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Posted at 9:36 AM ET, 02/11/2010

How to fix a bad education law

By Valerie Strauss

My guests today are Pedro Antonio Noguera, a professor in the School of Education at New York University, and George H. Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High Schooll in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy. The nonprofit organization is a collaboration of educators from around the country--including Deborah Meier, John Goodlad, James Comer , and Linda Darling-Hammond---who work together to promote public schools that provide equity of resources to all students and an education that produces engaged citizens.

By George H. Wood and Pedro Antonio Noguera
On Monday, at an “Emerging Issues Forum” in Raleigh, N.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan critiqued our country’s current over-reliance on standardized testing. These comments, along with reports in the national press that the Obama administration is ready to address some of the most grievous problems in federal education policy, have continued to fuel speculation about forthcoming changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is known as "No Child Left Behind."

At The Forum for Education and Democracy, we think that would be a good place to start – and we want to encourage the administration and Congress to do more than fix a bad law; we want them to invest in public schools in ways that prepare every young person to use his or her mind well.

The Forum is a collaboration of educators with decades of experience in building new schools, creating networks of innovative schools, leading schools, advancing teacher quality, and working for educational equity (to see a list of our Conveners, click here).

We have come together to insist that the discussions and debates about the future of our public schools reflect an agenda that is focused on equitable access for all children to challenging and engaging educational experiences provided by well-prepared and well-supported teachers. This agenda is vital if our public schools are to fulfill their most important mission – providing all young people with the skills that democratic life requires of all of us.

In a few weeks, we will release a detailed set of recommendations for ESEA. For now, we want to share our key principles, in the hopes that we might generate a dialogue amongst the public about what they hope for their schools and communities. Since there is no one-size-fits-all plan for improving and supporting public schools, it is the conversations in our neighborhoods and communities that are most important. You, your neighbors, the teachers in your town or city – you are the people who can best design school reform strategies that work for your children, and create, nurture, and support high quality schools across the country.

The Conveners of The Forum believe that every community is entitled to receive from our federal government the supports that make an equitable, high quality education possible for all children. While it is fundamentally the role of states and locales to support schools, the role the federal government can play is crucial. It should not, however, be the role it has chosen to play over the past decade—dictating classroom behavior, micromanaging curricular and teaching decisions, and mandating assessment practices.

The legitimate federal role in public education is to insure that all children have equal access to public schooling. As with voting rights and rights to non-discrimination in employment and housing, the federal government protects all citizens by ensuring equal access to those things that enable us to enjoy the fruits of our Constitutional form of government. A high-quality education is one of those rights. Thus, while the federal government provides less than 10 percent of the national education budget, it can leverage that funding to ensure equitable access to a quality education for all children.

To that end, we recommend that any reconsideration of ESEA include the following:

A National Commitment to High Quality and Well Supported Teachers in Every Classroom:

The words of our dear friend Ted Sizer, first stated over 25 years ago, are still the truest ever spoken about public education: “Without good teachers, strategically deployed, schooling is hardly worth the effort.” The provision of good teachers, and the supports they need to do their job, is one of the major civil rights agendas of the decade.

Providing every child with talented teachers, providing for those teachers the leadership and conditions that allow them to practice their craft, and allowing those teachers to exercise their professional judgment is the base upon which a just and equitable system of education is based. Forum Convener Linda Darling-Hammond, her colleague from the nonprofit Center for Teaching Quality, Barnett Berry, and others have worked together to outline a comprehensive plan for investing in a true teaching profession that would take America down the road to this type of commitment to teaching.

Other nations long ago learned that if they invest in teaching, they do not have to try and micro-manage schools through curriculum and testing mandates. It is time that this nation invested in the human capital that would make our schools, once again, the envy of the world.

Invest in the Research and Development of Assessments of Student Achievement that Focus on Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Major research and development work has always been something for which we turn to our national government. To date, we have relied on the lowest common denominator when it comes to looking at school effectiveness – standardized, machine-scored tests. Members of the current Department of Education, as well as the President and First Lady, have pointed out that these scores tell us little about our children. Further, they seem to have limited predictive validity when it comes to assessing students’ potential success in college or work.

