Children are Not a Zero-Sum Game

By Aaron Lusk, Superintendent, The Maritime Academy
Guest Column

When Shamyra came to The Maritime Academy of Toledo in seventh grade, she had been expelled from multiple schools. Upon enrollment, she had little confidence in her academic abilities and felt lost in a system designed for failure. Her performance on state tests included limited and basic scores which negatively affected the school’s state report card. Her behavior continued to deteriorate as she violated many requirements of the code of conduct. By the end of her seventh grade year, based on the politics of our public education system, she was possibly facing the end of her educational experience.

In March 2020 no one could have predicted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our most vulnerable children. Evidence of this damage manifests itself in chronic absenteeism, teenage crime, poverty, and an even larger gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

In Toledo, three out of the five most violent years in our history were 2020, 2021, 2022. In 2023, 10 out of the 41 homicides were juveniles aged14-17 with 16 being the average age of homicide victims or those committing homicide. Teenagers who had never been in trouble now overcrowd the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center facing years or even life in prison for murder. Beyond the most extreme examples, teenage pregnancy, vaping, drug use, gang membership, stealing cars and carrying weapons have become commonplace in and out of school.

The pandemic did offer encouraging conversations that current juvenile justice and public education systems would change to meet the needs of children. Scores of books and articles discussed how schools should transition to mastery learning and embrace the uniqueness of students to create an environment where all students can succeed. These arguments gained traction because the current public education system does not value the unique needs of students but instead sorts them into groups designed for competition as opposed to growth or engagement.

The public school system originated to create a literate and educated populace necessary for democratic political systems.  What has resulted, however, is a winner takes all approach where schools compete for more funding, better test scores, and an increasingly shrinking pool of teachers. This creates an environment called a zero-sum game.

Zero-Sum game is a mindset or environment where benefit or gain is zero because if one person or group gains something then another person or group must lose something. This is unavoidable when competing for awards, money, or other competitive activities with specific outcomes. It should not be the norm for education, however, nor should children be used as game pieces.

Every year the Ohio Department of Education and multiple websites release school rankings based upon state test scores. There are many other indicators that also get ranked but the “best schools” are mainly ranked by these scores. Of the top 10 schools only one had a population of African American students higher than the state average. The other nine schools had a 6.5 percent population of African American students (roughly 650 students) out of a total of more than 10,000 students. Three of the top 10 schools had a population of 98 percent and 99 percent Caucasian/white while six others had a minimum of 90 percent or higher with the highest minority group being Latinx/Hispanic. In addition, these schools have the benefit of a high tax base with homogeneous populations which help them fit perfectly into our current public education system.

Our public school system, with its zero-sum game approach, creates an environment where good or bad schools are ranked not by their willingness to help all students, especially those with the most needs, but one that promotes the exclusion of students who may not score well on a test. Many students at The Maritime Academy did not or could not succeed at traditional schools and in a small school one student can impact a school’s data significantly.  This is not the definition of failure but a reality that cannot be measured and displayed in graphs.

I became a special education teacher to be the voice for kids who continue to be left behind. While teaching students with autism, among other disabilities, I had encountered significant resistance in deciding what constituted fairness in the distribution of resources in the educational environment. Many arguments were made that diverting resources to these students took resources away from other students. Although not true, this argument continues to permeate in America’s educational system as our country drifts further from civility and compromise.

Four and a half years later Shamyra is now a junior at The Maritime Academy of Toledo. The journey had often been marked by frustration and sadness, but those times have lessened significantly. In all state measurements, Shamyra continues to grow but this progress does not equate to success on the school’s report card.

The truth is, however, that Shamyra is likely to finish most of her required classes at the end of the 2023-2024 school year to take college classes her senior year. In addition, she is on track to graduate and plans to attend either Owens Community College or Lourdes University, for nursing, after her 2025 graduation.

As a school, excluding Shamyra from our test scores and other state measurements would have created the image of a more successful school: her loss would have been the school system’s gain. Instead, because of our partnership with Lourdes University, she received a personalized tour of the campus and has met the university president on multiple occasions. She now has a positive outlook, continually plans future steps of her life, and has not earned a suspension or intent for expulsion in almost two years.

Toledo schools are filled with students similar to Shamyra but our system of zero-sum game encourages our schools to compete for the best students rather than the most vulnerable. If this continues to be the case, however, we all lose.