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The Change We Need

Future of Education Policy in the Obama Administration

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

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It is now obvious to even it’s most ardent supporters that the Obama administration will not be able to deliver the “change we need” quickly. The problems confronting the country are too vast and complex to be resolved by bold executive action or quick fixes devised by the wise men and women he has appointed to his cabinet. It is also clear that if the administration decides to treat education as a national priority and place it near the top of it’s policy agenda that more than just money will be needed to fix the nation’s schools. What is needed is a complete change in direction based upon a recognition that for too long we have expected far too much from schools, and not surprisingly they have not been able to fulfill the expectations. The Obama administration has been clear about its determination to expand access to high quality early childhood programs and during the presidential campaign it promised to end the federal obsession with using standardized testing as the exclusive tool for evaluating educational adequacy. However, if schools are to play a role in reviving the economy, particularly in economically depressed urban areas, and in responding to the growing diversity of the population, it will have to find new ways to provide the next generation with the knowledge and skills that will be necessary to participate fully in American society.

Despite its many failures and shortcomings, the Bush administration may well be remembered as having had a greater impact upon public education than any other in US history. This is because the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law enacted under President Bush significantly expanded the role of the federal government in public education. Prior to NCLB, the federal role in education was limited largely to civil rights enforcement and insuring compliance with various federal policies, most important among these being the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title I), which significantly increased federal funding for children in poverty. However, unlike past initiatives that required states, and by extension school districts, to demonstrate compliance with federal mandates, NCLB required states to establish academic standards and to use standardized test scores as a means of holding schools accountable. As a result of these measures, and NCLB’s requirement that schools disaggregate test scores by sub-groups (e.g. race, language, income, etc.), the law drew attention to the achievement gap and exposed the glaring and profound inequities that are rampant throughout the American educational system.

Of course, drawing attention to a problem is not the same as solving it, and NCLB has done very little to provide schools with the guidance, support or resources needed to actually address the achievement gap (Hanuschek 1997, 2003). Seven years after the enactment of the law it is clear that it will take more than standards, pressure or public humiliation to get schools to improve. These have been the primary tactics employed by NCLB, and for that reason alone it could be argued that while NCLB may have taken the nation a step forward by compelling schools to be accountable for student achievement, it also took schools backwards because it did nothing to address the problem it identified. The sanctions and penalties included within NCLB have done little to address the chronic problems and shortcomings present within a significant number of schools serving “high need” student populations. While some districts have shown progress in raising achievement the clearest sign that NCLB has not worked is disturbingly evident - in most urban school districts across the country drop out rates exceed 50% (Gates 2006). Moreover, it continues to be the case that in most areas where poor children are concentrated, the level of achievement continues to be quite low (Cowley and Mehan 2003). This is not just evidence of an achievement gap, it is also part of what Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings has referred to as America’s educational deficit, since throughout the US, considerably less funding is allocated to support the education of poor children (CFE 2007). Despite all of the changes that it’s advocates claimed the law would achieve, seven years after its enactment it is clear that many children are still being left behind.

Nonetheless, even the critics of NCLB must acknowledge the positive effects of the law. In identifying the achievement gap as a problem and framing it as one that schools have a moral imperative to address, NCLB has forced American schools to confront an issue that has long been ignored throughout much of American history. The achievement gap is not new. Disparities in student achievement that correspond to the racial, socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds of children have been common to American public schools for years (Miller 1996; Jencks and Phillips 1998). What is new is the idea that the gap can be closed and that schools should be held responsible for making it happen. Throughout most of American history disparities in academic performance were regarded as a “natural” phenomena that could not be addressed or even ameliorated because the cause of these disparities were rooted in genetic endowments that corresponded to racial differences (Lehman 1996). There was little outrage over the fact the Black, Latino and Native American students generally did less well in school, and were less likely to graduate and enroll in college, because these groups were regarded as intellectually inferior. Without ever formally repudiating the highly questionable research of scholars like Jensen (1969) and Hernstein and Murray (1994), NCLB simply made it clear that schools would be held accountable for producing evidence that all students, regardless of their race, language, income or status, were learning. President Bush himself challenged schools by calling upon them to “end the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Even if it’s not clear that he actually understood the significance of this slogan, coming from the President, such rhetoric had enormous impact over thinking about schools and their role in promoting racial equality.

A New Direction Under Obama?

