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The Education Reform Movement: Reset Or Redo?

Our guest author today is Dr. Clifford B. Janey, former superintendent for the Newark Public Schools, District of Columbia Public Schools, and Rochester City School District. He is currently a Senior Weismann Fellow at the Bankstreet College of Education in New York City, and a Shanker Institute board member.

For too many students, families, and communities, the high school diploma represents either a dream deferred or a broken contract between citizens and the stewards of America's modern democracy. With the reform movement’s unrelenting focus on testing and its win/lose consequences for students and staff, the high school diploma, which should signify college and work readiness, has lost its value.

Not including the over seven thousand students who drop out of high school daily, the gap between the percentage of those who graduate and their readiness for college success will continue to worsen the social and income inequalities in life. Recent studies report that America has the highest number of people (46.2 million) living in poverty since data collection began in 1959. While poverty and its conditions have been unforgiving, policy makers and education reformers have largely ignored this reality. Rebuttals to this argument are interesting, but, without fundamental change, the predictable growth within the ranks of poverty will continue.

A framework within which solutions will thrive requires a redo of the national reform focus, not merely a reset of existing efforts—including teacher evaluation systems, closing low performing schools (and opening up new ones that are at best marginally better), and increasing the opportunity for mayoral control (which still commands attention but with little assurance of transparency).

In other words, the narrative needs to be about why we test and testing’s relationship to an aligned pre k-16 curriculum for college/work readiness, not about keeping alive some Darwinian rationale for testing. Strategically, making a prek-16 curriculum a welcome national priority for states and school districts becomes the first leg of the new reform stool.

The defense for testing runs the risk, not only of less authentic teaching, but also of the advancement of a school culture in which test prep can become the core value. Moreover, the defense for testing is considerably compromised by the fact that the government burden of proof for its success is so low. As an alternative, at least nineteen states (including Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Louisiana) have been granted waivers from certain testing requirements in exchange for embracing specific national priorities, including rewarding high-performing schools and identifying low-performing schools based on new targets for student outcomes. Such interim measures may rescue some students who would otherwise become graduates unprepared for an impatient high-skills economy. The need for a redo still is the most open question.

Of concern is whether there will be, at the national level, bipartisan support for a less prescriptive reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Early indications suggest an agreement will fall short of the much needed overhaul. What is of greater concern is whether provisions to advance achievement for all students will be compromised by short-sighted, quick-fix interventions, heavy on product brand strategies for school-alone solutions, but light on innovative policies that change the conditions that create income disparities for students and families. The myth about current education strategies in impoverished neighborhoods is that improved performance in some schools is proof enough that it automatically can be done in others. This belief is not supported by the data nor the fact that quality implementation is so difficult to replicate. It is true that some low performing schools have made adequate yearly progress; but the percentage of low performing schools has increased from 38% (2009-2010) to an estimated 48% (2010-2011) according to a December 2011 report by The Center on Education Policy.  In practical terms, almost half of the 100,000 public schools in America have failed to meet their performance targets. The problem is compounded by the insistence of providing bonuses to some teachers, based on snapshots of time of different cohorts. It is not enough to rely upon school-alone improvement strategies when we know the relationship between family income and student performance matters more.

None of these concerns is to suggest that the game is over. The stakes are too high for the millions of children and families whose lives are likely footnoted or engulfed by poverty.  Without a confluence of interests between prek-12 and higher education, shouldn't we be worried? Consider first a change in the widespread coverage of value- added models and the spotty attention given to universal, quality early childhood education. The former is a wave in the reform movement; the latter is reform itself.

State-by-state variation in support for early childhood education directly affects America's quality of life and standing in the world. Among leading countries, early childhood education is at the core of efforts to create a society based on equality of opportunity and an education system etched in excellence. In contrast, accountability in America has become both the means and the ends for quality assurance, largely by rewarding exemplary teachers and casting out those who have been judged not to have met the local standard. In addition, accountability acts as a defense for the invasive testing that has re-normed the culture of schooling. What's too painful to admit, we simply forget or find reason to ignore. Less we forget, No Child Left Behind was due for an overhaul in 2007.

