What Should Pres. Obama Do About Educational Reform?

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Updated 8.2.10 – links added: “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act”; “In the News: More Opposition to Duncan’s Reform Policies: Defending Obama’s Education Agenda”; “Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration’s School Turnaround Policies.” -bbs/js]

The problem that President Obama is having should be addressed. I think he is between a rock and a hard place in his efforts to change the face of education. What do you, our ETCJ readers, writers, and editors, think he should do?

To post your comment, click on the title of this article and scroll down to the comment box. To start the discussion, here are a few documents that you might want to read:

Valerie Strauss, “Obama, Education, Snooki, Civil Rights and Bryan Bass” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 30 July 2010): The president’s “terribly misguided $4.35 billion competitive grant program is, apparently, more important than health care reform, the economic recovery program, improving the student loan program, increasing Pell Grant payouts, and, well, anything else he has accomplished since becoming president.”

Remarks by the President on Education Reform at the National Urban League Centennial Conference, 29 July 2010

Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn Through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (21 July 2010) by Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, National Action Network, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Council for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and Schott Foundation for Public Education. Here’s a brief excerpt from the introduction: “The comments that follow offer critiques of federal efforts that would: distribute resources by competition in the midst of a severe recession; advance experimental proposals dwarfed by the scope of the challenges in low-income communities; and promote ineffective approaches for turning around low-performing schools and education systems.”

[Updates: 8.2.10]

A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (U.S. Department of Education, March 2010)

Cassandra West, “In the News: More Opposition to Duncan’s Reform Policies: Defending Obama’s Education Agenda” (Catalyst, 7.29.10)

Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration’s School Turnaround Policies” (Communities for Excellent Public Schools, 7.28.10)

4 Responses

  1. We should, as a nation, be having this discussion loudly across the land. The competitions announced by Arne Duncan appear to be blatant bribes to further a political agenda that doesn’t even support progressive goals. It includes such concepts as adding more charter schools when no one has proven that they work better than public schools or that the few successful ones use scalable techniques.

    I’d like to see the government putting money, a much smaller amount, into educational entrepreneurship to seek new ways to deliver better, less expensive learning. I’d like to see more help for raising standards for certifying teachers and for improving their salaries. I’d like to see an overhaul of the teacher training process to do what a few have done: focus more on candidates teaching in the classroom and less on book learning of educational theories that may be just passing fads.

    Everyone should demand that our government focus more on results and less on grand PR moves.

  2. [Note 8.2.10: This comment has been republished as an article: Education Reform – A Conspiracy Toward Mediocrity. -js]

    The “Framework” document rightly calls for using proven effective methods of instruction. In recent columns and comments, I have written about this very topic. There have been enough examples of schools that have turned around and made great strides in achievement for us to know what those proven methods are. The mystery is this: why aren’t those methods used in more than occasional instances?

    The reason is that there is a conspiracy toward mediocrity, and using proven methods of excellence shatters that conspiracy, and anyone with the audacity to use these methods faces the wrath of all other members of that conspiracy.

    Let’s look, for example, at what happened in Garfield High School in Los Angeles decades ago. That school-wide effort, celebrated in a movie about one of its teachers (Stand and Deliver), dared to raise academic standards for all students. When it did, the principal had to hold the first parent complaint meetings in the gym, the only room with enough spaces for the number complaining. It takes a lot of courage and support to take that path. When a school with a high minority enrollment and low achievement in my local school district tried a similar, but still relatively weak, approach to improve achievement, the school board and administration caved in at the first glimmer of opposition from the mediocrity conspiracy.

    How does the mediocrity conspiracy work?

    It begins with an assumption that the students do not have the ability to perform at a high level. Once you hold that false assumption, then it is natural to go to the next step–asking people to do what they cannot do is cruel and unfair. If you love these students, as the parents and teachers and administrators do, then you will not do anything that is cruel and unfair to them.

    For their part, the students have been told over and over again that they cannot do high level work, so why should they attempt it? Given the choice between working hard to achieve a passing grade and graduation and doing little or no work to achieve a passing grade and graduation, is it any wonder why so many chose the latter approach?

    I do not think it is a racial problem–it is just that the problem is more noticeable in populations with high minority enrollments. I have had brief involvement with two different “alternative” schools in districts with very low minority populations, and I saw exactly the same thing. In a faculty meeting in one school, I tried to talk about taking steps to improve students achievement, and I was struck by the total disconnect between what I was saying and what they were hearing. “I don’t see how we can possibly do any more to improve students achievement,” said one faculty member. “We have already cut academic standards to the absolute minimum.” To this faculty, raising student performance to meet a standard was inconceivable; to them raising student achievement meant lowering standards enough to get more students to pass.

