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The Change We Need in Education Policy

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

Prior to his election, President Obama carved out what many regarded as a more progressive and enlightened position on education reform. Recognizing that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had become widely unpopular due to its over-emphasis on standardized tests, he declared "... don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend much of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test." He pledged to lead the nation in a different direction.

We are still waiting for a change of course. Since the election the President and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have adopted policies that, to the chagrin of their supporters, have had far more in common with the previous administration than expected. Market-based reforms like performance pay for teachers, the excessive emphasis on charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools, and the distribution of federal funds that were once treated as entitlements to compensate for poverty through competitive grants, all represent a disturbing continuity with the policies of the past. The administration gets some credit for not ignoring education despite being preoccupied with several formidable challenges. But, rather than signifying a clear change in direction the new reform initiatives launched by the administration such as Race for the Top, are strikingly similar to those of the Bush administration and do not reflect the change many hoped Obama would deliver. 

For those who worked hard to help Obama win the election, this is a sad and difficult realization, but there is still time to change the focus and direction of the administration’s education policies. Decisive measures and bold reforms are needed to address the many serious challenges confronting the nation’s schools, and to recover from eight years of misguided policies. As state governments enact severe cuts to education budgets and layoff teachers on a scale not seen in over thirty years, it will be equally important for the federal government to take action to restore the public’s faith in public education. It must find ways to target support to schools in impoverished communities and where possible, use federal funds to compensate for the loss of state and local funds.

However, change in education cannot be on a piecemeal basis. The administration needs a new vision to chart a new direction, one that is rooted in recognition that education is vital to the preservation of democracy and economic opportunity. For this to happen, the administration must understand what was wrong with NCLB and the policies pursued by the Bush administration, and it must direct federal funds where change and innovation are most needed.

To begin with, Obama and Duncan would do well to exercise better judgment in the language they choose and the approach they take in addressing the politics of policy. Duncan’s assertion that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans because it gave the city a chance to rebuild and improve its failing public schools” (Duncan 1/20/10), seemed particularly callous and misguided given that the educational needs of many children in that devastated city still have not been addressed. It also wasn’t wise for Obama and Duncan to describe the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, R.I. as “courageous” given that there is no reserve supply of highly qualified teachers waiting for their chance to replace those who have been dismissed. Furthermore, they must stop endorsing narrowly framed pay-for-performance schemes that punish and reward teachers when they know there are no easy answers for schools plagued by high rates of failure. Choosing their words more carefully is more than a matter of being politically safe. Educators were an important part of Obama’s base in the 2008 election, and while this does not mean the administration should avoid shaking things up or refrain from adopting reforms that may anger some union locals, it makes sense to be more thoughtful and less accusatory in how they take these issues on.

Secondly, while there is ample evidence that major changes and a new direction are needed, this will require more than a re-branding of No Child Left Behind. Before launching another set of Bush-type reforms (e.g., academic standards for pre-schools) or distributing federal funds through a competitive process that leaves out most states at a time when funding is scarce (e.g. Race for the Top), the administration must understand why the policies of the past eight years did not produce greater success. From the exceedingly high dropout rates in many urban school districts (over 50% in cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis), to the hundreds of chronically under-performing schools that Duncan claims need to be shut down, signs of failure abound. The administration must figure out why NCLB failed to do more to improve schools in high poverty communities and it must reject the simplistic approach being taken by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his Chancellor Joel Klein who have shut down 94 failing schools in the last eight years. It is important to note that these schools failed on their watch and did not respond to their reforms. While closing troubled schools may sound like decisive action, it makes little sense as a reform strategy. When policy makers are unclear about why their policies do not result in improvement, and are even less clear about what must be done differently to prevent failure in the future, closing schools amounts to little more than a punitive shell game.

Third, while the need for change is clear, history has shown that change in public education does not come easily or quickly. The Obama administration deserves credit for its willingness to provide funds to promote reform, but it must reject the idea that quick fixes like mayoral control of urban districts or creating a few more charter schools will produce change quickly. Over the past forty years, several studies have shown that education policy must be devised in concert with health reform, poverty alleviation initiatives and economic development in order address the roots of failure in the most depressed areas. From crime and unemployment, to teen pregnancy and even racism, education, or the lack thereof, is implicated in the cause of many of our nation’s social and economic problems. Education can be part of the solution to these and many other problems if reforms are designed and implemented with key constituents – parents, teachers, local leaders and students – and with an understanding of how they must be coordinated with other aspects of social policy.

The federal government can play an important role in prodding the nation’s schools to improve. It can use federal dollars to provide financial incentives for teachers with a track record of effectiveness to work in disadvantaged schools and communities. It can also enforce civil rights laws and challenge school districts that have become re-segregated from within. Re-segregation is occurring throughout the country through policies that track students based upon dubious measures of ability or that use special education, dead-end programs for English language learners, and punitive discipline practices to limit the access of minority students to academic opportunities. It can also designate the best schools – both charters and traditional public schools - as professional development training laboratories where educators from less successful schools can observe and learn about “best practices” in teaching and educational intervention.

Even without the support of the federal government there have been a number of education reforms implemented at the local level that show considerable promise. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama the local courts have required schools to address the underlying causes of discipline problems and mandated that they stop arresting students for minor behavior infractions. This has resulted in a remarkable reduction in juvenile incarceration rates in the last two years. There are a growing number of schools in cities like Portland, Chicago and New York that function as community service centers and are providing children with nourishing meals, afterschool enrichment programs and regular exercise. Such schools are also producing significant increases in academic achievement and improved health outcomes for the children they serve. Innovative partnerships between schools, universities and biotech industries in the Bay Area have created pathways to good paying jobs in a sector of the economy that had been formerly inaccessible to urban youth. And school-university partnerships in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Worcester, MA have created exemplary schools where gaps in achievement associated with the race and class backgrounds of students have begun to disappear.

These promising programs have flourished as a result of local initiatives and without the benefit of support from the federal government. Were the administration to embrace a broader and bolder vision of reform and devise policies to back it up, the federal government could provide funding to make it possible for promising programs like these to be established in the communities where they are needed most.

For this to happen the administration must reject its fascination with market-based reforms that place states and schools (e.g. charters versus traditional public schools) in a competition over scarce resources. It should work with unions to develop a reform agenda that improves conditions for teaching and learning in troubled schools and makes it easier to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. It must not be afraid to allow students and teachers to utilize their talent, creativity and imagination, rather than allowing the school curriculum to be reduced to preparing students to perform on standardized tests. Now more than ever, schools must play a role in renewing and invigorating American democracy by encouraging critical thinking and civic engagement. The administration must not be afraid of reminding the public that this is, in fact, the historic purpose for which public schools were created.

For this to happen, the administration must treat public education as an invaluable national resource, one that must be supported and protected even as it also pushed to change, and it must devise educational policies that go far beyond a focus on standards and accountability. We must aim higher than we have before and recognize that the nation’s future will, to a large degree, be determined by the way it treats its schools and the manner in which it educates future generations.

Previously published in The Nation, June 14, 2010.

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 September 21, 2010.

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