Questioning 'what works'
This morning I heard a lecture by British education expert Geoff Whitty on the emerging similarities between school reform efforts in the Obama-era United States and the Cameron-era U.K., particularly around the concepts of school choice and accountability. Whitty was critical of policy makers and the media for selectively citing research findings in support of charter schools and — more interestingly and counter-intuitively — for being obsessed with finding “what works” in education and other social policy areas.
The “what works” framework, Whitty argued, tends to privilege attempts to create alternative administrative structures (like charter schools), when in fact, other types of interventions may be equally — if not more — effective.
I’d submit that an alternative question to ask about schools is “What is needed?” There’s a great example of such a research effort underway right now in Newark, N.J., where a grass-roots group called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools is sending parents and community members into each city school to conduct a survey of principals. They’re looking to find out what each school actually needs — from textbooks to smaller class sizes to facility repairs, to better-qualified teachers to additional social workers or substance-abuse counselors.
The goal is to present Mayor Cory Booker with a concrete plan for how to spend the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donation that will flow into the district over the next five years — a plan that will put the focus on the needs of Newark’s neighborhood public schools and the 90 percent of Newark children whom they educate. (Many observers worry that Booker will direct the money mostly toward charter schools, given his long history of advocacy on their behalf.)
“The resources are just not there to run the [existing neighborhood] schools,” said Junius Williams, a civil rights movement veteran and education equality expert, at a community meeting in Newark on Saturday. He mentioned Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts, which have prevented four new school buildings from going up. “The planning is finished, but the governor won’t let the shovels go into the ground."
Dana Goldstein is a contributing writer to the Daily Beast and the Nation, and is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Read more of her work at www.danagoldstein.net.
| November 8, 2010; 3:55 PM ET
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