"We Need the President To ..."
President Obama should be applauded for keeping education at the top of the nation's policy agenda at a time when so many other important issues -- the ongoing recession, two wars, health care, etc.-- demand his attention. He was right to urge parents to do their part to reinforce the importance of education with their children, and he is to be commended for recognizing the important role of teachers who so often are blamed for the failings of our nation's schools.
But President Obama should be less boastful and more circumspect in describing what his administration has actually accomplished in education. When he declared that Race to the Top was "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation" he clearly went a bit too far.
First of all, only a dozen states received funding under this initiative, and there is evidence that rural states and states that lacked the resources to put together applications that met the federal government's requirements and in time for the deadline -- were at a disadvantage.
Since the recession has forced several states to lay off teachers, close schools, increase class size and take other drastic measures to close budget deficits, the competitive approach to the grants created winners and losers at a time when students and schools are in need of help. It's hard to imagine how schools can support the type of innovation the president wants when so many are struggling to do more with considerably less.
The president could have pointed out that as important as it is to raise academic standards, as 40 states have done in response to Race for the Top, that is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to help schools to perform at that higher level.
There is no reason to believe that simply by raising standards, academic performance among students will increase, followed by graduation and college attendance rates. The hundreds of schools that Secretary Duncan has labeled "dropout factories" are unlikely to be transformed simply because the bar has been raised.
The President must realize that in cities where the economy has collapsed and there is a shortage of good jobs -- as in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania -- schools lack the resources to improve and students increasingly lack the will to achieve. Many don't believe that if they do well in school they will go to college and find a good paying job. Those who haven't given up know that if they are to have any chance at success they will have to leave their communities and seek opportunity elsewhere.
These students and the schools they attend need help not just higher standards. They need guidance and support on how to improve and transform -- like Bruce Randolph High School in Denver, the school cited by the president for its remarkable turnaround. That may not be the job of the president or the federal government but it better be someone's job otherwise the educational renewal called for by the president will not occur.
Nine years after No Child Left Behind we are still falling further behind. The law does not need to be tweaked and renamed, it needs to be scrapped entirely and replaced by a set of strategies that aim at replicating the successful schools that already exist in various parts of the country.
During his address the resident applauded South Korea, where teachers are referred to as "nation builders" and he encouraged Americans to learn from their example. We should. Twenty years ago South Korea was not even ranked among the leading nations for its educational performance. Today, it is near the top and surpasses the U.S. on most indicators of performance.
How did the South Koreans make so much progress so quickly? By recognizing that if you want great schools you must make wise investments in personnel. Teachers there are held in high regard because they are very well trained. They don't judge teachers by student test scores as does Race for the Top, and they don't make it easy for those who are unqualified to enter the profession.
Rather, they provide robust training in the subjects they teach and in instruction. Senior teachers with a track record of effectiveness provide guidance, feedback and support to their junior peers. We should learn from the South Koreans.
To be clear: There was much that was good about the president's speech. I particularly appreciate his call for fair treatment of young, undocumented immigrants who are being denied a college education and the ability to contribute to the country they call home because their parents entered our nation illegally. Calling for a just immigration policy took courage and foresight, and I appreciate Obama's willingness to take an unequivocal stand.
We need the president to take as strong and as clear a stand on education reform, one that goes beyond broad exhortations and begins to tackle the difficult social and economic issues that have contributed to our steady decline. I believe he can do it, and I know that as a nation we need it..
Racing To The Top Or Running In Place
On August 24 US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the ten states that were winners of the latest Race for the Top competition. "These states show what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," said Secretary Arne Duncan. "Every state that applied showed a tremendous amount of leadership and a bold commitment to education reform. The creativity and innovation in each of these applications is breathtaking". We set a high bar and these states met the challenge. "
The winners -- the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island, were understandably thrilled. Each will receive tens of millions of dollars (in large states even more) to implement reforms that the administration believes will spur innovation and promote academic excellence in a greater number of public schools.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia entered the competition, and the losers were more than just mildly disappointed. Some, like the governors of Colorado and New Jersey were enraged, and they didnít hold back in voicing their objections over the selection process. Chris Christie, New Jerseyís new conservative Governor, blamed bureaucrats at the Department of Education then sacked his own Commissioner of Education. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat once seen as an Obama ally, claimed his stateís exclusion was part of a ìcommunist plotî and charged that it reflected a ìbias against western statesî.
Their anger over Race for the Top, while a bit extreme, is nonetheless understandable. The bad news comes at a time when states across the country are making severe cuts to public education. As the nation limps into the second year of the recession, school districts throughout the country have been forced to layoff teachers in droves, defer maintenance and needed repairs to school buildings, and in states like California and Michigan, allow class sizes to increase to levels never seen before.
The administration should receive some credit for trying to push a policy agenda to reform public education and for directing some of the federal stimulus funds to support its goals. However, in choosing to reward some states over others because they followed the reform strategy prescribed by the administration, the administration has runs the risk of alienating more than just a couple of irate Governors. At a time when so little is going in its favor the Obama administration has allowed education to become a political issue that angered an important part of its base -- teachers and their unions. Education is likely to be an issue that will hurt congressional democrats in this yearís mid term elections, and it may come back to haunt the President himself if a change of course is not taken soon.
With the backing of the Gates and Broad Foundations, the administration has focused its reforms efforts on four strategies: raising academic standards, expanding charter schools, evaluating the performance of teachers based on student test scores, and turning around chronically under-performing schools. In its Blueprint for Education released in March of this year, all four strategies are touted as initiatives that will lead to better schools and higher levels of student achievement.
