Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reality Check on the Federal Role in School Reform

President Obama’s comments on NCLB in his State of the Union — combined with state-level discussions on NCLB waivers — require some reality checks.

If the federal government truly wants to promote learning for all students, it needs to discard NCLB’s “test, punish and privatize” approach and adopt reality-based initiatives that acknowledge the relationship between teaching and learning and underlying issues of race, class and segregation.

Yes, everyone knows urban education must better meet the needs of all students. But punishment, finger-pointing and scape-goating are not the answer. Nor does pious rhetoric of “high expectations for all” help classroom teachers who see their resources slashed, their class sizes growing, and their students’ families increasingly subjected to unemployment, incarceration and substandard healthcare and housing— more often than not in ever-more segregated neighborhoods.

As Congress limps through discussions of NCLB reauthorizations, and states debate the merits of NCLB waivers, we need some reality checks.

The first reality check is one of history. (In this era of Newt Gingrich as Republican presidential candidate, historical reality checks are incredibly important.) I suggest Robert Lowe’s and Harvey Kantor’s Harvard Education Review article, “From New Deal to No Deal: No Child Left Behind and the Devolution of Responsibility for Equal Opportunity.”  It’s substantive, historical, well-researched — and worth the time to read carefully.

As Barbara Miner summarizes in her forthcoming book*, Lowe and Kantor outline “the shortcomings of both NCLB and ESEA. They place the initiatives within a broader context of the federal government’s long-term retreat from a broad-based agenda to ensure equal opportunity. Both NCLB and ESEA refocused federal domestic policy almost exclusively on education. Both were in contrast to the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which had a wide-ranging emphasis on jobs programs, protecting the right to unionize, promoting efforts such as a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and Social Security, and developing income/taxation policies that helped redistribute income in order to prevent gaping disparities. “

The Great Society of the Johnson era shifted away from these direct interventions in the economy to “provision of services” – particularly education and job training.

Miner’s summation notes that  the NCLB, passed during a post-civil-rights, pro-marketplace era, took the retreat a step further — the federal government no longer felt the need to even protect existing social benefits.  She then quotes Lowe and Kantor, who write: ‘[T]he dominant view today seeks to free the market from any social encumbrances and to limit federal responsibility for social welfare by privatizing it or eliminating it altogether.”

The results are clear. As Miner states, “Public schools – the only social, political or economic institution given a mandate to close racial gaps, and already battered in urban areas by segregation, poverty, institutional inequities and lack of resources – were unable to should their NCLB burden. They failed.”

Labeling the schools as failures was an essential step in abandoning and dismantling public education and easing the way for privatization, whether through voucher schemes or publicly funded but privately operated charter schools. Not surprisingly, the dismantling occurred primarily in urban districts, where no one can reasonably defend the status quo. The problems are so persistent and glaring.

A second reality check is provided by Linda Darling Hammond in her excellent article in the Nation magazine, “Why is Congress Redlining Our Schools?”

Hammond echoes the concerns of many educators and parents stating that while some proposed changed scale back sanctions of schools failing to reach “adequate yearly progress,” similar sanctions “are now focused solely on the 5 percent of schools designated as lowest-performing by the states. As we have learned in warm-up exercises offered by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, these schools will nearly always be the ones serving the poorest students and the greatest numbers of new immigrants. In many states they will represent a growing number of apartheid schools populated almost entirely by low-income African-American and Latino students in our increasingly race- and class-segregated system. “

Unfortunately this “punish the less-fortunate 5% provision” is central to the NCLB “waiver” application the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is putting forward. According to a January 18 Education Week article,several states are deciding not to apply for a waiver. “The biggest broken pieces of NCLB are not fixed,” notes Denise Juneau, Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction. “Taking on additional requirements to get a waiver that isn’t really a waiver doesn’t seem smart.”

(Here in Wisconsin, people have until Feb.3 to comment on the DPI’s draft waiver proposal.)

Hammond, in her Nation article, offers several suggestions for changes in federal education policy. Among other things she suggests

1) Deal with jobs and poverty
2) Address disparities in school funding
3) Equalize educational learning opportunities outside of school, including early childhood education and enriched summer programs for students
4) Invest in the quality of educators

Hammond was a chief advisor to Obama during his 2008 election, and was considered as a potential secretary of education. Unfortunately, the nod went to Arne Duncan, a non-educator with great rhetoric and a lousy understanding of daily life in the classroom. When Obama gets reelected, perhaps he will have the good sense to bring in Hammond when cabinet assignments are reshuffled.

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One final note. President Obama’s said in his State of the Union address, that “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.”

I have two concerns with this seemingly sound but problematic statement. I recognize the essential role of education in helping students earn a living. But to reduce education to a bank account calculation negates the importance of any number of educational essentials, from an appreciation of art and literature, to being an active and informed citizen, to understanding the importance of tolerance, diversity and anti-racism. Second,  Obama’s assertion was based on a study that itself has come under criticism. Professor Bruce Baker at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, for instance, did the math behind the numbers. The economic benefits of Obama’s imaginary “star” teacher (assuming the national average of 26.6 students in a classroom, and that people work for 40 years) comes to $250 per year a student. That’s less than $1 a day — probably not enough to help someone “escape from poverty.

* Barbara Miner’s forthcoming book is Lessons from the Heartland: Milwaukee Wisconsin, public schools and the fight for America’s Future (New Press, fall, 2012.) 

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