President Elect Biden’s Public School Agenda Addresses the Opportunity Gap

A strong supporter of public education will move into the White House on January 20. President Elect Joe Biden has promised to close the Opportunity Gap by investing in public school improvement and pledging to support reform of healthcare and other conditions that worsen economic inequality. There is an important difference between Biden’s saying that we as a society have failed our children by neglecting to pay for educational opportunity and more than two decades of education policy—under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump—that blamed public school educators for failing our children.

Closing the Opportunity Gap is a more ambitious and far more expensive goal than merely blaming and punishing public school teachers for what policymakers have, for decades, called the achievement gap. The Opportunity Gap is defined by the complex web of structural economic and racial inequality in America, not by the failure of teachers to raise test scores quickly. Framing the educational goal as “closing the achievement gap” brought us No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish policies and the Race to the Top which merely punished the schools at the bottom—the schools without adequate property taxing capacity and that serve the poorest children.

President Elect Biden’s focus is funding equity in the public schools themselves instead of creating escapes for a few children out of so-called “failing” schools. For four years we have been listening to Betsy DeVos promote vouchers and every kind of privatized school choice for parents. Before that, we had Arne Duncan promoting charterizing public schools, closing low scoring public schools as a turnaround plan, and evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores.

DeVos sought to privatize; Duncan sought to punish. Biden says he wants to help the public schools improve.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education launched an Opportunity to Learn Campaign to demand that we talk about closing Opportunity Gaps instead of framing public education policy around forcing schools to narrow test score achievement gaps: “The achievement gap between White students and Black and Latino students correlates to the OPPORTUNITY GAP—disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources. For the past two decades, our nation’s leaders have focused on “output” standards and testing to close the achievement gaps that separate different student groups. This only looks at one side of the equation for success. It is essential to hold public officials accountable for “input” standards, assuring that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to the resources they need to have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. If we close the opportunity gap, we can close the achievement gap.”

The research for changing our public education strategy is decades long and very clear. Here are two examples:

In 2016, the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley explained that school reform must address enormous disparities in opportunity among our children:  “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not come close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, (Stanford University’s) Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.’ The irony is that the very problem the law was supposed to fix became worse…. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking. Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities….  Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

A year later, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard testing expert, Daniel Koretz explained why standardized test-based school accountability poses unreasonable expectations because schools cannot, quickly and without support, increase their capacity to overcome widespread inequality: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

In the years when No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were closing so-called “failing” schools or charterizing them or firing their principals or teachers, public economic support for public schools diminished. In 2008, the Great Recession reduced states’ investment in public education as tax revenues collapsed. Even after the recession ended, Tea Party-dominated state legislatures cut taxes further in many states. Finally in 2018 and 2019, the nation’s public school teachers rose up in Red4Ed strikes to show us how Opportunity Gaps had left public schools destitute. Teachers exposed: class sizes of 40 students in Los Angeles; schools everywhere without enough counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses; Chicago schools shutting down school libraries and laying off certified librarians; Oklahoma teachers with paltry salaries quitting and moving across the border to Texas; and teachers paid so little in Oakland that they were unable to afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment within driving distance from their school.

President Elect Joe Biden proposes to address the Educational Opportunity Gap with federal investment: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

His plan would triple Title I funding; fully fund 40 percent of mandated IDEA special education services within a decade; incentivize greater investment by state governments by requiring states without adequate and equitable school funding to match a share of federal funding; provide high quality pre-Kindergarten for impoverished three- and four-year olds; increase the number of counselors, school psychologists, and school nurses; and increase the number of full-service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional families.

If Republicans continue to dominate the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell continues as Senate President, President Biden will struggle to accomplish his Opportunity to Learn agenda.  Advocates for America’s children and for strong public schools must stop framing education policy around closing the achievement gap.  We must demand instead that Congress join with the President to overcome the Opportunity Gap by investing in the nation’s public schools and in other programs to address child poverty.

Will we, as citizens, create the political will to force Congress and the state legislatures to raise the necessary tax revenue?

Has America Decided to Educate Promising Children and Leave the Rest Behind?

In what seems to me the most chilling moment in The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s new book (discussed in yesterday’s post here) about the catastrophic five-year school reform experiment imposed by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Newark, New Jersey’s schools—the moment when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a traditional public school ask Mayor Cory Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building—Booker replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

This is the same book in which a school administrator admits that charters cream the most able children of striving parents and tells Russakoff that 60 percent of Newark’s children are likely to remain in traditional public schools. What Mayor Booker, Governor Christie and philanthropist Zuckerberg are selling is school reform for the purpose of saving some children and leaving many of the most vulnerable behind. Such a school reform philosophy tacitly accepts the idea that our society is incapable of educating all of our children, and because we can’t save all children, we’ll at least try to educate those most likely to succeed.