What’s missing is the necessary focus on the second leg of the reconstructed education reform stool: early childhood education.  Each of the 50 states should embrace early childhood education as a long-term solution and continuously provide full funding for it. With only 14% of eligible children (from families furthest below the poverty line) now attending preschool or Headstart, bold proclamations that learning to read will happen by third grade ring hollow. Early childhood education, the anchor of a prek-16 curriculum, acts as an antidote against grade retention and unnecessary placement in special education. More affirmatively, early childhood education acts as a bonding agent for the acquisition of early literacy during child development. Nothing short of a modern day Marshall Plan for quality early childhood education will leverage schools and communities or decode the mystery of finding that right recovery teacher. We need great teachers, but not all can be great. In contrast, a rigorous, engaging, and coherent prek-16 curriculum affords every teacher on the performance continuum the opportunity to excel. Early childhood development influences growth for both students and teachers.

However, a central question remains: how do we improve instruction so that what's taught is progressively learned and that interaction is respected? The intersection of standards, curriculum, and instruction must become seamless to have any relational footing. This is essential because teachers are expected to create classrooms at the highest levels of learning for all of their students.  Right now, with so much emphasis on high stakes testing, it is not uncommon to find items on state tests with little relevance to standards and curriculum.  Indeed, it’s not that uncommon to find students who score high on tests but perform below grade level in the classroom. In some districts, the inverse is true: students with low test scores and honor roll report cards. Sitting on these hot issues invites inattention and promotes systemic inequality, which can only worsen the college/work readiness gap.

School districts preparing to redesign their curriculum must now go beyond the inclusion of traditional elements—scope and sequence, pacing guides, learning activities with print and non-print materials, content and performance standards. Teacher-led and university-supported leadership teams should robustly debate new elements that would reflect a more comprehensive redesigned curriculum, infused in a healthy collaborative environment for professional development that involves teachers as leaders. Some of the new elements recommended by The Leadership and Learning Center include vertical representations of learning outcomes by course and grade, content vocabulary appropriate for each discipline and related to each unit of study, learning progressions, and a curriculum glossary to promote consistency of understanding and coherence of application. Instead of over-relying upon a talent-based theory of change, reform leaders are reminded that school-centric strategies conflict with the reality that individual and family income matter more. Unfortunately, the moral clarity of this argument remains obscured by the white noise resonating in the current reform movement.

If there is no such thing as risk-free leadership in the reformation of American public education, there is such a thing as living with its consequences. For the majority of the 46.2 million seemingly trapped in poverty, their narrative goes beyond unemployment and income inequality. Underneath the floor of poverty are the examples of the ubiquity of obesity, a lowered ceiling of life expectancy, public safety defaulting to managed violence, and the normalization of  "bird caged" families trying to survive in neighborhoods withering in blight.

Not until leaders from all sides of the issue consider these conditions and connect changes in social policy to those in education policy will gains in student achievement become a reliable reference point of college/work readiness. What is compelling about the intersection of social and education policy is not the need for it as the third leg of the new reform stool, but the lack of sensibility to embrace it. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Volume 24, Number 3S) found that the lack of affordable housing in poor urban communities can contribute to family instability, impair individual psychological wellbeing and weaken protection against communicable diseases. How can undernourished children in unstable families, who are routinely moving four or five times in a school year, avoid the cycle of vulnerability that continues to foreshadow academic failure? Let's be clear, even the best of teachers with support from accomplished school leaders would be challenged to reverse this educational scenario in the 48,000 public schools not making adequate yearly progress.

