supplies, prepare lesson plans, struggle with salaries, fight for respect, defend themselves from violence, work parttime jobs, raise a family AND spend their unpaid, off-hours calling, driving, and convincing parents that attendance is a good choice?

And there’s nothing more superficial than the shapeless action plan of “it takes work.” “It takes work” is nothing more than a platitude; it’s neither strategical, nor directional, nor practical. It’s a solution that rings of soft bigotry because it lends itself to the artless magic of “just do better.”

The Practice of Situational Blindness

Ultimately, the argument boils down to this:

The superintendent: “None of our costs decline when kids aren’t there. We still need to pay all our staff, purchase all our materials — nothing changes. Truth is, we should be getting added funds because trying to support the students who aren’t there requires extra resources.”

Hess: “You’re telling me that you want the state to give you extra dollars if your students aren’t showing up? … You want schools where students show up to get less funding so schools with empty seats can get more? That rewards schools which aren’t doing their job!”

In theory, Hess is right. If this were an ACT question, there wouldn’t be an issue — less attendance equals less customers equals less income. But ACT questions reflect simple, 20-word scenarios, not sprawling, complex realities (nor the multitude of different realities).

Consider this reality: Only 42 members of the U.S. House of Representatives claimed perfect participation in 2022. That total dropped to just 18 in 2023. In this scenario, does less attendance mandate a smaller budget for the House? Should taxpayers “ensure that Congress is worth attending”?

Or this reality: Public (taxpayer-funded) colleges budget millions of dollars for football. But do players receive reduced scholarships when attendance drops? At the University of Michigan, a drop in attendance doesn’t automatically lead to a corresponding drop in Michigan’s $195M athletic budget. Instead, it typically leads to more investment … a million-dollar buyout (money) and a new coaching hire (more money).

Regardless of what Hess thinks, cause-and-effect isn’t a universal rule. Different scenarios degrade its rigid application. Consider School A and School B. Both have 30% less attendance, but School A has a teaching assistant in every classroom, new computers every few years, a full-time reading specialist, STEM labs, Chinese-learning immersion, and a $5M weight room. Why should School B — having none of these things — accept less simply because wanting more (i.e., more staff, more technology, more curriculum, more amenities) looks like a “reward”? In Hess’ world, the “effect” of less students (School B) automatically “causes” a need for less money. It’s spotless, sterile thinking, but it’s also soft bigotry because it ignores the dirty truth … that the “effect” of less money also “causes” a greater need for those with little to begin with.

[1] I’m not necessarily arguing against Hess, just his approach. Too often, education wonks solve at arm’s length. As the saying goes, “Those who can’t teach, preach.” Education Next, The Heritage Foundation, The Hechinger Report — all good publications — flood the internet with lofty ideas and magical solutions. But how exactly does a waterfall of 12-point type in Times New Romans solve chronic absenteeism or relieve overcrowded classrooms or raise standardized test scores? Instead of clacking on a keyboard, show me your days substitute teaching, your hours volunteering in a classroom, your time working on a school board, your trips chaperoning students.

Of course, Hess might argue that he was once a teacher … for a short time, decades ago … that he’s done more than just clack on a keyboard. All teachers should be appreciated for their commitments and sacrifices, but Hess’ time teaching is a mere toe in the ocean. In the grand scheme, Hess’ experience is fleeting; my wife — a 25+ year teaching vet — her experience is definitive. Regardless, Hess doesn’t seem to place much weight in his experience:

“Whereas a lot of [teachers] are much more concerned about the social mission of schooling and battle through their frustrations, my attitude was, screw it. If you’ve taught 20 years, almost every contribution you have to a conversation is going to grow from that experience.”

Hess says “screw it,” but day in and day out, thousands of teachers show up to work fighting for respect, for better pay, for smaller classes, for their mental health, for their personal safety, watching children while parents work or play tennis or go shopping, suffering the ire and accusations of politicians, waiting for volunteers who never show, chasing students who refuse to listen, guarding the vulnerable from the bullies, searching for signs of guns or violence or drugs or abuse … and despite all of this, they don’t say “screw it.”

[2] Steven Spielberg once said, “You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it!” In the context of Steven Spielberg, this is realistic … he has money, he has fame, he has influence. In the context of my 16-year-old daughter, who’s taking a screenwriting class, the same quote might “sound” good, but it’s no longer grounded in Spielberg’s reality. At this time, my daughter has no fame, very little money, and zero influence. As an amateur filmmaker, to accuse her of merely dreaming — based on what Spielberg said — not only stretches the quote, it also distorts her reality.

[3] No matter how beloved, clever, or historical a quote may be, it doesn’t always work borrowed out of context. The Bush quote appears to be a favorite of education wonks; search “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and you’ll return about 41K results.

[4] Multiple states have class-size mandates, but often, these laws are built to be broken:

The new class-size reduction law for New York City has too many loopholes to make the huge impact some predicted any time soon, concerned educators and advocates ….

The law, which limits the number of students in classes from kindergarten to 12th grade, has four major exemptions that the Department of Education can use to sidestep the mandates, sources said.

The exemptions cover: lack of space, “over-enrolled” programs, a shortage of licensed teachers, and schools in “severe economic distress.”

The same in Texas:

Across Fort Worth ISD, 145 classes in 60 schools have more students than legally allowed.

Without discussion, the school board on Oct. 24 [2023] approved an application to exceed the state’s maximum elementary class size.

The state caps the allowable size of pre-K through fourth-grade classes at 22 students. Class sizes per classroom range from 23 to 30 students.

