Schools vs. Slogans
This is the inaugural essay in a new series of bimonthly pieces on the politics of education by Nation editorial board member Pedro Noguera.—The Editors
On August 24 Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the ten winners of the latest Race to the Top competition. "These states show what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," said Duncan. The winners—the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island—were understandably thrilled. Each will receive tens of millions of dollars (large states, even more) to implement reforms that the administration believes will spur innovation and promote academic excellence.
The losers, however, were more than just mildly disappointed. Some, like the governors of Colorado and New Jersey, were enraged. Chris Christie, New Jersey's new conservative governor, blamed bureaucrats at the Education Department, then sacked his education commissioner. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat once seen as an Obama ally, claimed his state's exclusion was part of a "communist plot" and charged that it reflected a bias against Western states.
Their anger over Race to the Top, while a bit extreme, is nonetheless understandable. The bad news comes at a time when states across the country are making severe cuts to public education. As the nation struggles to emerge from recession, school districts nationwide have been forced to lay off teachers in droves, defer maintenance and repairs to school buildings and, in states like California and Michigan, allow class sizes to increase to levels never before seen.
The administration should receive some credit for trying to reform public education and for directing some of the federal stimulus funds to support its goals. However, by choosing to reward some states over others because they followed the preferred reform strategy, the administration runs the risk of alienating more than just a couple of governors. At a time when so little is going in its favor, the Obama administration has adopted policies on education that have angered an important part of its base—teachers and their unions.
With backup from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations, the administration has focused its reform efforts on four strategies: raising academic standards, expanding charter schools, evaluating the performance of teachers using student test scores and turning around chronically underperforming schools. In its "Blueprint" for education, released in March, all four strategies were touted as initiatives that will lead to better schools and higher levels of student achievement.
Despite the administration's preference for "evidence-based" measures, however, ideology and favoritism rather than sound research appear to be the primary rationales for the policy direction it has prescribed.
For example, the administration recently awarded $50 mil lion through its innovation grants to Teach for America (TFA). Many liberals and conservatives are enthusiastic about the program because it provides teaching jobs to Ivy League graduates. They are dispatched, with little training, to the most challenging schools, in high-poverty communities (and they typically stick around for no more than two years). But a growing body of research shows that low-income children need highly trained teachers. Indeed, it is telling that KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program, an organization that runs a number of relatively successful charter schools, and whose CEO is married to TFA's CEO—will hire TFA fellows only as assistants until they have proven their effectiveness in the classroom.
Or consider the uneven record of charter schools, also heavily promoted by the administration. In states such as Ohio, Arizona and California, many charter schools are floundering, and unlike traditional public schools, they are not required to meet state performance standards. Charter schools are largely an urban phenomenon, so in many rural areas in Western states where one public school may serve children from a wide geographic area, the push for charter schools makes no sense at all. Finally, there is clear evidence that in many of the better charter schools there is a deliberate effort to exclude children who are hard to serve—English language learners, or students with learning disabilities or severe behavior problems. It is unfair for charter schools and their proponents to claim success when they are allowed to screen or push out students who are hard to teach. Invariably, those students end up back in public schools, which are then penalized for the lower performance that results.
In keeping with the administration's interest in evaluating teachers based on student test scores, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles in August that discussed the relationship between teacher efficacy and student test scores. In a bold and controversial ploy the Times released the names and test-score rankings of individual teachers. While advocates like Washington, DC, school chancellor Michelle Rhee applauded the move as "the right approach to accountability," critics pointed out the numerous problems with judging teachers in such a narrow manner, given the high mobility rates of students and the wide variety of factors influencing their performance on standardized tests.
The call for states to adopt strategies to turn around failing schools is perhaps the most ambitious and troubling of the administration's proposals. The Education Department has estimated that as many as 5,000 of the nation's schools are failing. Secretary Duncan has referred to them as "dropout factories" and called for them to be improved or shut down. Yet, while his concern about school failure is well placed, it seems Duncan must not have read a recent study that analyzed the results of seven years of reform in the Chicago district he led before his cabinet appointment. The University of Chicago study, which ironically was written with John Easton, appointed by Duncan to lead the Institute of Education Sciences, found that in schools serving the neediest children, those the authors described as the "truly disadvantaged," new curriculums, increased funding for books, technology and teacher training, and even extreme pressure failed to produce the improvements the system sought to bring about. The study concluded that these schools did not improve because they lacked the ability to respond to the tremendous nonacademic needs of the children they serve.
This disconnect between the realities of public schools and the policy prescriptions coming from Washington is the crux of the problem. The policy wonks guiding the administration seem to think that the only thing wrong with No Child Left Behind—the law adopted by the Bush administration to guide education policy—is that the slogan got a bad name because it promised far more than it could deliver. Instead of developing a new strategy, they've merely devised a new slogan, Race to the Top, without really understanding what it might take to move the nation's schools forward.
Given its desire to turn around failing schools, it's unfortunate that the administration has not closely examined the experiences of the small but significant number of schools that have gone from failing to high performing, and used the strategies they've employed to promote success on a larger scale—schools like PS 12 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In 2006, PS 12 was identified by the State of New York as a school in need of improvement. In 2009, the school was awarded an A by the New York City Education Department because 58 percent of its students had achieved proficiency in reading, and 92 percent in math. Much of the credit for this turnaround can be attributed to the leadership of Nyree Dixon, the 33-year-old principal. In three years Dixon focused on improving instruction by deploying her best math and literacy teachers as coaches for other teachers so that they could provide direct support in the classroom. She reached out to parents to get their support and co-operation to improve school safety. She worked with a local nonprofit to create an after-school program, and later a summer program, focused on academic acceleration (not remediation). Dixon explains her improvement efforts this way:
"We've been willing to try everything, from changing the curriculum to changing the makeup of classrooms [boys and girls are now separated for literacy classes in the fourth grade]. We evaluate everything we do, but we also know that we've got to get this community involved. My kids need a lot, and there's no way we can do it all by ourselves. I've been able to get parents and community agencies to work with us, and this has made a big difference."
Turning around a failing school sounds so simple when you listen to someone who actually knows what she's doing. The question is, Why isn't the administration listening to people like Dixon? When so much is going wrong, the administration and its allies in Congress need an issue by which they can demonstrate that their leadership is making a difference. Education could still be that issue if the administration changes its tone when challenging allies, distributes federal funds in a manner that allows successful practices to grow throughout the country and not just a few lucky states and adopts a more integrated approach to schools in high-poverty areas, one that links school reform to improvements in health and economic opportunities.
The clock is ticking, and time is running out for the Obama administration to show the critical members of his base in the education community that it can deliver on its promise of change we can believe in.