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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 03/21/2012

Best part of ‘schools-threaten-national-security’ report: The dissents

The most interesting part of the new Condoleezza Rice-Joel Klein report, which bemoans how American national security is threatened by the poor state of public education, is not in the body of the document itself. The real story is in the dissents at the end of the report.

You can read the report here, and then find out all of the many problems with it in the dissenting views attached at the end of the report, which was written by several members of the Council of Foreign Relations task force.

Some of the dissenters — including Linda Darling-Hammond and Randi Weingarten — express such broad disagreement with the actual thesis that national security is threatened by our public schools, as well as with some of the recommended solutions, that one could wonder why they agreed to stay on the commission and put their names to the document. Here’s why: To ensure that their viewpoint was at least included somewhere in the document.

The report, after attacking public schools for failing to educate students to become involved in the diplomatic corps, military and intelligence services of the country, makes three major recommendations. They are expanding the Common Core State Standard initiative to include subjects beyond math and English Language Arts; expanding charter schools, vouchers and the choice movement; and an annual “national security readiness audit” that would look at how schools are addressing the country’s needs through increased foreign language programs, technology curriculum and more.

Here are some excerpts from the dissents, which you can read in their entirety at the report’s end. The people I have included are: Carole Artigiani, Global Kids, Inc; Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor; Randi Weingarten, president of the American of the Federation of Teachers; and Stephen M. Walt, Harvard University professor.

From the dissent by Carole Artigiani, joined by Linda Darling-Hammond, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten

“...National security requires a healthy economy, energy independence, investments in research and development, strong defense, a thriving civil society, a respected and involved diplomatic corps, and, most of all, a healthy and high-functioning political system. (The current political environment is a clear demonstration of what happens when we have a public—and public officials—who are uninformed and/or ill-informed about our nation’s history, our political system, and the values upon which it was built.)

“Certainly schools must play a critical role in assuring that these needs of national security can be met. Yet, while some of the data are disturbing, nothing in this report convinces me that that our public schools “constitute a very grave national security threat facing this country.”

“Indeed, claims of alarm can only set the stage for dramatic actions unsupported by evidence: in this case, market-based approaches to school reform, that, overall, have not demonstrated their effectiveness. Indeed, charter schools and vouchers are diverting funds and energy away from neighborhood schools, and the more successful ones rely on additional support from private sources (“voluntary taxation”), a situation that is neither sustainable nor scalable. Moreover, the drive toward “competition” can diminish individual commitment to the common good, thus undermining the very nature and purpose of public education: preparing young people of all backgrounds to become informed and active citizens who understand their rights and responsibilities to contribute to society and participate in the shaping of policies that affect their communities and the larger world.

“I applaud the Task Force report’s call for more attention to U.S. and world history and cultures, civics, science, and foreign languages. However, the well-intentioned emphasis on testing basic math and reading has diverted funding and attention from other areas of equal value. The proposed national audit will only increase the pressure to focus on standardized tests when funds to pay for this initiative could be better used if made available to the neediest school districts for classroom instruction....”

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From the dissent written by Linda Darling-Hammond, joined by Carole Artigiani, Stephen M. Walt, and Randi Weingarten

“There is much to applaud in this report of the Task Force. I am pleased that the Task Force identifies the importance of setting high goals for student learning in fields ranging from English language arts and mathematics to science, technology, engineering, and foreign languages—areas that were profoundly neglected during the No Child Left Behind era. The report wisely calls for a richer and more internationally comparable curriculum for all children, beginning in elementary school, along with strategic investments that address the dramatic inequalities in funding that currently exist. This is critically important for our success as a nation, for the talent needed must be cultivated from all communities, among all our young people.....

“...It is with respect to the features of strong systems that I raise specific concerns with the recommendations of the report. Although the report suggests, appropriately, that we must now compete with high-achieving nations around the world, its recommendations do not acknowledge the lessons these nations have to offer or the lessons we should learn from reforms in the United States.

“One shortcoming is that this report accepts, uncritically and despite significant evidence to the contrary, that competition and privatization are essential — indeed perhaps the most important — strategies for improving public educational systems. It ignores the fact that the nations that have steeply improved achievement and equity and now rank at the top on the PISA tests (i.e., Finland, Singapore, and South Korea) have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students, while nations that have aggressively pursued privatization, such as Chile, have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.

“It also ignores research that raises serious cautions about the outcomes of unbridled privatization in education. Although I agree that many charters have done excellent work in serving diverse student populations, and I have personally worked closely with some of these schools, it is also true that the nation’s largest multistate study on charter schools found that charters have been, overall, more likely to underperform than to outperform district-run public schools serving similar students.

“In addition, studies have found that, as a sector, charters serve significantly fewer special education students and English learners, and too many have found ways to keep out and push out students who struggle to learn. While touting the privatization of schools in New Orleans, the report fails to note that many high-need students have been rejected from charters there, that school exclusion rates are extraordinarily high, and that the Southern Poverty Law Center had to sue on behalf of special education students who were unable to gain admission to public schools.

“Meanwhile, New Orleans remains the lowest-ranked district in the low-performing state of Louisiana. Similarly, the report neglects to mention the many studies that have failed to find positive outcomes of voucher systems when similar students are compared.

“Finally, the report ignores the fact that our highest-achieving states have all built high-quality systems without charters, vouchers, educational management companies, or other forms of privatization....