All of these initiatives have generated controversy, and despite their stated preference for "evidenced-based" measures, ideology and political favoritism rather than sound research appears to be the primary rationale for the policy direction they have prescribed. For example, despite growing evidence that low-income children need highly qualified teachers, the administration recently awarded 35 million through its innovation grants to Teach for America (TFA). Many liberals and conservatives are wildly enthusiastic about the program because it provides teaching jobs to Ivy League graduates (though they typically stick around for no more than two years) who are then dispatched to the most challenging schools in high poverty communities with little training. It is telling that KIPP -- Knowledge is Power Program, an organization that runs a number of relatively successful charter schools throughout the nation, will only hire TFA fellows as assistants until they have proven their effectiveness in the classroom. This practice is particularly significant given that the CEO of KIPP Richard Barth is married to the CEO and founder of TFA, Wendy Kopp. In cities like New York, Chicago, Houston and New Orleans, TFA fellows are assigned to work with the neediest students in the most troubled schools, hardly a recipe for success.
Other serious questions are being raised about the policies promoted under Race for the Top. The demand that states allow for the creation of more charter schools has raised particular concern because of their uneven track record. In states such as Ohio, Arizona and California, many charter schools are floundering, and unlike traditional public schools, they are not required to meet state performance standards. Charter schools are also largely an urban phenomenon, so in many rural areas in western states where one public school may serve children from a wide geographic area, the push for charter schools makes no sense at all. Finally, there is clear evidence that in many of the better charter schools there is a deliberate effort to exclude children that are hard to serve ñ English language learners, students with learning disabilities and severe behavior problems. It is unfair for charter schools and their proponents to claim success when they are allowed to screen or push out students that are hard to serve. Invariably, those students end up back in public schools that in turn are penalized for the lower performance that results.
In keeping with the administrationís interest in evaluating teachers based on student test scores the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles in August which discussed the relationship between teacher efficacy and student test scores. In a bold and controversial ploy the Times also released the names of individual teachers, generating new debate over the fairness of such policies. While advocates like DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee applauded the move as "the right approach to accountability", critics pointed out the numerous flaws in such a policy given the high mobility rates of students and the wide variety of factors influencing student performance on standardized tests.
The call for states to adopt strategies to turn around failing schools is perhaps the most ambitious and troubling of the administration's proposals. The US Department of Education has estimated that as many as 5,000 of the nation's high schools are failing. Duncan has called them ìdropout factoriesî, and called for them to be improved or shut down. Yet, while his concern about school failure is well deserved it seems Secretary Duncan must not have read a recent study that analyzed the results of ten years of reform in Chicago, the district he led prior to his cabinet level appointment. The University of Chicago study which ironically was co-authored by John Easton, the individual Duncan appointed to lead the Office of Educational Research (OER), found that in schools serving the neediest children, those the authors described as the "truly disadvantaged", new curricula, increased funding for books, technology and teacher training, and even extreme pressure failed to produce the improvements the system sought to bring about. The study concluded that these schools did not improve because they lacked the ability to respond to the tremendous non-academic needs of the children they serve.
This disconnect between the realities of public schools and the policy prescriptions coming from Washington appears to be at the crux of what is wrong for the administration. The policy wonks guiding the administration seem to think that the only problem with No Child Left Behind -- the law adopted by the Bush administration to guide education policy -- is that the slogan got a bad name because it promised far more than it could deliver. Instead of developing a new strategy they've merely devised a new slogan, Race for the Top, without really understanding what it might take to move the nationís schools forward.
It is ironic that in their desire to turn around failing schools the administration has not closely examined the experiences of the small but significant number of schools that have gone from failing to high performing, and used the strategies theyíve employed to promote success on a larger level. Schools like PS 12 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY. In 2006 PS 12 was identified by the state of New York as a school in need of improvement. In 2009, PS 12 was awarded an "A" by the New York City Department of Education because of 60% of its students had achieved proficiency in reading and math. Much of the credit for this turn around can be attributed to the leadership of Nyreese Dixon, the thirty-three year old principal, who has been relentless in her effort to address all of the areas where improvement has been needed. In three years Dixon focused on improving instruction by deploying her best math and literacy teachers as coaches for other teachers so that they could provide direct support in the classroom. She reached out to parents to get their support and cooperation to improve school safety. She worked with a local non-profit to create an afterschool program, and later a summer program focused on academic acceleration (not remediation). On a recent visit to her school, Dixon explained her improvement efforts in this way: "We've been willing to try everything, from changing the curriculum to changing the make-up of classrooms (boys and girls are now separated for literacy classes in the 4th grade). We evaluate everything we do but we also know that we've got to get this community involved. My kids need a lot and thereís no way we can do it all by ourselves. I've been able to get parents and community agencies to work with us and this has made a big difference".
Turning around a failing school sounds so simple when you listen to someone who actually knows what they're doing. The question is: why isn't the administration listening to people like Dixon? At a time when so much is going wrong the administration and their allies in Congress need an issue where they can demonstrate that their leadership is making a positive difference. Education could still be that issue if the administration changed its tone when challenging allies, distributed federal funds in a manner that allowed successful practices to grow throughout the country and not just a few lucky states, and adopted a more integrated approach to schools in high poverty areas, one that linked school reform to improvements in health and economic opportunities.
The clock is ticking and time is running out for the Obama administration to show that it can deliver on its promise of change we can believe in. Education is one area where a new approach could yield results relatively quickly.
Pedro Noguera is Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is the author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." He is also a co-editor of In Motion Magazine.
Published in In Motion Magazine February 2, 2011.