Daniel Katz Wonders: Have We Wasted a Decade?

Daniel Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University.  In a thoughtful piece he asks the question we all ought to find ourselves wondering when we think about the huge battle around policy to address inequality in public schools: Have We Wasted Over a Decade?  I think I know the answer.  How about you?

Katz examines the history of the education wars, dating back to 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s committee published A Nation at Risk that “alleged persistent failures of our education system,” particularly compared to other nations whose students were scoring higher on standardized tests.  Katz suggests that “the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated than the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983.”

Katz points out that international comparisons show that public schools in the United States score far higher than worriers about America’s loss of competitive edge admit—as long as we evaluate those schools in the United States that serve few poor children.  In a study of results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) test, in the United States: “Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore…. At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students and ‘tied’ with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

Katz also examines a report released last winter by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League, The Iceberg  Effect: An International Look at Often Overlooked Education Indicators.  Katz writes, “The report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes. In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers… These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.”  This blog examined the report here.

Katz would agree with the authors of the report that we need to look beneath the tip of the iceberg: “United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.” “‘Test—Label—Punish’ we have crafted a ‘reform’ environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing—except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators….”

Katz continues: “This calls for a fundamental rebalancing—which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children.  As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.”

What can be done?  Katz lists some choices Congress might have made that would have been superior policies to those prescribed by No Child Left Behind: “What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education at at 40% of average cost which has never been done?  What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ and pledged to invest in school capital improvement…? What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?  What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title I schools? What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?”

Katz knows that even these investments would not have entirely equalized educational opportunity.  But we should join him now in advocating for such reforms as these—instead of test-and-punish.

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