The Obama administration has the chance to go well beyond the changes enacted under Bush and to take advantage of the expanded federal role made possible by NCLB, but for this to happen it will need a new vision of reform. Such a vision must be rooted in the recognition that if schools are to serve as the cornerstone of democracy and the engine of social and economic opportunity, then that cannot be expected to address all of the challenges affecting children by themselves. Despite its’ lofty rhetoric, NCLB was based upon a distorted notion of equity - schools were expected to prepare all students, regardless of their circumstances, to meet academic standards established by states. Over the last twenty years billions of dollars have been spent in the name of reforming public schools with little evidence of success in schools that disproportionately serve poor children (Payne 2008). This is because most of the schools serving America’s neediest children lack the resources and capacity to meet the needs of the children they serve. This is not merely a matter of providing such schools with more funds. Even in resource-scarce districts where facilities are crumbling and basic learning supplies are lacking, it is highly unlikely that increased funding alone will produce a change in results. Failure has been endemic in too many schools for too long for the problems to be fixed quickly or easily.

If genuine progress is to be achieved then what is needed is a complete change in direction. The United States needs a new policy agenda for education that will make it possible for schools to play a central role in ongoing efforts to rebuild the US economy. The Obama administration has been clear about its determination to expand access to high quality early childhood programs and after school programs. Throughout the campaign, the President also promised to end the federal obsession with using standardized testing as the exclusive tool for evaluating the performance of schools.

As the Administration contemplates what else it will do to address the challenges confronting our nation’ schools it will need to understand that the problems cannot be solved by a few sweeping reforms or major investments in a few discrete initiatives. New approaches to educating children and managing schools and districts will be needed to bring about the kinds of changes in educational outcomes that the nation so desperately needs.

Even in many affluent suburban districts where resources are less of an issue, racialized patterns of achievement are often deeply entrenched and reinforced by tracking systems that deny children of color access to honors and college track courses (Noguera and Wing 2003). Despite the federal government’s fixation with using test scores as a barometer of progress, several indicators suggest that large numbers of children, including many white and affluent children, are not performing at levels commensurate with children in most economically advanced nations. In international comparisons of math and science achievement among the world’s wealthiest nations children from the United States consistently rank far lower than children in other nations (Schmitdt 2008). Similarly, in a comparative study of the twenty-five wealthiest nations last year Unesco ranked the U.S. 24 out of 25 on a broad set of indicators related to the well being of children (Unesco 2007).

Creating An Equity Agenda

Despite the complexity of the challenges confronting public education, it is clear that the administration cannot afford to put off the task of addressing them indefinitely. Education is implicated in the causes and potential solutions to several major social and economic problems confronting American society. From finding ways to break the cycle of poverty to devising new means to generate employment in cities where the manufacturing sector has collapsed, the Obama administration will need a bold new strategy for reforming public education if the nation is to move forward. There can be no new future for Detroit if the public schools (which presently are in shambles) are not capable of educating a new generation of workers to staff new industries that will replace the declining auto industry. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, Flint, Gary and dozens more across America’s rust belt can be revived, if we do not address the shortage of highly skilled students produced by schools in these communities today. The sooner we realize that the distribution of economic rewards in American society is tied to the state of our schools (Jencks 1972), the sooner we will see that urgent action is needed in the way we go about preparing our disadvantaged children for education and for the workforce.

However, before the administration can proceed with “fixing” the schools we must be clear about the nature of the problem that must be addressed. For starters, we must recognize that our troubles in education are inextricably related to the deep and profound inequality that characterizes most aspects life in American society. After all, the achievement gap is in many respects nothing more than an educational manifestation of social inequality (Darling Hammond 2004). Any serious attempt to reform public education must be based upon a clear understanding of how the policies enacted should interact with other efforts to further equity (e.g. housing, wages, healthcare), to create a social safety net for children, and to expand access to opportunity and mobility. This will mean addressing three crucial dimensions of inequality in education:

Funding. Our public schools are characterized by profound disparities in quality and resources because we fund schools largely through local property taxes and we consistently spend more money to educate affluent children than poor children. In states like New York, New Jersey and Texas, efforts to equalize funding between school districts have been hurt by the recession, budget shortfalls, and political opposition in affluent suburban communities. In addition, there are even larger funding disparities between and among the states, with southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana consistently spending far less than wealthy states like New York and Massachusetts to educate children (Rothstein 2008). If the Obama administration is to have a major impact on public education it will need to do more to ensure that the effort to set standards for schools and students will also include a commitment that all schools meet basic “opportunity to learn standard” and insure that all students have access to high quality learning conditions regardless of where their schools are located. This will mean taking a more active role in insuring access to qualified teachers, adequate learning facilities and supplies, and a curriculum that prepares students for good paying, 21st century jobs.

