Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Economic Inequality and Opportunity to Learn

By Michael Holzman, Schott Foundation for Public Education

The Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Dr. Benjamin S. Bernanke, said in a recent interview that rising economic inequality in the United States is “a very bad development . . . It’s creating two societies. And it’s based very much, I think, on educational differences . . . If you’re a college graduate, unemployment is 5 percent. If you’re a high school graduate, it’s 10 percent or more. It’s a very big difference” (New York Times, December 5, 2010).

Employment, as Chairman Bernanke pointed out, and consequently income and wealth, is highly correlated with education. Americans tell our census takers that 30% of White adults 25 years of age or older have finished college, as compared to 18% of Black adults and 13% of Hispanic adults. It is twice as likely that a White, non-Hispanic, adult will have finished college as a Black or Hispanic adult. The Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn study has shown that those ratios begin at the k-12 level, where it is twice as likely that a White, non-Hispanic student will be in a good school as a Black or Hispanic student.

Half a chance in school leads to half a chance to graduate from college leads to twice the unemployment rate.

Two societies: The top ten percent of US wage earners received half the total non-capital-gains income in 2007. Disparities are even more extreme for wealth: In 2007 the wealthiest 1% of households owned 35% of all privately held wealth while the bottom 80% held only 15%. America being what it is, these inequities manifest by race and ethnicity. While the median annual household income in 2006 for White, non-Hispanic families was $50,000, for Black families was $30,000 and for Hispanic families was $35,000. Again, the situation is more extreme for wealth: Median household net worth (including the value of homes) in 2007 was $144,000 for White families and $9,000 for Black and Hispanic families. Excluding the value of homes, median household net worth was $44,000 for White families and negligible for Black and Hispanic families (Deohoff, 2010).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Education policies pushing Black males out of schools at ever-increasing rates

By Dr. Pedro Noguera, New York University
Guest blogger Dr. Pedro Noguera is the Director of the Center for the Urban Education at The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education &  Human Development at New York University. He is a professor of sociology and education, the author of City Schools and the American Dream, and a Research Advisor to the NYC Black Male Donor Collaborative.

Across the nation, alarming numbers of Black males, particularly those from low-income inner-city neighborhoods, are dropping out of schools in record numbers.  According to national reports , graduation rates for Black males hover between 38% and 42%.  Even in cities like New York and Atlanta where graduation rates have increased, graduation rates for Black males have largely remained stagnant. From 1973 to 1977 there was a steady increase in African-American male enrollment in college; however, since 1977 there has been a sharp and continuous decline. The problem is so pervasive and intractable that a growing number of policy makers and commentators have described the Black male dropout problem as a crisis.

Closer analysis of the drop out crisis reveals that it is actually a symptom of a much larger problem. On every performance indicator related to academic success—performance on standardized tests, grades, college entrance exams, etc.—Black males are under-represented, and on those indicators related to failure they are overwhelmingly over-represented. Nationally, Black males are more likely than any other group to be suspended and expelled from school. Black males are also more likely to be classified as mentally retarded or to be identified as learning disabled and placed in special education. They are also more likely to be absent from gifted and talented programs and advanced placement and honors courses. In contrast to most other groups, where males commonly perform at higher levels in math and science related courses, the reverse is true for Black males.

The educational challenges confronting Black males profoundly influence the types of opportunities that are available to them later in life. Today, Black males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are the only segment of the population with larger numbers in prison than in college; they are also the only segment of the US population with a declining life expectancy.

Given the broad array of challenges confronting Black males, it is essential that we begin to find ways to increase the number of Black males who are succeeding in school and who are able to avoid the pitfalls and hardships that beset so many others.

For the last few years the Schott Foundation has emerged as a leader in drawing attention to the educational challenges confronting Black males.  Now it is stepping forward to lead the way to create an Interactive Black Boys Report that will serve as a tool for policy makers and educators to take action.  