In response, many nations have gone to more performance based assessments, which include teacher assessments, course embedded work, and nationwide reviews. Such could be the case in our nation, but it will take the commitment of the federal government to push this agenda forward.

An approach to accountability that holds states responsible for the conditions to learn while holding communities responsible for equity and achievement:

The current federal policy framework holds schools to unreasonable targets, using narrow assessment tools, with punishments that do little to improve school performance. Ignoring decades of research on engaging, challenging learning environments, the strategies for school improvement mandated under current federal law show little promise of helping children learn. By contrast, the new vision for ESEA should hold everyone accountable to just one thing: Providing the most engaging, challenging, and equitable learning environment for each child.

The federal government can do this by supporting states in building capacity to help schools with targeted, proven tools to help schools learn. And states should be held accountable for providing every child with an equal opportunity to learn; perhaps through requiring they meet federal opportunity to learn indexes or through tying federal funding to equitable funding in the states. With such support, it would then make sense to hold districts and communities responsible for the wise use of resources to insure every child has the education our democracy requires.

None of this will be easy; but all of it is necessary. We applaud the efforts by the Department of Education to bring together leaders from both parties to find ways to correct the problems with the current federal approach to education. We also applaud the Secretary of Education’s intent to pull back from the unrealistic timelines and the punishments invoked on schools in current federal policy. We encourage our friends in Washington to rethink their current approach to educational policy. Reversing this equation is not only proper, given the responsibility of states and communities for schools; it’s also more effective.

The Forum’s Conveners stand ready and willing to assist both the Department and Congress in rethinking NCLB, as are many educators across the nation. It is time for a change we can believe in.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 11, 2010; 9:36 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  arne duncan, nclb  
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1. A High Quality Teacher In Every Classroom:

For most middle-class/suburban districts this is not a problem. Districts housing predominantly poor/minority youngsters are the ones in dire need here. The issue seems to be how to attract high-quality candidates to urban districts. The obvious solution appears to be to pay them more, A LOT MORE. From a practicality standpoint policy makers need to put themselves in the position of these candidates. Do I want to spend the bulk of my career teaching in the Harlem or do I opt to find a nice, safe, desirable position somewhere in Westchester County? The majority of these candidates is going to opt for the job in the suburbs because the pay is often equal, if not better, and the job is much easier for myriad reasons (parental support, SES, personal safety, environment, etc.). My guess would be less than ten percent of the highly-qualified candidates are going to opt for the job in Harlem. The next question is where could this money be found? Here's where the feds could play a significant role in improving the life chances of so many of our inner city kids. Offer a significant ($20K more per year) stipend per year to any proven teacher to spend their career working in our urban districts. And I'm not totally convinced all Teach For America candidates are the answer to this situation.

2. Investing in assessments that focus on higher order thinking skills (critical thinking and problem solving) is a waste of time and money. The NEA and the people from Fair Test, the progressives, will defend these assessments unconditionally, but we need to take a long hard look at anything in this direction before we commit to thinking portfolios, projects, and reports, are going to give us the quantitative answers to how our students are actually performing before we make the leap in this direction. These authentic assessments are code for avoiding valid and reliable accountability measures. Take proven systems of assessment that correlate to standards with a track record for producing quality results such as the MCAS test from Massachusetts or the federal NAEP test and plug them in nationwide.

Paul Hoss
Marshfield, Massachusetts

Posted by: phoss1 | February 11, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Before I make my comments, I want to say that I believe our public school system is one of our greatest institutions: It is the bedrock of our democracy and has helped many of us reach our potential and enjoy the American Dream. Our citizens are among the world's most accomplished people and the vast majority of these individuals attended public schools. That said, it still is a fact that many of our children do not have access to a quality education. That has to change. Here are some common sense ideas that should help the federal government in its quest to bring equity in education to all Americans:

Listen to the people who have devoted their lifetimes to finding out how to best educate all our children. Experts from our great universities and successful classroom teachers from every state ought to know more than Richy Rich and Polly Politician. Heed expert advice; it's usually free or low-cost.

