Barack Obama's historic victory and Democratic gains in Congress have transformed the political environment, raising hopes for real change in the nation's schools. Our new President's education agenda is ambitious. It includes an increased federal investment in public schools; a vow to "support new, state-of-the-art assessment and accountability systems"; programs to address the dropout crisis, train and reward excellent teachers, fund early-childhood education, and expand college opportunities; a renewed commitment to equal opportunity for "left behind" groups; and a pledge to support bilingual education.
Reform, change, innovation, and other pleasing generalities are in the air and on the lips of the President and his education advisers. Virtually no one on any side of today's policy debates would oppose these goals in principle. But what will the words mean in practice? While it's too soon to tell, the new Administration has sent some troubling signals.
First, it stood silent in response to the Swift-boating of Linda Darling-Hammond,who had headed Obama's transition team on education. A career educator and a widely respected leader in school improvement, Professor Darling-Hammond was smeared as "anti-reform" and a defender of the "status quo." She was ruled out for Secretary of Education and returned to her teaching post at Stanford University.
Since then the "reforms" most often praised by Administration officials have been those espoused by – ironically – the fiercest defenders of current policies, as embodied by the No Child Left Behind Act. Now they hope to extend the test-and-punish approach even further, by advocating:
the firing of "bad teachers" and the closing of "failing schools";
a major expansion of charter schools;
a lengthening of the school day and the school year to enable increased tutoring (i.e., test preparation) for struggling students;
plans to develop "merit pay" systems for teachers based, at least in part, on their students' test scores; and
national standards for student performance, designed to make the successor to NCLB even more rigid and prescriptive.
The common thread here is an almost religious faith in high-stakes testing as the Path to Reform – notwithstanding a lack of evidence for its benefits (and considerable evidence for its perverse effects).
As educators understand – unlike many education policymakers – a single standardized test provides only limited information about a child's learning. So it is irresponsible, to say the least, to rely entirely on these tests to determine the fate of schools, teachers, and kids. Hardly anyone would disagree with the importance of "accountability." But accountability should serve the cause of improving schools, not punishing them. To make informed decisions that benefit children, we need what NCLB utterly fails to provide: a "body of evidence" about student progress that encompasses a wide range of indicators.
What's also missing from federal policy, at least thus far, is any plan to remedy the well-documented causes of underachievement: poverty and its toxic effects, de facto segregation, inadequate health care, poor housing, family instability, and crime-ridden communities. The importance of addressing such factors, rather than simply blaming the schools, was outlined in a statement, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, signed by many of the nation's leading advocates for educational equity.
By all indications, that approach has yet to receive much attention from the Obama Administration. But on May 7, a prominent blame-the-schools lobby, theEducation Equality Project, received the red-carpet treatment at the White House, when President Obama met with its leaders: Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich, and Michael Bloomberg. This group has hailed school reform as the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Unfortunately, its vision of civil rights is a pale shadow of the original concept. The goal of equal educational opportunity has been replaced by the goal of equalizing test scores.
As for No Child Left Behind, the only specific change that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proposed thus far is to rename the law. No doubt this pig could use some new lipstick, but that won't be nearly enough to clean up the mess it has made.
Some advocates for public schools have already expressed their disillusionment with these signals. "Based on what I have seen to date," writes
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