While there is considerable research pointing to social and educational programs likely to expand opportunity for a mass of our society’s children, a lot of people can’t think beyond limited programs aimed to lift up promising children.  Others cynically doubt school leaders who outline expensive ideas that are far more ambitious.  I worry about the dearth of leaders willing to ask us to find the will to leave no child behind, and I worry more about broad skepticism when strong leaders do propose promising plans.  Have we as a society lost the belief that we can educate all children?

Skepticism persists about Mayor Bill deBlasio’s education plans, despite the successful launch of a major expansion of pre-kindergarten in New York City. Last week the New York Daily News reported, “DeBlasio boosted the Big Apple’s pre-K capacity from 19,000 seats in 2013 to more than 80,000 seats in 2015 by expanding existing programs and funding a slew of new ones.” “Kids from areas with median incomes that are below the city average of $51,865 account for 62% of registrants in the free, full-day programs that kicked off Wednesday.”  Many have urged DeBlasio and Farina to slow down on plans announced earlier this year for the NYC schools significantly to increase the number of full-service Community Schools that set out to support families with services located right at school that can include medical, dental, and mental health clinics; after-school programs; Head Start and Early Head Start; summer enrichment, and parental job training.

As reported by Chalkbeat NY, in a major address last Wednesday, DeBlasio announced more plans for broad improvements in NYC’s public schools, including expanding the number of second-grade reading specialists across the district and ensuring that children in all high schools have access to algebra by ninth grade and advanced courses in science.  Such reforms are urgently needed in New York, for while NYC’s  previous mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized small high schools with more personalized services, a July, 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs exposed shocking deficiencies in many of those small schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science…  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet the (graduation) requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.  The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system, one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.”

Chalkbeat’s article about the new initiatives DeBlasio proposed last week printed a laudatory comment on deBlasio’s announcement from Zakiyah Ansari, an influential parent advocate, but the reporter wonders about the cost—a projected $186 million, and asks: “Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding?  And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers? ‘Those are lovely goals,’ said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, ‘but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.'”

Interestingly, Mayor deBlasio and Carmen Farina’s priorities mirror the recommendations of Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, in a brief published last week by the National Education Policy Center. King Rice’s brief seeks a way to restore the mission of public education articulated by Horace Mann, “the 19th century champion of publicly funded universal education,” who “persuasively reasoned that education is the ‘balance wheel’ of the social structure.  He argued that education should be ‘universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.’ While much progress has been made in establishing a universal education system since Mann spoke those words over 150 years ago, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine his vision—and ultimately our society… Grounded in the erroneous assumption that schools alone can close the achievement gap, NCLB and the policies in its wake have emphasized high stakes test-based accountability, school choice, school reconstitution, and other largely punitive strategies to prompt school improvement.”

To restore Mann’s vision and close gaps in opportunity, King Rice cites research grounding four recommendations:

  • “Policymakers and the general public should recognize the broad goals of education including civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.  Student achievement, while important, is a single narrow indicator…
  • “Policymakers should ensure that all schools have the fundamental educational resources they need to promote student success: effective teachers and principals, appropriate class size, challenging and culturally relevant curriculum and supportive instructional resources, sufficient quality time for learning and development, and up-to-date facilities and a safe environment…
  • “Policymakers should expand the scope of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide wrap around services including nutritional supports, health clinics, parental education, extended learning time, recreational programs, and other services needed to meet the social, physical, cognitive, and economic needs of both students and families.  Expanding the services and resources offered by schools has the potential to dramatically increase their impact…
  • “Policymakers should promote a policy context that is supportive of equal opportunity: use achievement testing for formative rather than high-stakes purposes, avoid policies that allow for school resegregation, and renew the commitment to public education.”

In a piece headlined, DeBlasio’s Plan to Lift Poor Schools Comes with High Costs and Big Political Risks, Kate Taylor of the NY Times points out that Mayor deBlasio framed his education address last week as a moral imperative: “There is a tale of two cities in our schools….  Each and every child, in each and every classroom deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”  In words I will always remember, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson say the same thing several years ago: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Have we become so cynical in America that our default response is to scoff at DeBlasio’s vision as naive and too expensive?  Have we become so unwilling to tax those who can well afford to support public education that we are afraid even to aim for such a vision?

