A real school reform agenda for 2014

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP) (By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

If you remember your No Child Left Behind history, 2014 is the year that all children were supposed to be scoring proficient on standardized tests. That was, of course, a ridiculous goal, which the authors of the bill knew full well when they wrote it, and a symbol for just how misguided school reform has become. Here, George Wood, superintendent of Federal Hocking Local Schools, offers four things that reform really should be targeting. He is the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy  and board chair of The Coalition of Essential Schools.

 

By George wood

Our Lake Wobegon moment has finally arrived. This year, all children shall officially be above average.

For those of you who have forgotten, 2014 was the target date by which all children were to be proficient in reading and math. At least that is what the politicians in Washington decreed when, over a decade ago, No Child Left Behind replaced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

I doubt those who dreamed up this rhetorical sleight-of-hand caught the irony of having the “proficiency” target date fall on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty. Ironic because ESEA was a very small part of that war.

Johnson and his allies knew that public education was a crucial weapon in the fight against poverty–especially in still-segregated schools of the South. But the president had no way to influence educational policy because the federal government was, constitutionally, out of the education game.

So Johnson struck a clever bargain with Southern lawmakers: they’d get federal money for their public schools, as long as those schools followed federal civil rights laws. As government programs go, there wasn’t a lot of cash involved. But it was enough dough to persuade states to desegregate their schools and programs so they could balance their education budgets without raising taxes.

The irony is that what was billed as an anti-poverty, pro-desegregation law today seems silent on all of these issues. NCLB was passed more than a decade ago amid much fanfare about holding all children to the same expectations. Fourteen years later, childhood poverty has increased, minority achievement in schools continues to falter, and schools are more racially segregated than they were more than 40 years ago.

I would suggest that those of us who believe in public education as a fundamental tool for equality in a democratic society use this odd convergence of NCLB and the War on Poverty to shape our own agenda for the next school reform campaign. Let’s stop tinkering around the edges with parsing test scores and creating more charter schools. Instead, what if we worked for the following:

School Desegregation: Our schools are segregated by race and class, and that leads to unequal outcomes. Linda Darling-Hammond, among others, has pointed out that when you control for family income, the schools in our nation outperform schools anywhere in the world. The simple fact is that when you segregate schools by income, you make it less likely children will succeed. In Wake County, North Carolina, the bold steps taken to ensure that no school would be imbalanced by economic standards led to improved academic outcomes for all children.

We need to work to stop all practices that segregate our schools in any way, be it race, class, gender or any other measure. This means ending any school choice plans or other enrollment practices that sort and segregate children.

School Funding: I know, enough already on this one. But when cities and rural communities, whose children are just as valuable to this nation as those in gated communities, are unable to provide up-to-date resources, well-trained teachers, safe buildings, and such simple things as field trips to the zoo, we have to admit we have surrendered in the War on Poverty. A nation that can afford the largest military budget on the globe, that bails out bankers, and gives tax breaks to large oil multinationals can certainly afford to make sure every child has the resources they need to succeed.

Teaching as a Profession: If we are going to fight a War on Poverty, let’s send in the best army we can. That corps should consist of teachers who are well-prepared and supported–something that high-achieving nations such as Finland have known for a long time. Quick fixes like Teach for America only put a band-aid on the gaping wound that is the lack of support and training for our teachers. In fact, parents know this, which is why they scramble so hard to get their child into the classrooms where the best teachers are. It’s time we make sure every child has a great teacher.

Public Schools for All: Finally, our efforts should be devoted to restoring the vision of a free, high-quality, public education for all children. Rather than pushing competitions like Race to the Top that only some schools can win, we need an agenda that ensures that every single school is a great public school. Rather than billing charters, magnets or specialty schools as “escapes” from regular public schools, let’s have an agenda that ensures every school is a school of choice, and each child feels chosen.

This means that no public school should be allowed to screen out any child, and should embrace the public school tradition of opening its doors to any child and any family. It means that every school should reflect the demographics of the community it serves by bringing together the rich and the poor, the majority and the minority, the able-bodied and the physically challenged. Finally, it means that no public money of any sort be given to schools that for religious, racial or other reasons, do not welcome all children through their doors. And not a penny to for-profit charter school operators as every cent should be spent on kids, not stockholders.

President Johnson was correct when he said that a nation as wealthy as ours could win the War on Poverty. I applaud the renewed attention that the Obama Administration and legislators on both sides of the aisle are giving to this war. In the battle, I would suggest Johnson’s solution of 50 years ago in terms of schools, tying federal dollars to state practices, could again be employed.

Simply put, if states do not end segregating practices, equalize school funding, commit to supporting teaching as a profession and end the funding of privatizing public education, they should be denied federal funds. Once again, this small bribe could have big results.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · January 16, 2014

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