A New Vision of School Reform

A New Vision of School Reform

The change we need in education policy is more than a rebranding of No Child Left Behind.


Pedro Noguera is the guest editor of this week’s special issue on education.
Before his election President Obama carved out what many regarded as a more progressive and enlightened position on education reform. Recognizing that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had become widely unpopular because of its overemphasis on standardized tests, he declared, "Don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles in a standardized test." He pledged to lead the nation in a different direction.

We are still waiting for a change of course. Since the election, the president and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have adopted policies that, to the chagrin of many of their supporters, have had far more in common with the previous administration than expected. Market-based reforms like performance pay for teachers, the excessive emphasis on charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools and the distribution of federal funds—once treated as entitlements to compensate for poverty—through competitive grants all represent a disturbing continuity with the policies of the past. The Obama administration gets some credit for not ignoring education despite being preoccupied with several formidable challenges. But the new initiatives do not reflect the change many hoped Obama would deliver.

For those who worked hard to help Barack Obama win the election, this is a sad and difficult realization, but there is still time to change the focus and direction of the administration’s education policies. Decisive measures and bold reforms are needed to address the many serious challenges confronting the nation’s schools and to recover from eight years of misguided policies. As state governments enact severe cuts to education budgets and lay off teachers on a scale not seen in more than thirty years, it will be equally important for the federal government to restore our commitment to public education. It must find ways to target support to schools in impoverished communities and, where possible, to use federal funds to compensate for the loss of state and local money.

However, change in education cannot be implemented on a piecemeal basis. The administration needs a new vision, one rooted in the recognition that schools must provide equal opportunity for all children to learn if the schools are to fulfill their vital role as the cornerstone of our democracy. For this to happen, the administration must understand what was wrong with NCLB and the policies pursued by the Bush administration, and it must direct funds where change and innovation are most needed.

To begin with, Obama and Duncan would do well to exercise better judgment in the language they choose and the approach they take in addressing the politics of education. Duncan’s assertion that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" because it gave the city a chance to rebuild and improve its failing public schools was particularly callous and misguided, given that the educational needs of many children in that devastated city still have not been addressed. It also wasn’t wise for Duncan to describe the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island, as "courageous," especially given that there is no reserve supply of highly qualified teachers waiting for their chance to replace those who have been dismissed. Furthermore, Obama and Duncan’s emphasis on narrowly framed pay-for-performance schemes that punish and reward teachers is insensitive to the needs of schools plagued by high failure rates. Educators were an important part of Obama’s base in the 2008 election; although this does not mean the administration should avoid shaking things up or refrain from adopting reforms that may anger some union locals, it makes no sense to inflame them with careless and accusatory rhetoric.

Second, while there is ample evidence that major changes and a new direction are needed, this will require more than a rebranding of No Child Left Behind. Rather than launch another set of Bush-type reforms (e.g., academic standards for preschools) or distributing funds through a competitive process that leaves out most states at a time when funding is scarce (e.g., Race to the Top), the administration must comprehend why the policies of the Bush years did not produce greater success. From the exceedingly high dropout rates in many urban school districts (more than 50 percent in cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis) to the hundreds of chronically underperforming schools that Duncan claims need to be shut down, signs of failure abound. Figuring out why NCLB failed to do more to improve schools in high-poverty communities requires rejecting simplistic approaches like those being taken by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who have shut down ninety-one failing schools in the past eight years. It is important to note that these schools failed on Bloomberg and Klein’s watch and did not respond to their reforms. Closing troubled schools may sound like decisive action, but it does not amount to a reform strategy. When policy-makers are unclear about why their policies do not result in improvement, and are even less clear about what must be done differently to prevent failure in the future, closing schools is little more than a punitive shell game.

Third, the need for change is clear, but history has shown that change in public education does not come easily or quickly. The Obama administration deserves credit for its willingness to provide funds to promote reform, but it is far too impressed with quick fixes like mayoral control of urban districts and charter schools. Over the past forty years studies have shown that education policy must be devised in concert with health reform, poverty alleviation initiatives and economic development in order to address the roots of failure in the most depressed areas. From crime and unemployment to teen pregnancy and even racism, education—or the lack thereof—is implicated in many of our nation’s social and economic problems. Education can be part of the solution to these and many other problems if reforms are designed and implemented in concert with key constituents—parents, teachers, local leaders and students—and with an understanding of how they must be coordinated with other aspects of social policy.

The government can play an important role in prodding the nation’s schools to improve. It can use federal dollars to provide financial incentives for teachers with a track record of effectiveness to work in disadvantaged schools and communities. It can enforce civil rights laws and challenge school districts that have become resegregated thanks to policies that track students based on dubious measures of ability or that use special education, dead-end programs for English-language learners and punitive discipline practices to limit the access of minority students to academic opportunities. And the government can designate the best schools—charters and traditional public schools—as professional development training laboratories where educators from less successful schools can observe and learn about "best practices" in teaching and educational intervention.

Even without the support of the federal government there have been a number of reforms implemented at the local level that show considerable promise. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, the courts have required schools to address the underlying causes of discipline problems and mandated that they stop arresting students for minor behavior infractions. This has resulted in a remarkable reduction in juvenile incarceration rates in the past two years. As David L. Kirp describes in this issue, there are a growing number of schools in cities like Portland, Chicago and New York that function as community service centers and are providing children with nourishing meals, after-school enrichment programs and regular exercise. Such schools are also producing significant increases in academic achievement and improved health for the children they serve. Innovative partnerships between schools, universities and biotech industries in the San Francisco Bay Area have created pathways to well-paid jobs in a sector of the economy that had formerly been inaccessible to urban youth. And school/university partnerships in Chicago, Philadelphia and Worcester, Massachusetts, have created exemplary schools where gaps in achievement associated with students’ race and class have begun to disappear.

Were the administration to embrace a broader and bolder vision of reform and devise policies to back it up, the government could establish promising programs like these in the communities that need them most. If the administration is serious about pursuing such a vision, it would work with unions to develop a reform agenda that improves conditions for teaching and learning in troubled schools and makes it easier to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. It would encourage students and teachers to utilize their talent, creativity and imagination rather than allowing the school curriculum to be reduced to preparing students to perform on standardized tests. And it would recognize that schools have an essential role to play in renewing and invigorating American democracy by encouraging critical thinking and civic engagement. The administration must not be afraid to remind the public that this is, in fact, the historic purpose for which public schools were created.

Education is an invaluable national resource, one that must be supported and protected even as it is also pushed to change. Two years ago, several of the authors of the articles in this special issue of The Nation called upon policy-makers to adopt a comprehensive approach to education reform (see boldapproach.org). We need to see such an approach reflected in education policy now. We must aim higher than we have before and recognize that our future will, to a large degree, be determined by the way America treats its schools and the manner in which it educates future generations.

Read the other pieces in the special issue on education:

Linda Darling-Hammond, Restoring Our Schools

Susan Eaton, The Pull of Magnets

Diane Ravitch, Why I Changed My Mind

Phillissa Cramer, Bright Ideas

David L. Kirp, Cradle to College

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