Reduce Poverty and Ensure Equity: The Key to Education Reform Is Not the Common Core

Last week three prominent education and civil rights leaders confronted what has appeared to be a civil rights establishment defense of annual standardized testing as the necessary centerpiece of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act.  John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Pedro Noguera of New York University, and Judith Browne Dianis, director of Advancement Project—a national racial justice organization, published an op-ed in The Hill in which they declared: “In recent weeks, a few national civil rights organizations including the National Council of La Raza, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League have vocally opposed efforts to highlight the dangers of high stakes testing by students and parents opting out of annual assessments.  United under the banner of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, these groups are urging parents to comply with annual testing requirements.  We strongly disagree with their position.”

Jackson, Noguera, and Browne Dianis call Congress to focus the reauthorization of the federal education law on eliminating the opportunity gaps that federal policy in education was originally designed to address: “We now know students cannot be tested out of poverty….”  “We should all remember that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty.  The measure was designed to compensate for disadvantages in learning opportunities between low-income and middle-class children.  While it was never adequately funded, ESEA was envisioned as an ‘anti-poverty’ bill.”  “Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

In his commentary for the Education Opportunity Network last week, Jeff Bryant proclaims the same theme in, Dumb Arguments About the Common Core Distract from What Matters Most.  Bryant writes: “While it’s refreshing to see K-12 education become a prominent issue in the very early stages of the 2016 election campaigns, it’s unfortunate to see support for the Common Core—the contentious new standards adopted by most states—become the focus of the debate… For sure, inequity is a problem—if not the problem—in American schools.  Inequities related to students’ race, ability levels, English language proficiency, and income characterize nearly every aspect of the outputs and inputs of the system.  The achievement gap between white students and their black and brown peers has been at the center of education policy discussion for years.  Students with learning disabilities experience a similar gap when compared with their mainstream peers.  Racial discrimination also plagues school discipline policies resulting in black and brown students disproportionally being targeted for punishments, expulsions, and push-out into a school to prison pipeline.  And many states discriminate against students on the basis of income by giving richer school districts more money than poorer ones.”

Suggesting that Democrats running for office should focus on other educational issues instead of the Common Core, Bryant writes: “If Democrats want to present real arguments for education equity, they should propose what the federal government should do about the 23 states who give richer school districts more money than poorer ones.  They should call for measures to ensure the federal government fulfills its original promise to fund 40 percent of special education services (it has historically provided only 18.5 percent or less).  They should explain how a federal administration rededicated to equity would intervene in the twin crises of black males and females being pushed out of education into the criminal justice system. They should propose plans for federal support of community schools that can provide the range of education, health, counseling, and cultural services needed in communities traumatized by poverty.”

I urge you to read both articles carefully (here and here) and circulate them.

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education Urges Cuomo to Invest in Public School Equity

These days, by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization, politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the very real problems that affect achievement at school—problems of child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in state budgets.   This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia.

But nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking school teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

In his State of the State address today Governor Cuomo, who just won a second term as Governor, is scheduled formally to announce his priorities for 2015, including his plans for public education.  Here is how the NY Times describes the lead-up to Cuomo’s scheduled speech: “In speeches, interviews and a letter over the last few weeks, the governor has said that he thinks New York State’s teacher grading system, only in its third year, is too easy to pass, making it too difficult to fire underperforming teachers. He has suggested that a current limit on the number of charter schools needs to be raised or eliminated. He has also expressed support for a tax credit for people and companies donating money to public schools and private school scholarships.  All of those positions are opposed by the teachers’ unions, and they, along with advocates of charter schools and other groups that back those changes, have already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars this month to television advertisements in New York City and Albany, leading up to Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State speech….”

Last week the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), in collaboration with the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action, released Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, a report that accuses Governor Cuomo, through the budgets he has signed, of widening the gap in investment between wealthy and poor school districts, despite a promise at the beginning of his first term to make school funding more equitable.

AQE reports that as the centerpiece of the remedy in a 2006 ruling in the school funding equity lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. New York (CFE), the state agreed to add $5.5 billion in new Foundation Aid over the next four years.  The state honored its commitment in  2007 and 2008 but between 2009 and 2013,  the state froze funding and cut school aid.  Inadequate state budgets resulted in the loss of almost 40,000 educators and other staff and in widespread reductions in curricular offerings in New York’s poorest school districts.