    State legislators contribute to the conspiracy by passing contradictory laws. They write laws that require schools to have students achieve high standards, penalizing them if they don’t. They pass laws requiring them to to graduate a high percentage of students in exactly four years–even senior year summer school is too late. In some states, testing to see if students meet a high standard ends in the 10th grade. Schools work to meet both goals by doing everything they can to get students through the 10th grade tests and then granting academic credit for anything the student does while noticeably awake before the four year deadline is reached.

    Shattering the mediocrity conspiracy begins with the assumption that all students can perform at a high level if given the right combination of standards, instruction, and support. Once this belief takes hold, it becomes cruel and unfair to adopt instructional practices that hold students back from being all they can be. This requires a conspiracy of the same magnitude as the mediocrity conspiracy, and it especially requires a shattering of deep seated myths about student ability.

  3. This may sound a bit scattered so forgive me in advance. When Obama became President, I was excited to see who he would name to his cabinet post on Education. When he named Arne Duncan, I almost immediately closed the book on my hopes for real educational change. I lived in Chicago during time Obama was a rising star and I can tell you that the city’s public schools were not that spiffy. I believe it was during this time that a scandal arose over the discover of 100’s of computers that were found stored but never ended up in schools. These were bought using the old erate program. So Mr. Duncan to me is no better than any other big city education bureaucrat, a bad choice.

    So what would have been real change? Well I was really excited when the administration was talking to Linda Darling Hammond. Why? It’s because I know her work is on the cutting edge in education. The proof is the pudding so to speak. She is behind hundreds of significant research projects over the past few years. Her research center has some of the best minds in the country. She is a colleague with my mentor John Bransford and combined they have developed innovative ideas for learning, teaching, and schooling based on years of research.

    One of the most innovative ideas that I ever experienced came from Dr. Bransford through a collaboration with experts from economics. The idea is based on models of economic development that have been implemented with success in other countries. In this model, schools become 21st century learning communities. Children come to school with their parents and grand parents. Schools not only offer a basic K12 education but they also offer, job training, healthcare, professional development courses, etc. These are exactly the kinds of services/support needed in low performing or failing schools to help learners become successful at learning and with parental involvement and role modeling. Why is it perfect, it’s because our school’s failures is more than a concept that doesn’t not work in a modern society, it’s that change must go deeper to have any substantial success.

    Then, you ask how might these ideas work in other schools. I think both sides of the political spectrum will agree that too many kids walk around without purpose and without any ideas in their head about what they want to be and do. This can and often does happen after 4 years of college. I think coming out of our secondary system, all learners must go through some form of community service for a period of two years. This would help them learn who they are and what their interests are. Those who are not college bound could continue in the skills and trades where they could be successful and provide a successful home environment while those who are college bound would have the experiences that helps form the interests which would drive their time in college. They would know what they want to do and enter the appropriate majors and related experiences.

    I know that my explanation is a bit scattered but these ideas were generated by innovative people based on well documented research So this was the kind of real change I expected. However, so far, all I have seen is more testing and more accountability measures which do nothing but prove that testing does mean that learners understand and can apply knowledge but they might be able to pass your test.

  4. There isn’t any argument that education in America needs to be improved. Politicians on all sides of the spectrum agree. The discussion is not about whether it should happen but how it should happen. Is the Race for the Top the way to go? I do not think so. It DEMANDS that states raise the cap on how many charter schools they have. There are excellent charter schools and there are terrible charter schools. Just as there are terrible public schools and excellent public schools. Charter schools were supposed to be educational learning laboratories which were benchmarked for best practices. To envision them as the sole universal answer to the ills of American education is as foolish as believing that high stakes testing would, by itself, raise America’s achievement level. All that the testing achieved was to confirm what we already knew – that children of low income families do worse on examinations that children of high income families. It then rewarded high achieving schools and punished low achieving schools. What stupidity.

    If we wish to improve America’s schools, we need to systemically improve all aspects of America’s schooling. We need to improve early childhood education and make it available to every student. We need to level the playing field of school spending so that schools in affluent areas get as much funding as those in the inner cities. If children do not learn the way teachers teach, then teachers need to teach the way students learn. We need to have colleges validate high school degrees by not accepting students who are not prepared to enter college and stop accepting and remediating those who are below college admission standards. We need to have schools of education train teachers with the skills they need and not what the schools of education want to teach. And politicians need to stop coming up with sound bite solutions to highly complex educational problems.

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