Responses to Darling-Hammond
Velma L. Cobb
NCLB was unprecedented in its goal to "ensure that all children have a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education." It won bipartisan support and had the backing of many civil rights organizations because it brought to the forefront issues not previously acknowledged, much less addressed. Under NCLB, data about students' performance is disaggregated by race, ethnicity, language and class, exposing what many of us long knew: Poor children and children of color are not receiving the kind of education that will lead them to high academic performance. The law also requires that all children have access to a highly qualified teacher, the greatest in-school factor affecting student performance, according to research by Ron Ferguson at Harvard. Yes, NCLB has fallen short on its promise and potential, but recognizing its problems does not mean its goals are not worthy.
Still, those of us who were supportive of NCLB's goals always knew there needed to be a larger conversation--a conversation on the opportunity to learn. Even in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, are we ready to talk about poverty? Are we ready to talk about race?
It is no small coincidence that poor schools are in poor neighborhoods. If we are to get serious about education reform for the twenty-first century, we must talk about community development. Only a full-empowerment agenda will address the unequal access to quality education. The National Urban League has identified workforce development, housing, prison reform, health and wellness, as well as education, as core areas to "empower communities and change lives."
Darling-Hammond is correct that we must "invest." We must invest in high-quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood education for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Children must enter school ready to take advantage of teaching and learning. We must address the growth and development of adolescents as well. NCLB did not deal with high schools, for the most part, but this nation's high schools are in tremendous need of an overhaul. All young people need access to the structures, supports and opportunities that yield positive youth outcomes. The reauthorization of NCLB should provide for these needed changes, raising standards for teaching while also expanding learning in nonschool hours and engaging parents and guardians. More money will be needed to assist states and districts to achieve better outcomes. States and districts also need to take responsibility for redirecting existing resources to areas showing the greatest results. I agree with Darling-Hammond that a "continuous improvement model" is needed rather than the current system of using AYP (adequate yearly progress) statistics.
"It takes an extraordinary and unrealistic optimism to look at the internal problems our country faces and avoid the conclusion that it is in danger of coming apart at the seams." Whitney Young Jr. said these words in 1970, and they ring true today, especially in education. Whether we make strategic changes to NCLB or abolish it completely, we are in danger of coming apart at the seams if we do not address the larger issues of poverty and race in which access to quality education is embedded.
Linda Darling-Hammond has laid out how misguided, if well intentioned, the current version of Title I/ESEA is (the means, since 1965, by which we have tried to balance the fiscal inequities facing low-income kids) and how we can change direction. I'd add just a few points.
There are two important areas in which we could work toward narrowing the achievement test gap aside from directly through schooling: narrow the health gap (as Richard Rothstein argues) and narrow the income gap. Both paths would positively affect test scores as well as real learning. Since NCLB has been in effect, we have instead widened such gaps. Although we claim to be worried about our poor international standing on tests, we might better worry about the fact that we rank nearly last in measures of childcare. These data lead me to be somewhat suspicious about our will to upgrade educational outcomes.
The continuous focus on which kids fail to live up to our ideals--higher test scores--reinforces an ugly aspect of our ever fiercer competitive culture. The idea that the poor, especially the poor of color, are pulling down our system is repeated over and over. The idea of equal human potential is a new and fragile idea; I wonder what all of this pounding away at the so-called deficiencies of "those kids" is doing to this late-twentieth-century concept. Until we pay off "the educational debt" Darling-Hammond describes, we will be forced to keep living with it and with the assumptions that spawned it: our underlying race- and class-biased interpretation of "intelligence."
Finally, a reminder: Democracy was invented as a system of accountability. Our form of democracy rests on a balance of power among different judging bodies. Our schools, in contrast, now rely on only a few bare tools of measurement--mainly those based on fill-in-the-bubble answers to test questions. We wouldn't give out driver's licenses based on such a flimsy criterion as a paper-and-pencil test. We require a road test. But we have settled for far less when it comes to educating all our children well. (And in "we" I include some of my political friends, who are often worse than my usual foes in their admiration for test scores.) Schools are, first and foremost, where we turn to reinforce the intellectual and moral rationale for democracy. If the people are unwise, as Jefferson noted, we must better educate their discretion, not disarm our democracy. Yet, of late, when it comes to schooling--a process designed specifically to educate on behalf of democracy--we seem to have turned our backs on the power of human judgment.