Segregation. More than fifty years after the Brown decision, we continue to send children to schools that are segregated on the basis of race and class (Harvard Civil Rights Project 2000). While there appears to be very little commitment to old remedies like school busing to further the goal of racial integration, the administration must do more to make sure that initiatives like charter and magnet schools are not allowed to exacerbate existing patterns of segregation. Many of these new schools have adopted admissions policies that allow them to exclude the neediest children, particularly those with limited proficiency in English and special needs (Wells 2002). Additionally, the administration can further efforts to reduce residential segregation by supporting the development of low income housing in middle class communities as a way to bring about increased integration in schools. Finally, the administration must engage intermediaries with a track record of success in turning around failing schools to improve the quality of schools in high need areas. The inclusion of high quality pre-school and after school programs, are just some of the enticements that could be used to lure middle class children to integrated schools.

Unmet Needs. Although 1 out of 5 children in the United States are poor (another fifth come from households that are struggling financially) (Auerbach and Krimgold 2000), thus far, school reform initiatives have largely ignored the non-academic needs of poor children – health, nutrition, housing, etc. A variety of studies have shown that these unmet needs invariably have an impact upon the ability of children to learn in school (Rothstein 2002). In the name of equity, NCLB has been used to hold poor children to the same academic standards as privileged children in affluent school districts, even though we know they are not educated under similar circumstances. Today, nearly a quarter of poor children do not have access to adequate health care and miss far too many days of school because they are sick (Children’s Defenses Fund 2007). Moreover, when we consider the fact that family income and parental education continue to exert powerful influence over student academic outcomes (Jencks and Phillips 1998), it is not surprising that our schools rarely serve as a vehicle for poor children to escape poverty. The administration can provide support to schools so that they can do a better job of helping children to overcome these social and economic handicaps, by expanding access to critical social services for students in need – including helping schools to provide such services in communities where no other agencies have stepped up to the plate (Dryfoos 2001).

Additionally, in many cities across the United States public school systems are dysfunctional and not organized to respond effectively to the needs of the children they serve. The fact that the school districts are also the largest employers in many cities contributes to the tendency for powerful constituencies that should be concerned about the quality of education to be more focused on controlling contracts for services and jobs within the system. State and federal intervention will be needed in districts where local school boards have become so mired in political battles that leadership can no longer function (this is the case in St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland). National leadership by the Obama administration and the teachers' unions will also be needed to move the conversation about teacher quality beyond a narrow debate over merit pay and job protection, to one focused more broadly on how to insure that teachers receive adequate support and training to meet the academic needs of their students and to ascertain their effectiveness in the classroom (Cowley and Mehan 2003). As Richard Elmore has argued (1997), internal accountability must include everyone – administrators, teachers, parents and students, and it most importantly, it must also include politicians who allocate the funds and set the policies under which schools must operate.

Creating Schools for the 21st Century

Under NCLB, schools have been preoccupied with teaching basic skills that can be assessed on standardized tests, and student performance on these tests has served as the basis for how schools are judged. As President Obama observed in his campaigning last fall, teaching to the test has become a pervasive and harmful phenomenon. This is especially true in schools serving poor children, but the distortion of the curriculum has occurred in many schools serving middle class children as well. In their desire to raise test scores too many schools have limited access to subjects not covered on the tests, including science, social studies, art and music, social skills, leadership training, and character development. It is hardly surprisingly that students commonly complain that school is boring when the mode of instruction relied upon in most schools consists largely of lecture and test preparation. Thought-provoking literature is in short supply, students do very little research or writing in school, and the average middle school student is more comfortable with technology than the average teacher.

