Restoring Our Schools
Learning From the Past
These declines are not inevitable. We have made strong headway on educational achievement in the past and can do so again. It is easy to forget that during the years following Brown v. Board of Education, when desegregation and school finance reform efforts were launched, and when the Great Society's War on Poverty increased investments in poor communities, substantial gains were made in equalizing educational inputs and outcomes. Childhood poverty was reduced to levels almost half of what they are today. Investments were made in desegregation, magnet schools, community schools, pipelines of well-qualified teachers, school funding reforms and higher education assistance.
These investments paid off in measurable ways. For a brief period in the mid-'70s, black and Hispanic students were attending college at rates comparable with whites, the only time this has happened before or since. By the mid-1970s, urban schools were spending as much as suburban schools, and paying their teachers as well; perennial teacher shortages had nearly ended; and gaps in educational attainment had closed substantially. Federally funded curriculum investments transformed teaching in many schools. Innovative schools flourished, especially in the cities. Large gains in black students' performance throughout the 1970s and early '80s cut the literacy achievement gap by nearly half in just fifteen years. Had this rate of progress continued, the achievement gap would have been closed by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, that did not occur. While nations that today are high-achieving built on the progressive reforms they launched in the 1970s, the United States backpedaled in the Reagan years, cutting the education budget in half, ending most aid to cities and most supports for teacher recruitment and training while also slashing health and human services budgets and shifting costs to the states. This caused states to reduce equalization aid to schools in order to pick up other social service costs.
Conservatives introduced a new theory of reform focused on outcomes rather than inputs—that is, high-stakes testing without investing—which drove most policy initiatives. The situation in many urban and rural schools deteriorated over the ensuing decades. Drops in real per-pupil expenditures accompanied tax cuts and growing enrollments. Meanwhile, student needs grew with immigration, concentrated poverty and homelessness, and growing numbers of students requiring second-language instruction and special education services. Although some federal support to high-need schools and districts was restored during the 1990s, it was not enough to recoup the earlier losses, and after 2000 inequality increased once again.
What's to Be Done?
Although some of America's schools are among the best in the world, too many have been neglected in the more than twenty years since the clarion call for school reform was sounded in the 1980s. Clearly we need more than a new set of national goals to mobilize a dramatically more successful educational system. We also need more than pilot projects, demonstrations, innovations and other partial solutions. We need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.
What would this require? As in high- and equitably achieving nations, it would require strong investments in children's welfare—adequate healthcare, housing and food security, so that children can come to school each day ready to learn; high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials, which are the central resources for learning; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curriculums and assessments focused on twenty-first-century learning goals; and schools organized for in-depth student and teacher learning and equipped to address children's social needs, as the community schools movement has done [see David L. Kirp, "Cradle to College," page 26].
Thus far, the Obama administration has taken affirmative steps on a portion of this agenda. Healthcare for children has been secured in the healthcare reform bill, and investments in early childhood education have been increased, although thus far with more emphasis on expanding access than investing in high-quality teaching. The president has increased federal funding for college, which had previously dropped to a level that precluded college-going for many qualified young people who couldn't afford it.
The administration's stimulus package, which made $100 billion available for schools, has stanched some of the acute hemorrhaging of resources and staff that would otherwise have occurred last year as a result of the recession. And the president has signaled his interest in more intellectually thoughtful assessments that "don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess twenty-first-century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity." This concern will be pursued through competitive grants to state consortiums that develop new assessments linked to new common core standards of learning in math and English.
The most touted aspects of the Race to the Top initiative, however, focus on peripheral issues rather than investments that have characterized major improvements in education systems at home and abroad. No nation has become high-achieving by sanctioning schools based on test-score targets and closing those that serve the neediest students without providing adequate resources and quality teaching. The implementation of Race to the Top has not required states to equalize funding to underresourced schools or even to maintain their existing commitments to these schools, many of which have had to slash budgets deeply, laying off tens of thousands of teachers, raising class size to more than forty in some cases and cutting successful programs.
In this context, schools serving high-need students are called on to raise achievement or face closure, despite evidence from the Consortium on Chicago School Research that closing more than 100 low-performing schools in that city and replacing them did not result in higher achievement.
Race to the Top requires that states expand charters but fails to assure quality and ensure access, despite evidence from the largest national study to date (conducted at Stanford University's Hoover Institution) that charter schools more frequently underperform than outperform their counterparts serving similar students; evidence from a UCLA study indicating that charters exacerbate segregation; and evidence from many studies that charters serve significantly fewer special education students and English-language learners. Some excellent charters do exist, along with excellent schools run by regular public school districts, but the law does not aim to spread excellence so much as it aims to change governance. Nations that are focused on spreading quality—like Singapore, Finland and Canada, for example—have developed strategies for schools to share successful practices through networks, creating an engine for ongoing improvement for the system as a whole.
Rather than establishing a framework for dramatically improving the knowledge, skills and equitable distribution of teachers, as high-achieving nations have done, Race to the Top encourages states to expand alternative routes to certification and to reduce coursework for prospective teachers, despite findings that hiring teachers from low-coursework alternatives reduces student achievement. Further, Race to the Top largely misses the critical investments needed to prepare and distribute excellent teachers and school leaders. Pay bonuses alone cannot succeed in recruiting and retaining teachers without efforts to create competitive, equitable salaries and working conditions. Removing low-performing teachers cannot improve teaching or student outcomes without strategies to ensure a stable supply of highly effective teachers who stay in their communities.
Teacher evaluation needs to become more rigorous, and rewards for effectiveness should be encouraged, but these strategies can succeed only if they are embedded in a system of universal high-quality preparation, mentoring and support—including adequately resourced and well-designed schools that allow and enable good practice. Rather than short-term incentives and quick fixes, federal policy should focus on building capacity across the entire system.
Achieving these conditions will require as much federal attention to opportunity-to-learn standards as to assessments of academic progress, and greater equalization of federal funding across states. It will require incentives for states to provide comparable funding to students, adjusted for pupil needs and costs of living, as well as incentives and information that can steer spending productively to maximize the likelihood of student success. Finally, an equitable and adequate system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators—the most fundamental of all resources—by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained teachers are available to all students in all communities.
While the administration's blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (whose most recent iteration was No Child Left Behind) carries some hints of such strategies, its framework still envisions competition and sanctions as the primary drivers of reform rather than capacity-building and strategic investments. If this remains the primary frame for federal and state policy, it is unlikely that we will rebuild good schools in every community.
To meet twenty-first-century demands, the United States needs to move beyond a collection of disparate and shifting reform initiatives to a thoughtful, well-organized and well-supported set of policies that will enable young people to thrive in the new world they are entering. We must also finally make good on the American promise to make education available to all on equal terms, so that every member of this society can realize a productive life and contribute to the greater welfare. This is the challenge that Obama pledged to take on, and the one we should hope he will vigorously pursue.