During the 2022–23 school year, Fort Worth ISD had 127 classrooms in 44 schools exceed the state’s maximum class size.

[5] Absenteeism is a problem that must be addressed, but at the same time, it exposes other problems. In an overcrowded school, absenteeism can move the student-teacher ratio closer (but still well-above) the national average of 15:1 (a benchmark, but one that’s far from perfect). Moreover, absenteeism can transform the problem of shared resources (e.g., too few books or too few laptops or too few basketballs or too few supplies) into individual (i.e., abundant) resources, shining a light on the lack of funding that precipitates underequipped schools. More resources, in turn, reduces the problem of out-of-pocket spending that burdens many teachers. As reported by NEA Today:

Well over 90 percent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies and other items their students need to succeed. Just before the pandemic, educators on average spent around $500 of their own money on classroom supplies over the course of the year, as the New York Times reported. Despite the offset of a modest tax deduction, having to pay for their own supplies adds to educator fatigue and worsens their own economic picture.

If educator out-of-pocket spending really does reach an average $820 this year, educators nationwide could end up subsidizing schools to the tune of $3 billion.

[U]nder resourced schools and the unstated expectation that educators will spend their own money on supplies and equipment are factors that drive educators away from the profession.

[6] “A report released last year from the Southern Education Foundation, Economic Vitality and Education in the South, (EVES) showed that students from Black, Brown and low-income families are much more likely than their peers to struggle academically due to underfunded and under-resourced schools. The pandemic only exacerbated those challenges. Additionally, students’ limited access to nutritional food, up-to-date technology, reliable internet service, and professional support academically and emotionally are non-school factors that impact students’ academic achievement.” — Pierce, R. (2023, October 31). Looming education funding crisis will impact U.S. students, economy. Forbes.

[7] In 2000, President Bush used “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in a second speech, this one to the NAACP. To solve “soft bigotry,” Bush offered these solutions:

A great movement of education reform has begun in this country built on clear principles: to raise the bar of standards, expect every child can learn; to give schools the flexibility to meet those standards; to measure progress and insist upon results; to blow the whistle on failure; to provide parents with options to increase their option, like charters and choice; and also remember the role of education is to leave no child behind. … A central part of my agenda, for example, is to challenge and change Title 1, to make sure we close the achievement gap, to make sure that children are not forgotten and simply shuffled through the system. Under my vision, all students must be measured. We must test to know. And low-performing schools, those schools that won’t teach and won’t change, will have three years to produce results, three years to meet standards, three years to make sure the very faces of our future are not mired in mediocrity. And if they’re able to do so, the resources must go to the parents so that parents can make a different choice. To create communities of promise, we must help people build the confidence and faith to achieve their own dreams. We must put government squarely on the side of opportunity. I propose a new prosperity initiative that reflects the spirit of Lincoln’s reforms, a plan to remove obstacles on the road to the middle class. You see, instead of helping people cope with their need, we will help them move beyond it. We must provide a family health credit that covers 90 percent of the cost of basic health policy for low-income families. We must make it possible for more people to become homeowners in this great land, to own a part of the American dream. We would allow low-income families to use up to a year’s worth of Section 8 rental payments to make a down-payment on their own home, then use five years of those payments to help with the mortgage. We’ll start an American dream down-payment fund, matching individual savings to the down-payment for a home. Behind these last two proposals is a simple belief: I believe in private property. I believe in private property so strongly I want everybody to have some. I’ll lift the regulations that hamper private and faith-based programs. I’ll involve them in after-school programs and maternity group homes, drug treatment programs and prison ministries. And I have laid out specific incentives to encourage an outpouring of giving in America.

Now compare Bush’s solutions to the “soft bigotry” solutions offered by Hess:

[Schools] can ensure they’re worth attending and have staff talk to families or knock on doors. They need to rethink transportation, educate parents, and set expectations. It takes work but it’s doable.

To address the sprawling complexity of “soft bigotry,” Bush offers fully formed, far-reaching, specific solutions. Hess, on the other hand, offers a few choice verbs, some fuzzy ideas, and good ol’ fashion “work.”

[8] Of course, Hess might argue that his superficial solutions are merely unformed ideas, that in another place and time, their deep complexity, action steps, and line items would be drawn out and made obvious. However, this admits to the unspoken complexity of a given situation, a complexity he’s not willing to admit or hear out as it applies to the superintendent and his unique, one-of-a-kind situation.

[9] In Tulsa, Oklahoma (my hometown), 8 Tulsa-area public school football coaches make more than $100,000. And in Dallas-Fort Worth, the 2022 average salary for high school football coaches in the Metroplex was $115,000. Out of 142 coaches, 62 made at least $120,000. Twenty made $130,000.

[10] “School bus driver wages are far lower than most other workers, according to our analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) microdata. The typical school bus driver earned $20.00 an hour in 2022, which is 16.8% less than the median wage for all workers in the economy ($24.04). However, the average public school bus driver works only around 32 hours per week, meaning that the weekly wages for bus drivers are significantly lower than the hourly wage might imply. School bus drivers often are not full-time employees and instead work a “split-shift” schedule coinciding with the beginning and end of the school day. … [In] 2022, the median school bus driver earned $548 in weekly wages, which is approximately 43.0% less than the median weekly wage for all workers ($961).” — The school bus driver shortage remains severe: Without job quality improvements, workers, children, and parents will suffer. Economic Policy Institute. (2023, November 14).



Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life