As it contemplates what it will do to reform NCLB the administration must find a way to restore the proper balance between assessment and instruction in order to insure that schools are developing higher order skills - creativity, fluency in a second language and problem solving, among their students. These are intellectual traits that are not easily tested but they are the kinds of abilities that our society will need most if education will play a role in expanding opportunity and reviving the economy. The good paying jobs of the future in health, telecommunications, renewable energy, organic food production, biotechnology and environmental protection, will be more accessible to individuals who have the ability to learn new skills quickly and to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

Since immigration is unlikely to fade as an issue (Clark 1998), the administration must also find ways to ensure that schools can meet the learning needs of documented and undocumented children (the courts have consistently ruled that undocumented children have the right to an education), to prevent those who cross our borders from becoming a permanent underclass trapped in low wage jobs. As our society is transformed through changing the demographics, our public schools will continue to be called upon to help prepare immigrant children to participate fully in American society. Schools will need resources and support to meet this challenge as well.

Finally, it will be essential for the new administration to recognize that the fate of the US economy is fundamentally tied to the state of its’ schools and universities. Recognition of this linkage must compel us to think in new ways about how to address the problems facing public education. A growing number of US industries have come to rely increasingly upon foreign labor, both because it is cheaper and often more skilled (Reich 2007), for their labor needs. Unless this pattern is reversed large segments of the US population will become permanently marginalized.

New thinking about how to reform schools is desperately needed. We cannot afford to repeat past mistakes that have not only been costly, but have also reinforced the notion that improving schools is a hopeless endeavor. Since the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, there have been numerous efforts aimed at reforming the nation’s public schools, but most of these have produced relatively little evidence of improvement. Undoubtedly there are some who believe that the fate of the U.S. economy is not at all tied to the state of our schools, however whether or not we find ways to improve our schools will determine whether disadvantaged youth will be able to participate fully in reaping the fruits of a recovered economy.

The Obama administration must recognize that improving education is the best way to expand opportunity and address the rising unemployment rates, especially in our nation’s cities where the rates for minority males have already been high (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009). In order for the new administration to begin to use education as a force for change, school reform must at the minimum include the following:

  • A revision of NCLB so that greater emphasis is placed on providing students with access to high quality instruction and learning environments that support their intellectual development;
  • Expansion of access to early childhood, pre-school, healthcare, and after-school programs for poor children, in order to address some of the non-academic needs that impact learning and to expand the opportunity to learn (See www.broaderbolderapproach);
  • A concerted effort to recruit highly trained teachers and principals to high need schools with extended site-based mentorship during the first 2 -3 years of service to increase the likelihood of success and retention;
  • Greater alignment between economic development goals and educational plans related to how schools can prepare students for jobs in the “new economy”.

Examples of the last three of these initiatives are already in place in a small number of places across the country. Through public-private partnerships the city of Chicago has created over one hundred full service schools that make a variety of social services available to students. Similarly, the Harlem Children’s Zone headed by Geoffrey Canada, has provided comprehensive social services to six thousand poor children, and the state of Oklahoma has made sure that the vast majority of its children are enrolled in quality pre-school. In the Bay Area, a number of “green schools” that are preparing students for jobs in environmental protection are in the early stages of development, and there are a number of innovative career academies at schools across the country that teach students how to produce animated films, grow organic fruits and vegetables, build robots, and how to open and run small businesses.

We must do more. The challenge for the Obama Administration will be to expand efforts like these on a much larger scale and to overcome the political obstacles that most assuredly will make implementation of these reforms more difficult. .

We must also keep in mind President Obama's prophetic statement - that change doesn’t come from Washington, it must come to Washington. The future of public education has been the subject of fierce ideological debate in recent years. The forces behind NCLB who continue to view testing as the salvation for our schools, who view merit pay for teachers as the critical issue that will improve the quality of instruction students receive, and who see various privatization schemes as the best way to improve the performance of schools, have powerful voices. They remain active in the Democratic as well as in the Republican parties and they continue to attempt to undermine the Administration's commitment to genuine reform. Their narrow view of what schools and students need undoubtedly will continue to exert considerable influence over policy at the state and local level.

A broader view of education is needed to achieve success in bringing sustainable reform to public education. This broader view is rooted in recognition that children need to be well fed, healthy, intellectually challenged and stimulated in order to thrive and achieve. If the new Administration's policies are to succeed in reflecting this broader view, they will require the mobilization of grass-roots support. Advocates of this broader view must be prepared to organize and advocate for it at the local, state and national levels if we are going to create the schools our children need and deserve.

This article was previously published in The Harvard Educational Review.

Pedro Noguera is a professor of sociology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and the author of the recent book The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 25, 2009.

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