Why Is Congress Redlining Our Schools?
How Federal Policy Can Make Things Worse
Today, NCLB—and plans to replace it—deliver primarily on the promise of more tests and sanctions. New proposals would focus the law’s punishments even more pointedly on schools in high-need communities and on educators who are willing to serve in these schools, where they earn lower salaries, teach larger classes, deal with more stress and spend longer hours than those who work in more affluent schools. This passes for accountability in America. It is also a recipe for educational redlining.
The test-and-punish approach to school reform has already made it more difficult for schools labeled as failing to attract and retain well-qualified educators—thus, ironically, reducing the quality of education for students still further. Rather than increasing the incentives and supports for teaching in high-need schools, recent federal policy has encouraged states to lower standards for prospective teachers, despite evidence that doing so increases teacher attrition and reduces student achievement. Blaming teachers for the ills of high-need schools lets policy-makers off the hook and keeps the more fundamental problems of severe poverty, a tattered safety net and inequitable funding under the rug.
Instead of making long-term investments in these communities, the strategies promoted in Race to the Top and the current proposals for ESEA will cordon off “failing” public schools and seek to close, replace or reconstitute them, or use them to experiment with high-risk reforms like for-profit educational management firms.
These approaches have a dubious track record. Many reconstitutions—where staff are fired and replaced—have resulted in a less qualified teaching staff and lower achievement after the reform. The largest national studies of charters have found that while some are highly successful, most are more likely to underperform than to outperform district-run schools serving similar students. Moreover, the fact that charters enroll fewer English learners and special education students makes it difficult to compare their performance with that of other public schools.
The school replacement strategy is far from a panacea. An independent evaluation of Chicago’s Renaissance initiative—which aimed to replace 100 schools with redesigned schools, charters and “contract schools” run by entrepreneurs—found that the achievement of students in the new schools had not improved relative to comparison students and that both groups continued to be very low-performing. Meanwhile, the disruptions to communities were severe. Many students were shipped out to distant schools, creating long, dangerous travel conditions; others were not accepted by the new schools; and still others dropped out when their schools were closed. An effort to launch another round of closings and turnarounds led to vehement public protests that closed down a school board meeting in December. “We see through the sound bites. You have betrayed the public trust!” one protester yelled. “You have failed Chicago’s children.”
More troubling, pressure to raise test scores has led many schools to exclude students who are hardest to teach, either by structuring admissions so that low-achieving students and those with special needs are unlikely to be admitted, or by creating conditions under which they are speedily encouraged to leave. In Houston a study documented a slew of strategies by which schools rid themselves of struggling students. In the brave new world of New Orleans, composed almost entirely of charter schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to sue because disabled students could not get access to public education.
Excluding low-scoring students from public schools gets scores up, but it expands the school-to-prison pipeline, which has quadrupled over the past thirty years, along with corrections costs, which now threaten to devour funds that should be spent on education. Most inmates are functionally illiterate and high school dropouts. In a devil’s bargain, the public spends as much as $50,000 a year to incarcerate young men on whom it would not spend $10,000 a year for a decent education.
The truth is that the competitive market approach leaves the most vulnerable children behind. It is impossible to punish schools that are struggling without punishing the children they serve. When schools are closed, it is the students and families who suffer the chaos and confusion. And if teaching and leadership positions in high-need communities become even more unappealing as a result of such policies, educators with options will be even less willing to come to or stay in these schools, leaving students and their schools with an even more inexperienced and transient teaching force. This is not a strategy that promises great wins for these students or for the nation.
What We Should Do Instead
We need a new approach to federal policy that makes it possible for all students to succeed and creates the momentum we need to regain our status as an educational leader among nations. The new ESEA must be better than what we’ve had for the past ten years—especially for the low-income communities it was intended to serve. To make this happen, Congress and the administration must think differently about the ends and the means of reform.