While as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.  There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”  Despite these words, according to the new AQE report, during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history.  Tragically the money that was promised in 2007 to keep closing this gap was only delivered for two years and then Governor Cuomo led the legislature to stop funding CFE and the gap widened again.”

Examining one measure of unequal outcomes for students in poor and wealthy districts, AQE tracks high school graduation and notes that from 2005 to 2014, the disparity in graduation rates between the poorest and the wealthiest school districts has hovered consistently between 25 percent and 27 percent. AQE declares, “While there are many factors that contribute to unequal outcomes—particularly the contrasting impacts of poverty and wealth on every aspect of children’s lives—educational resources are the essential ingredients schools provide to close the gap in educational outcomes.  These resources include pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum including art, music and physical education as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, mentoring and supports to strengthen teachers, programs for English language learners, and social, emotional and health supports to meet the diverse needs of students.”

AQE recommends that Governor Cuomo and the state of New York improve public schools through five measures: fulfill the commitment to universal full-day pre-kindergarten; make a serious commitment to community schools; focus on high quality curriculum for all students, not testing; meet the needs of English language learners; and close the inequality gap by fully funding schools. The report concludes: “New York’s wealthiest districts are able to offer tremendous curricula with course offerings that include Tournament Debate, Advanced Placement Art History, Advanced Placement Chinese, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Wall Street: How to Become a Millionaire, and Personal Law (complete with mock trials).  These same districts often offer dozens of options in arts, music and performing arts.  Meanwhile students in poor communities are fortunate to have a few options for AP courses, are lucky to have more than one foreign language offered, and have seen cutbacks in their limited offerings of art, music, and high school electives.”

The battle over educational equity in New York is a microcosm of what is happening across many states and at the federal level as Congress debates a strategy to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.  In New York the battle lines are clearly drawn. Should our society strengthen opportunity by investing in improving the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of our children?  Or should we pretend, as Governor Cuomo seems to do, that we can base education policy on making tougher the evaluation of teachers and creating more charter schools so that some children can escape?

Mike Rose: “How do we begin to bridge the gulf between the poor and the rest of society?”

This blog will be on vacation for this holiday week.  There will be a new post next Monday, December 1.

During this week of Thanksgiving, I urge you to read and reflect on a new piece recently posted by Mike Rose, an education writer for whom I am thankful.  Rose is a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA.  He is also the author of some wonderful books that include—on the subject of teaching and education—Lives On the Boundary, Possible Lives, Why School?, and Back to School.

Rose has recently posted an interview from the fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Rose’s topic: Seeing the Invisible Poor. The interview explores the issues in a new 12th chapter, “The Inner Life of the Poor,” that Rose added to the revised and expanded 2014 edition of his classic, Why School?.

Here is a taste of what Rose tells The Hedgehog Review:

“There are at least forty-five million people in the United States living at or below the poverty line.  But they are close to absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the socioeconomic status index—or as a negative generalization…  Neither the abstractions nor the generalizations give us actual people trying to live their lives as best they can.”

“I think our separation, our increasing economic segregation, contributes…. With segregation comes ignorance and apprehension.  Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others.  If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate.  And it’s from those attributions we develop both our personal and public-policy responses to poverty.”

“Poverty represents a society’s moral and civic failure.  It also constricts our collective intelligence and creativity as so many people’s potential is squelched.  Thank goodness the notion of an ‘opportunity gap’ is finally making its way into public discussion.”

As always, Mike Rose is grounded and thoughtful.  Take a moment during this busy holiday week to read and think about his post, Seeing the Invisible Poor.

Good wishes for Thanksgiving!

Ravitch: Let’s Try “No Child Left Out”

Recently I found myself at a meeting where the discussion starter was the first half hour of a wonderful video that was made here in Ohio about twenty years ago: Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers.  The DeRolph school funding lawsuit was at the time making its way through Ohio’s court system, and the film portrayed the outrageous disparities in Ohio’s school facilities—that ranged from deplorable buildings covered in coal dust in Appalachian small towns to leaky buildings in the inner cities of Columbus and Cleveland to the gorgeous new school campus out in Perry, where a nuclear power plant had just come on-line to explode the value of the tax base.  Watching this old film was an emotional experience for me because I know many of the dedicated educators who appeared including some who are now gone.

But the other thing about the film that affected me is the irony.  The DeRolph lawsuit made its way through our courts, and the Ohio Supreme Court found our school funding unconstitutional four times; but the last time, the elected court had now become dominated by a different political party, and the court released jurisdiction in the case.  Our legislature was never made to reform our funding system.  The film and the DeRolph litigators did accomplish one goal, however.  Money was invested in school facilities.  That one inequity has now been addressed in Ohio.