Put an immediate stop to "Race for the Cash." Charter schools might be a good idea but under no circumstances should the "operators" be allowed to award themselves large salaries at public expense. Charters should be nonprofit and run by successful educators. Salaries should be the same as they are in traditional schools. "Consultants" should be salaried employees of the federal or state governments. Please don't allow another "Reading First" fiasco. Watch opportunities for conflicts of interest very carefully. Some of our smartest entrepreneurs are already poised to pocket quite a lot of Race to the Top money.

Heed the research. When President Obama told his Malia story, he was demonstrating knowledge of many years of research on education. We've known for a long time that successful learning requires a partnership between the school, the student and the parents. There are no shortcuts, so let's stop pretending otherwise. A recognition of this will lead to strategies that we know will work: health care, highly qualified teachers, parent education ("Take time to be a dad.")preschool and so forth. Let's study our successful students and spread the good stuff around.

Finally I'm glad Mr. Duncan is finally listening to educators. If given the opportunity, these dedicated men and women are capable and willing to provide real answers without defrauding the taxpayers.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 11, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

It all sounds so reasonable. I wonder if it will really happen.

Posted by: efavorite | February 11, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

efavorite - it won't. Duncan's crowd is not listening to teachers or academics. The litmus test for admission to current DOE discussion appears to be professed enthuthiasm for using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Posted by: dz159 | February 11, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

A few comments:
1) There is no 100% perfect way to evaluate student achievement in a uniform national program. The standardized test method time and time again reinforces the impact of affluence on achievement.
2) Students in affluent settings consistently outperform and out achieve students in impoverished settings.
3) Every day a student takes a test to prove this is another day that student isn’t learning.
If you want to close achievement gaps in schools, work on closing all of the gaps in society that plague students in urban settings. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Make urban schools well staffed, inviting, safe, and well outfitted like suburban schools.
2) Place a greater policy emphasis on dealing with the five sixths of student lives that are lived outside of the 180 8 hour days students spend in a school. Combat poverty, lack of medical and dental care, unsafe neighborhoods, exclusion from context building non-school based learning activities such as summer camps and museum trips, and legal codes designed to make being born a minority more likely to land in you in jail than in college.
3) Start honoring the American school system’s role in developing the rich and creative nation and economy that we enjoy as Americans. Honor the noble goal we strive for in educating a wider variety of students than any other nation and stop framing the education debate in the context of emergencies, crises, and nations at risk.

Posted by: Mostel26 | February 12, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

To the Forum’s insightful list of ESEA reforms Justice Matters adds strong federal support of community engagement. Quality teachers, critical thinking in classrooms, more meaningful student assessments, must go hand in hand with policies that meaningfully connect parents and other community members to schools. One in five students in public school speak a language other than English at home, one in ten students is an English Language Learner. Today the majority of students in public schools in the country’s West and South are students of color. It’s these students who are being most severely underserved in our schools. The drop-out rate of Latino students hovers around 50%! Yet, in public policy we continually make policies that ignore this race-based reality. To best serve these students we must open our eyes and understand the life and cultural experiences these students bring to the table. This goes beyond celebrating Cinco de Mayo and Black History Month and gets to the basic governance structure of our schools. Hand in hand with the need for high quality teachers we must have a discussion on training teachers from the communities they hope to serve. These teachers bring a great understanding of the experiences of the students and are more likely to stay in the most hard to serve schools. A community centered approach to improving the high drop-out rate of students would have to include a discussion of why it is that African American students are far more likely to receive harsh disciplinary action such as suspension and expulsion in schools. Are these students dropping-out , or are some of them being pushed-out? These discussions, though more complex than their race-neutral policy counterparts, may actually take us to a new place and ultimately be more effective.

Amina Luqman-Dawson is a Senior Policy Strategist at Justice Matters. Justice Matters is Oakland, California based, policy organization dedicated to education policy rooted in community vision.

Posted by: JusticeMatters | February 12, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Greatly needed in this discussion is a means of evaluating and, at times, circumventing many of the other influences in students' lives, particularly the role of television, movies, bad music and advertising (to name but a few of the entities) only interested in making a buck at the expense of vulnerable young people.
Ex: Think a new high school course on media and advertising influence linked with societal implications would be of enormous value in helping young people on the verge of making critical decisions in their soon-to-be adult lives.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 12, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

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