First, we need to recognize that the growing income gap, unemployment and poverty must be addressed if we are to close the education gap and maintain a stable democratic society. The Occupy movement is beginning to reawaken awareness of how much social inequities have grown in the past thirty years, but few are aware of how intolerable the situation has become in the most marginalized communities. As socioeconomic segregation has increased, policy-makers and pundits are ever more buffered from direct knowledge of how the other half lives.
Although it is not fashionable to say so, we desperately need a jobs bill that will allow all those who want and need to work to take on the many jobs that need doing in America, and we need a major anti-poverty program that will eliminate childhood poverty in the richest nation on earth. The goods bought and the taxes paid by Americans with jobs will be the most important corrective for our lagging economy, and the stability and dignity this provides for families is the most important foundation for children and their learning.
Second, we must finally address the outrageous disparities in school funding that set us apart from other industrialized nations. To help students reach the new, rigorous Common Core standards that states have developed, we must create common resource standards—and incentives to meet them. This should include benchmarks for early childhood education, well-qualified teachers, high-quality curriculums and equitable instructional resources. Consider the nearly 500,000 high school students who want to go to college but, according to the Education Department, do not have access to algebra 2 classes, and the more than 2 million who have no access to calculus classes.
It’s not fair to expect students to meet equally high standards if we do not provide them with equal opportunity to succeed. The ESEA should tie standards for equal educational opportunity to standards for learning: indicators of learning opportunities—the availability of qualified teachers, appropriate courses, materials and equipment, and necessary services—should be published alongside test results, and states should be expected to show evidence of progress toward resource equalization along with evidence of learning.
Third, we should equalize learning opportunities outside school, including high-quality preschool education and enriched summer learning opportunities for all students. A major study at Johns Hopkins University found that one-third of the achievement gap between affluent and poor high school students is present at the start of first grade, and two-thirds occurs because of summer learning loss for low-income students. Evidence shows that preschool investments create large returns as students experience less school failure, fewer special education placements and higher graduation and employment rates. High-quality summer programs also help close the achievement gap and prevent students from dropping out. Yet most low-income students do not have access to these opportunities.
Fourth, we must invest in the quality of our educators. Since federal supports for teacher training were dramatically reduced in the ’80s, teacher shortages in schools serving low-income students have increased to the point that there is a revolving door for teachers in these schools. Congress has colluded in lowering preparation standards and creating fast-track alternative certification routes for teachers to fill jobs in high-minority, low-income schools, despite research that shows that these teachers leave faster and reduce student achievement.
Frustrated by this counterproductive approach, a number of organizations representing parents, communities, educators, and civil rights and disability activists have banded together to insist on a higher standard and to advocate for more sensible federal supports for high-quality teaching. Many successful models have been created and documented, but the funding for these programs has been steadily eliminated. The new education law should maintain the NCLB expectation that teachers be fully prepared and qualified for their challenging jobs and then support those goals with service scholarships to underwrite training and high-quality preparation programs in high-need urban and rural communities.
It may sometimes be necessary to close schools, but only as a last resort, after communities have been engaged in diagnosis and decision-making and necessary investments have been made, wraparound services provided and all student needs taken into account. Increased emphasis on parent and community participation in the direction of their public schools should be a key piece of new education law. We must think and act more systemically. We need federal education policy—backed up with state policy—that builds an escalator out of poverty. The 2020 Vision Roadmap produced by the Opportunity to Learn campaign provides one image of how this can be done.
Preventing educational redlining is a moral and a practical issue. The estimated 7,000 students who drop out of school each day represent a human tragedy as well as lost potential for our society. The more than $300 billion a year forgone because of the lost wages and social service costs of dropouts could be spent building strong schools for these students in their neighborhoods.
We must be honest about our challenges and adopt solutions that give all children an opportunity to learn if our nation is going to reclaim its role as a world education leader. We cannot afford to settle for an education law that is looking backward when it is so critically important to bring our future into view.