In one of the film’s memorable scenes, a stalwart music teacher leads a school orchestra rehearsal—string instruments and classical music, I think—in a rural high school where the music room is directly under the gymnasium and where the basketball team is practicing at the same time.  The cameraman stood somehow on the stairway and let the camera catch both activities happening simultaneously.  As we hear the music,  we watch the ceiling of the band room shake and feel the blows as the athletes’ feet hit the floor and the basketball bounces.  Today here in Ohio the facilities would be better, but the school would likely not have a music program.  Cuts in state funding in recent years would likely have left the district without elementary school instrumental music, which means that even if the high school tried to have a complete band or orchestra, not enough children would have learned to play the instruments needed to make up a full ensemble.  And the pressure to raise test scores in the required language arts and math would likely have reduced the time for music and art.

I thought about the film—which was made years prior to the (2002) No Child Left Behind Act and the (2009) Race to the Top—as I read Diane Ravitch’s profound blog post yesterday, My New Paradigm for Accountability.  Ravitch says she wrote the post after watching the band play at Southold Elementary School on Long Island.

About America’s school accountability laws—that all came in the decade between 2000 and 2010—Ravitch writes, “We did not leave no child behind.  The same children who were left behind in 2001-2002 are still left behind.  Similarly, Race to the Top is a flop….  RTTT has hurt children, demoralized teachers, closed community schools, fragmented communities, increased privatization, and doubled down on testing.”

Her new plan, she writes, would be called No Child Left Out.  It would hold schools accountable for expanding opportunity instead of raising test scores.  In fact Ravitch would simply eliminate standardized testing.  But to please our society that worships counting and measuring, she would continue to count—how many children learn to play an instrument, become part of the band, sing in an ensemble, perform in a play, make a video, do a science experiment, design a robot, write a story, investigate a subject and write a research report.  Her list goes on, and she  writes, “Setting expectations in the arts, in literature, in science, in history, and in civics can change the nature of schooling.  It would require far more work and self-discipline than test prep for a test that is soon forgotten.”

I am certain that Ravitch’s blog post will be dismissed by the advocates of metrics-driven, test-based accountability, but I agree with her that the  “paradigm would dramatically change schools from Gradgrind academies to halls of joy and inspiration.”

Her plan is radical in another way.  If states were to be held accountable by the federal government for actually creating schools that brought opportunity for all, state governments would have to figure out a way to invest more in enriching educational experiences for children in poverty—the children who attended school in Appalachian coal bins and urban schools with leaking roofs back when Bill Moyers made the film Children in America’s Schools.  Restoring the arts and music and libraries filled with enticing books, expanding and deepening academic course offerings, and hiring enough teachers to ensure that all children have a personal connection to an adult would be a lot more expensive than merely making school buildings safe and dry.

School opportunity in the poorest communities would no longer be conceptualized as getting savvy parents to fight their way into a charter school lottery.  The responsibility would be on voters and the politicians they elect to spend some money on programs to enlarge opportunity for all of the children who desperately need a chance.  I always like to quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson on this particular topic, because I believe he is very clear about what we ought to be striving for:  “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  “Lift from the bottom” is what Diane Ravitch is advocating in her very profound little blog post.  We would all have to be responsible for doing the lifting.

Major Civil Rights Organizations Come Together to Demand Closing of Public School Opportunity Gaps

Eleven of our nation’s most prominent national civil rights organizations released a strong statement on Tuesday to support new investments in the public schools, the institution these groups call “the backbone of our democracy.”  The statement is a rejection of the test-and-punish strategies that have dominated federal and state policies around public schools for over a decade.

The statement’s authors are Advancement Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and  Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the National Council on Educating Black Children, the National Indian Education Association, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  It is noteworthy that these organizations—which have not always been able to agree on public education strategies—have now come together to insist on the urgent need for improving the public schools that serve the majority of children represented among their constituents.

