Report: U.S. should focus on equity in education

When Barack Obama was elected president four years ago, many people in the education world had hoped he would pick as his education secretary Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor who was the head of his first education transition team and who is an expert on educational equity. Pushed by pro-school choice forces to pass over her, Obama selected Arne Duncan, who has presided over a school reform agenda with standardized test-based accountability as its focus. Issues of equity and the role of poverty in student achievement not only got short shrift, but it became popular among school reformers to say that people who insisted that poverty could not be ignored were merely providing excuses for bad teachers.

Today a report on equity in education was released by a congressionally-mandated commission (with Darling-Hammond as a member) that documents how the country has ignored the issue of equity for decades. The report, called “For Each And Every Child,” has important flaws but does serve  to focus on educational opportunity and the role of poverty in student achievement, starting with the first paragraph of the introduction:

While some young Americans — most of them white and affluent — are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations. In reading, for example, although U.S. children in low-poverty schools rank at the top of the world, those in our highest-poverty schools are performing on a par with children in the world’s lowest-achieving countries. With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future.

The recommended steps for forward movement in five different areas, including school financing, are unfortunately, generally boilerplate. For example, here are the first two recommendations in the financing section:

The commission recommends that all states—

*Identify and publicly report the teaching staff, programs and services needed to provide a meaningful educational opportunity to all students of every race and income level, including English-language learners and students with disabilities, based on evidence of effective education practices. They should also determine and report the actual costs of resources identified as needed to provide all students a meaningful educational opportunity based on the efficient and cost-effective use of resources.

 

* Adopt and implement a school finance system that will provide equitable and sufficient funding for all students to achieve state content and performance standards. Equitable resources may in some cases mean more than equal investment; as is often the case in other advanced nations, it includes the provision of additional resources to address the academic and other needs of low-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners, and for districts and schools serving large concentrations of low-income students and those in remote areas. States should also ensure that their respective finance systems are supported by stable and predictable sources of revenue to provide meaningful educational opportunities and to promote high achievement on an ongoing basis.

The report was the collective work of the Equity and Excellence Commission, created by Congress and given the mission of advising the education secretary “on the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap.”

Forging a consensus on a panel with people holding vastly different views of what is important in school reform and the issue of equity must have been difficult. The tension is obvious.

The report moves in the introduction’s first paragraph from the impact of poverty straight to, in the second paragraph, the impact on the economy of educational inequities — not on the impact to the actual students themselves.

In one section it makes a point of comparing the United States to other countries on international test results as if there is a general consensus that the results have any meaning, which there isn’t, and without mentioning the context raised in the first part of the introduction: poverty is the issue, not bad test scores.

The report includes some subjects that are popular with school reformers, such as teacher evaluation:

To ensure meaningful and fair evaluations, evidence of student learning should not rely solely on standardized tests.

 

Actually teacher evaluations shouldn’t rely at all on standardized testing, because the formulas used to derive the “value” of a teacher are not reliable enough to be valid. But that point of view was certainly not going to come through because of the view points of some  committee members, such as researcher Eric Hanushek, who is a leader in the push for standardized test-based teacher evaluation.

The issue of just how independent the commission was from the Education Department has been raised by some commentators, including John Merrow. After all, the committee has six ex officio members, all of them from the administration, including Joanne Weiss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff. Still, it didn’t turn out exactly as it would have had department officials written it with no pushback from other members.

In fact, the first recommendation in the teaching commission could be seen as a slap to Teach For America, the nonprofit organization — favored by the Obama administration and school reformers — which recruits high achieving college graduates, trains them for five weeks and then sends into some of America’s neediest classrooms. The recommendation says more training is needed:

Requiring that states set a uniform entry “bar” into the [teaching] profession that includes in-depth academic preparation, diverse clinical experiences and excellent performance on a licensing assessment that measures subject matter knowledge.

The most interesting reading is the compendium, which is essentially an appendix to the main report, that includes pieces by committee members including Darling-Hammond and American Federal of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, though the report does set up a framework for these works.

A mountain of pages of transcripts, which you can read here, show a tug of war among committee members about how to frame the report, with some wanting the focus on the administration’s reform agenda, starting with Race to the Top and the problem of “bad teachers.” Eventually the equity committee decided to focus on equity, though administration supporters did insist on a section about public charter schools — though it is not the paean that some would have liked. Why a report on equity should have a section on charter schools, which educate 5 percent of America’s children, is clear only to very pro-choice committee members.

In any case, Duncan will praise the report and his critics will savage the report, and it remains to be seen what, if any, impact it will have on Obama’s education focus.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 19, 2013