How to fix a bad education law
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