The statement, sent to the President, the Secretary of Education and leaders in Congress emphasizes: “The current educational accountability system has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students….  This particularly impacts under-resourced schools that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color.  In our highly inequitable system of education, accountability is not currently designed to ensure students will experience diverse and integrated classrooms with the necessary resources for learning and support for excellent teaching in all schools.  It is time to end the advancement of policies and ideas that largely omit the critical supports and services necessary for children and families to access equal educational opportunity…”

Criticizing the overly punitive policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, these civil rights organizations urge policy makers to “strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate student success.”  Accountability must be expanded to monitor resource inputs as well as outcomes and “should evaluate the extent to which productive learning conditions are in effect for all students in each school…”  Federal, state, and local accountability should be expanded to cover (1) equity of resource opportunities including funding and access to instructional materials, technology and facilities and considering students’ needs based on poverty, and culture/language learning needs; (2) access to high-quality curricula and enrichment; (3) individualized services that build upon children’s specific cultural and linguistic assets; (4) qualified, certified, competent, and racially and culturally diverse teachers, principals and other education professionals and including ongoing professional development; and (5) adequate and equitably distributed social, emotional, nutritional and health services.

In the midst of the punitive accountability strategies of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s competitive programs that prescribe radical turnaround programs that fire staff, close schools, and encourage privatization, the civil rights organizations endorsing the new declaration advocate improving traditional  public schools in the communities that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children.  “Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools.  Second language learners whose first language is not English now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide, and students living in poverty represent virtually half of all U.S. public school students.”  “On behalf of millions of students and families, and civil rights organizations, communities of color, and organizations that reflect the new, diverse majority in public education, we write urging implementation of a set of strong recommendations for advancing opportunity and supporting school integration, equity, and improved accountability within our nation’s systems of public education.”

Senators Sherrod Brown (OH) and Jack Reed (RI) and OH Rep. Marcia Fudge Introduce Bill to Equalize School Resources

As a citizen of Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, I am proud to congratulate and thank our Senator Sherrod Brown and my Congressional Representative Marcia Fudge for stepping out to provide leadership in the struggle to equalize educational opportunity.  For too long Congress has gone along with the conventional wisdom that has demanded accountability for educational outcomes—higher test scores—without demanding that states equalize provision of the resources necessary to support students and teachers in school districts where poverty is concentrated and schools lack adequate programs and support for children.

For too long it has merely been accepted that the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities where poverty is highly concentrated must be shaped up not through the kind of investment the rest of us take for granted, but instead by punishing them and their teachers for failure.  The editorial board of the Rethinking Schools magazine has decried this sort of thinking by declaring that school “reform”based on ranking schools by high stakes tests disguises class and race-based privilege as merit.  Wealthy and homogeneous suburban school districts—able to fund themselves by taxing their own property wealth—thrive, while schools in big cities are closed and privatized at the same time they are being starved of funds by their state legislatures.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has joined Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed to co-sponsor the Core Opportunity Resources for Equity and Excellence (CORE) Act in the Senate.  Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge has introduced companion legislation in the House.  Introduction of the CORE Act will require Congress to discuss and consider the necessity of closing opportunity gaps as a first step to closing test-score achievement gaps.  According to the press release describing the bill:  “The bill aims to tackle existing disparities in public education by establishing accountability requirements that compel states and school districts to give all students equitable access to the resources necessary to achieve college and career readiness by high school graduation.”  The law would amend Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965.

The CORE Act would disqualify any state from applying for federal competitive grant programs operated by the U.S. Department of Education under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act if the  state’s accountability system does not require and measure fair and equitable access to core resources for learning and provide a plan to identify and address inequities.  The state must also demonstrate that it is making annual progress in eliminating disparities; if it fails to make progress for two or more consecutive years, the state would be barred from applying for federal competitive funds.  The CORE Act would also require states to comply “with any final Federal or State court order in any matter concerning the adequacy or equitableness of the state’s public school system.”

The CORE Act enumerates resources states would be required to provide for all public school students and requires that states report annually to the U.S. Department of Education to identify school districts and schools where inequities remain and the measures that would be taken to address them.  Resources states would need to provide for all students include:

  • High quality instructional teams including licensed teachers, principals, librarians, and counselors;
  • Rigorous academic standards and curricula accessible to all students including those learning English or who have disabilities;
  • Instructionaly appropriate class size, equitably provided;
  • Up-to-date instruction including technology;
  • Effective school libraries;
  • Environmentally sound facilities and well-equipped learning settings that include technology;
  • Teams of support staff that include counselors, social workers, nurses, and other necessary, well-qualified professionals; and
  • Effective programs for family and community engagement.

Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond commented on the importance of this bill: “The CORE Act is an important advance…. We cannot expect students to meet common high standards if they do not have in common excellent teaching, equitable curricula, and adequate support.  This bill begins to close the opportunity gap that creates the achievement gap.”