Today’s New York Times has a story about a two-year-old named Skylar Jones born in 2014 with a “common and treatable” heart defect. She was a “normal, active” toddler but when she started having symptoms, her parents, as directed by Skylar’s pediatric cardiac surgeon, took her to nearby North Carolina Children’s Hospital (UNC). Their daughter needed a low-risk surgery, which went fine, although the operation took longer than predicted. Her parents were told “she should recover well.” But that night she flatlined, experienced a series of cascading medical problems, and died seven weeks later.
One of the surgeon’s colleagues, Dr. Blair Richardson, told the Times,
I ask myself, would I have my children have surgery here? In the past, I’d always felt like the answer was ‘yes’ for something simple.”But now when I look myself in the mirror, and what’s gone on the past month, I can’t say that. And if I can’t say it for my kids — and that should be our group discussion — if we can’t all look ourselves in the mirror and think we’re doing the right thing, then we need to change what we’re doing.
Dr. Richardson’s metric is mine for public education. If we look in the mirror and say, “would I have my children be educated in this district or this school” and the answer is no, then we need to change what we’re doing.
But we’re not changing what we’re doing. If you live in Asbury Park or Trenton or Paterson — or any of multiple New Jersey districts where, if you had a choice, you wouldn’t send your children to your zoned school — you might say, as UNC’s chief of pediatric cardiology Dr. Timothy Hoffman, did, “It’s a nightmare right now. We are in crisis, and everyone is aware of that…I mean, our house is in total disarray. This is crazy what we’re doing. I should be as pissed as anybody, and in fact maybe more. I’ve never seen anything like it, quite frankly. And we’re going backwards, not forward. “
Or, as UNC cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Whitham agonized,
As a mother of three children, oh my God. … It’s inexcusable. As a physician, I mean, we all took the oath. We are supposed to do what’s right for our patients. … This is what you signed up for. And who is he to play God with some kid’s life? I can’t get past this. This is beyond horrifying.
Let’s say you’re a parent (or grandparent, in Jamir’s case) of a child in Asbury Park Public Schools. Like Skylar, your child is fragile, not because of a heart defect but because your district is failing to provide academic services for a boy with disabilities. And it’s not just Jamir: according to Asbury Park’s 2017-2018 ESSA School Accountability Profile, 2.1 percent of Asbury Park students with disabilities met targets for proficiency. This spreadsheet shows that zero Asbury Park High School students are proficient in math or reading.
In other words, the outcomes in Asbury Park are terrible for children with disabilities (as they are for neuro-typical children). As UNC’s Dr. Robinson wrote, “the only agenda item should be focussed on… results.”
Let’s take it a step further. During a meeting (the NYT got access to “emails, state death data, medical records and the audio recordings, obtained from someone who felt the institution had not been responsive to repeated concerns about the surgery program”) several surgeons “expressed doubts” about the chief heart surgeon, Dr. Mill. “Things seemed to be going badly for too many young patients.” “We’re not on track…and I would argue that we have not been on track for some time.” Would cardiologists refer patients to Dr. Mill? “One doctor said no. A second said she had a hard time recommending UNC even to parents of low-risk patients.” Another said he “always encouraged parents” to go to “Philadelphia, Boston, or Michigan if the family could afford it.” Out of the nine doctors at the meeting, five “expressed hesitation about sending certain types of cases to their own hospital.” Dr. Scott Buck said, “I do feel increasingly morally, ethically uneasy about this.”
In New Jersey, if you “could afford it,” you would move out of Asbury Park to Freehold, Allentown, or Colt’s Neck where outcomes are better. Why? Because “the only topic should be results” that show whether the district is providing your child with our Constitutional “thorough and effective” education.
Asbury Park isn’t doing that for Jamir. Sure, he’s not at risk of death like Skylar who, due to lack of accountability and poor leadership, died after an inaccurate diagnosis (“unroofed coronary sinus” was what she had, which required a different, low-risk surgery), arrhythmia, vocal cord damage, pulmonary respiration, and bleeding in her lungs and digestive tract.
But Jamir is at risk of, well, you name it: everything from poor achievement to the school-to-prison pipeline, all because Asbury Park (Paterson, Trenton, Lakewood, you name it) isn’t required to change what it’s doing, because our Department of Education, like UNC’s pediatric cardiac unit, is in “total disarray,” ignores data on student success, and our chief surgeon/DOE leader Lamont Repollet, Governor Murphy’s appointee, appears immune to the reality that “things seemed to be going badly for too many young [students]” and he’s “playing God with this kid’s life.”
Like UNC, we’re more invested in institutional longevity rather than student growth. And unless you can afford to move to a district with better outcomes, your child may academically die on the table.
When are we going to confront our failures? When are we going to stop blaming poor outcomes on poverty when alternative approaches, as reported her by Andrew Martin, show that low-income students can thrive?
Only when we begin privileging student outcomes over a sclerotic status quo.