“....The report should also take a more evidence-based approach to the critical matter of developing a strong teacher workforce. While appropriately underscoring the need to invest in teaching, the report ignores many successful models of teacher preparation and development that have been shown to boost teacher effectiveness and retention. It holds up Teach for America (TFA) as the solitary model for entering teaching — despite the fact that recruits have only a few weeks of training when they enter and most leave their positions after two years, provoking churn and high replacement costs in the vulnerable schools they leave. While the commitment of TFA recruits is commendable, we need solutions like those developed at Columbia, Stanford, and many other top universities that recruit high-ability entrants and prepare them exceedingly well for long-term careers and leadership in education....”

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From the dissent by Stephen M. Walt, joined by Carole Artigiani, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Randi Weingarten

“...The report exaggerates the national security rationale for reforming U.S. K-12 education. It says a troubled public education system is a “very grave national security threat facing the country,” but it offers only anecdotal evidence to support this unconvincing claim. The United States spends more on national security than the next twenty nations combined, has an array of powerful allies around the world, and remains the world leader in science and technology. It also ranks in the top 10 percent of the world’s 193 countries in educational performance, and none of the states whose children outperform U.S. students is a potential rival. Barring major foreign policy blunders unrelated to K-12 education, no country is likely to match U.S. military power or overall technological supremacy for decades. There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not high among them.

“Second, there is a mismatch between the report’s alarmist tone andits core recommendations. In particular, if the current state of K-12 education were really a “very grave threat to national security,” the Task Force should emphatically support allocating greater resources to meet the challenge. Yet even though key recommendations, such as raising teacher quality, cannot be realized without additional public investment, the report offers only a bland statement that “increased spending may well be justifiable.” It then declares that “money alone is not the answer,” creating the unfortunate impression that the Task Force is trying to solve an alleged national security threat on the cheap.

“Third, the call for a “national security readiness audit” of educational performance repackages the current focus on standards under a misleading label. The proposed audit would not measure “national security readiness,” and it is not clear who will pay for these new reporting requirements or what the consequences of poor performance would be.”

“Fourth, there is no consensus among professional educators, academic scholars, or engaged citizens about the net impact of charter schools, vouchers, or other forms of privatization, because empirical evidence is mixed. The report leans heavily toward one side in this contested set of issues, however, thereby encouraging a policy course that could do more harm than good.”

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From the dissent by Randi Weingarten, joined by Carole Artigiani, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Stephen M. Walt

“...The report rightly acknowledges that, ‘Public education is an essential institution in America’s quest to provide equality of opportunity and to ensure that social and economic mobility are available to all children, regardless of circumstances. It is not hyperbole to say that a robust system of public schools is essential to U.S. democracy.’

“Regrettably, some elements of this report actually undermine this vital institution. The report casts public schools in the worst possible light while ignoring facts to the contrary. It correctly states that parents should have great academic choices for their children, but certain recommendations may actually limit those choices. It advances recommendations that lack evidence of effectiveness while ignoring the lessons of high-achieving, fully public education systems in the United States and elsewhere. The report advocates privatization, competition, and market-based approaches that, while sounding compelling, have not worked in a scalable and sustainable way either here or abroad. Therefore, I must respectfully offer this partial dissent.

“The report rightly emphasizes the need for all students to have access to great schools and the opportunity to develop higher-order knowledge and skills. Yet by promoting policies like the current top-down, standardized test-driven accountability that has narrowed the curriculum and reinforced the teaching of lower-level skills, which President Obama correctly criticized in his recent State of the Union address, it does the opposite.

“The report goes to great lengths to blame a current generation of educators for their assumed institutional resistance to innovation when, in fact, the problem is less about an opposition to change than it is about too much churn and change. This adds to disrespect and the sharp demoralization of our current teaching force — something that is never seen in the countries that outcompete us. We ask teachers to do a lot, and while we have the responsibility to remove those who do not belong in the profession, we have just as great a responsibility to provide the tools, conditions, and support to the vast majority of teachers who do. Public schools have been buffeted by so many “silver bullet,” top-down solutions and unprecedented austerity measures that sound reforms with the potential to drive system-wide student success have not been consistently and equitably implemented.

“Vouchers and charters have not proven themselves to be sustainable or systemic ways to improve our schools. They will, instead, deplete badly needed resources from the public schools that educate nearly 90 percent of our students. We are concerned, therefore, that their favorable mention in this report—without accompanying comments about the problems inherent in each—could have the effect of “walking away” from the public responsibility and sufficient funding for public schooling. Decades of independent research show that vouchers do not improve outcomes for children who receive them or drive improvements in nearby neighborhood schools. Recent polling on communities of color and public school reform (conducted for the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and others) showed that parents favor improving, not closing, struggling schools. Moreover, the countries that have enacted voucher systems, such as Chile, have not seen the improvements in achievement predicted by advocates. Chile, in fact, is the most socioeconomically segregated country regarding education opportunities, according to the OECD.

“We applaud the support expressed for the Common Core State Standards, and we strongly agree that we must have high expectations for all children. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that our students and schools are provided the resources they need to meet those high expectations....

“...The report rightly decries the gaps in achievement between disadvantaged children and their more-advantaged peers, but it does not make a strong recommendation to address closing the corresponding gap in education funding and resources. It rehashes the too familiar canard that education resources outpace results, but makes no note of schools’ growing costs associated with educating all children (including students with special needs or living in poverty) and rampant teacher turnover.....

“...In this country, no other public service essential to the nation’s well-being—not law enforcement, firefighting, or the armed forces—has forsaken being a public entity. Public education has been a cornerstone of democracy and a means of acculturation for generations of Americans, as well as a crucial vehicle by which those generations have not simply dreamed their dreams but achieved them. A move away from that public system could do greater harm to our national security and common bonds than doing nothing at all.”

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