The denial of social/economic consequences will only shatter more students’ dreams. In contrast, an understanding of the need for strategic investments in the 3-legged reform stool will provide less obstructed and more crossable pathways toward social mobility. In an era of “innovation," however, logic models struggle while "new speak" initiatives sparkle. Feelings of despair and disengagement are but some of the emotions students cycle through when, in the name of education reform, experiments grounded only in hope get national attention. There are lots of examples, but one can leave an emotional scar when students are old that they will be paid for good attendance and good grades then, not because of other design flaws, the experiment is deemed to be unsustainable.  Lack of compassion for the poor is only exceeded by the power of privilege of those who legitimate the risks.

The inherent flaw in the reform movement, starting with the mandates of desegregation to the current defense of school choice, is the consistent lack of attention given to the poverty-stricken communities where the students live. If poverty in terms of family income matters on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, does it not matter when it comes to statewide accountability assessments required by No Child Left Behind?  Since the research shows that an income increase of $20,000  is associated with an average score increase of over 12 points on the SAT, why are social policies not meeting education reform strategies at least halfway? There is no better time than now for elected leaders to show their metal by acting upon these class and cultural disparities. Competitive schools "yes"; competitive communities "shush" are the common refrains—one boldly spoken, the other hardly heard.

New visions of cities must include county, state and federal support for access to quality health care, career employment, and affordable housing.  These not at all new measures for elected leaders may not cure low birth weight, cut deeply into the $150 billion costs associated with obesity, or turnaround the structural obligation of state pensions, but they will certainly help weaken the armor of despair. More competitive schools are not a solution to reverse the growth in the more important "income achievement gap," which is twice as large as the "black/white  achievement gap". Competition, a cornerstone of the business model approach to reform, has done little to alter a profit-driven market in which the income achievement gap has flourished.

Finally, let's agree on some fundamentals. First, the current model of education is in default and can not survive on self-approval ratings. Second, avoiding the next "big thing" can weigh heavily on the public not being duped by an education IPO. Parents deserve more than an initial public offering.

Let's also etch in stone that the scales in democracy will not shift until a new vetted vision is accompanied by not only the kind of knowledge and skills of 21st century leaders but their willingness to accept social responsibility for their actions taken to enable others.  If we disagree, let it be on the basis of what we believe and not on what we know. The book of knowledge is open to all and within reach, its lessons may not.

- Dr. Clifford B. Janey


I agree 100% with this. However, one thing that seems to be missing is more of an emphasis on how we go about intervening in the lives of poor families in ways that help them build human capital. Affordable housing was mentioned, but this is a vastly larger project. I like to think of the dynamic of human and societal capital. Societal capital, or an individual's environmental leverage, such as housing, is dynamic in its relation to human capital, an individual's innate leverage. Housing can create or deplete human capital. Poor communities struggle with depleted levels of both forms of capital, often creating an inescapable cycle of social disadvantage. As a teacher, I've seen my share of poor students with low levels of both types of capital. What I would like to see is a public education system that is able to scale up or down according to the needs of the individual child. This would mean spending 2-3x per pupil in one neighborhood as is spent in another. Smaller classes, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc. should all be on hand as option for intervention when needed. Capitalism is always going to create structural disadvantage. Economic segregation is going to create pools of lowered capital, which will self-perpetuate. But through a robust system of equal access to capital-enhancing institutions, we should be able to remediate much of the inequality.

Another intervention that is necessary is health care at early ages. I include in this good nutrition. If we have good pre-K programs, young children might be able to access good food for part of the day. We need to combine essential services in to one stop locations, education, social services, heaalth care, et al. The school could be a community center open many more hours a day than it is now in many communities and many summer months as well.

This is an important piece of writing. It reasserts the value of rational thought in an arena that is howling with ignorant and self-serving voices. If we are ever going to get back on track as a nation, this sort of thinking, particularly when it ties the institutions and the communities they serve together, is vital. Just to read sober, well-thought out thoughts in the public arena is encouraging right now.


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