Bernanke:Educational Differences,Two Societies

Greg Jobin-Leeds is Chair of the Board of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and is Founding Partner of the Partnership for Democracy and Education
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is certainly correct when he states that educational differences contribute to the U.S. having the biggest income disparity gap of all industrialized nations.  While he overlooks the fundamental and critical issue of economic inequality, he is correct about the relationship between educational disparities and economic opportunity.  Education does have the potential to be an equalizing economic force. 
To be clear, there are other than economic reasons to be concerned about the education disparities that disadvantage low-income children and children of color -- as Americans and as humans we consider access to a sound and equitable education as part of the bedrock of our democratic society.  It is one of the values that we hold dear – to provide our children, all children, with an opportunity to go to a school where they can blossom into healthy self-sustaining young adults and members of our society. 
And it is important to view education as one of the key pillars of our economy.  Increased education opportunities like access to high quality preschool and to teachers who have been supported with professional development lead to higher student educational attainment.  This leads to higher employment and jobs with higher income which means increased tax revenues which, in turn, means more money for more opportunities in schools.   
Recently, I visited with the teachers and students at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx.  These caring and talented young teachers and the principal were pleading for coaching and teacher training programs that were being dropped due to funding cuts.  The art teachers worked very hard but had few materials, and while youth obesity rates are growing students had no access to a gym.
My own school growing up in nearby Great Neck, like many wealthy suburban schools, had a gorgeous gym and access to the middle school down the street which had a pool. 
This contrast exemplifies the two societies currently in America.  One set of schools for upper middle-class and wealthy children that provides the opportunity to learn that the teachers, administrators, and Bernanke call for.  And another set of schools for the majority that doesn’t provide an opportunity to learn.
How can we, as a society, ask our energetic healthy kids to go to schools without supplies or gyms?  How can we ask our young teachers to teach their best without adequate coaching, space, or materials?  The increasing reality in much of our country is that teachers are losing their professional development opportunities and art and athletics programs are being cut as state budgets are slashed.  And it's going to get much worse over the long term as state revenues fall because of a shrinking tax (employment) base and, if the current tax cut proposal passes Congress, decreased tax contributions from the wealthiest 2%.

Why do state revenues fall when the need for education is so high and when the chairman of the Federal Bank says it is so important?  One reason is that taxes are increasingly used to benefit the wealthy as tax rates for the wealthiest fall and lobbyists steer government budgets to welfare programs for the rich. 

The vast majority of Americans support increased taxes -- especially for the wealthiest 2% -- when revenues are used for programs such as public education, health and safety, and essential services like the fire department.  

Yet the country’s current economic design (more and more “the free market”)  makes it so that we are not supporting our schools and communities with the basics students need to have an opportunity to learn.  Due to educational research we know that dollars invested in high-quality preschool leads to higher incomes later in life. We also know that dollars invested in teacher recruitment, retention, training (so they can develop the art and science of their craft) result in higher student achievement which would help break down our two-tiered society and lead to fuller employment.

Yet, ironically, on the same day that Bernanke is saying our two-tiered economy is very much based on differences in our education system his boss President Obama joined with the greediest big corporate owners, investors, and politicians to extend tax cuts for themselves and the minority of Americans making more than $250,000 per year.  These tax cuts will require us as a society to cut many school programs of the future as well as many other essential public services such as health programs for children, the elderly, and the disabled.

Many millionaires (who call themselves Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Sustainability) disagree with tax cuts for millionaires, as do many of the working and middle class, and propose instead that the tax cuts should be just for those making $250,000 and less.

During the recent financial crises Obama and Bernanke were able to get billions of dollars for the big banks and Wall Street investment firms.  Now, with all 50 states and the national education system in a deepening crisis, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asks for relatively meager band-aid sums that most parents and educators know is insufficient.  Instead of calling for funding for internationally and nationally proven techniques like universal preschool and teacher development, the President and his Secretary of Education call for ‘free-market’ based charters and merit pay, which recent research has proven have little grounding in long-term success, yet appeal to the big hedge fund campaign donors, investment bankers, and to parents desperate to try anything new.  But while they create little positive change, they also cost very little.

Our democratic society and our economy cannot afford cuts to our children’s education.  We cannot afford the unequal society that jeopardizes both our children’s and our nation’s future. We must as a nation forge systemic reforms that provide the opportunities that will lead to educational success for all students.

Monday, November 29, 2010

After Class -- Commentary: November 23, 2010

November 23, 2010
By Scott Stephens
Catalyst Ohio

The Council of the Great City Schools issued a report earlier this month warning that the performance level of black male students in America's schools is a national catastrophe.

Among the report’s sobering findings: Some 50 percent of black male fourth-graders attending urban schools were performing below basic. One out of three black children live in poverty compared to one in 10 white children. Black males were nearly twice as likely as white males to drop out of high schools.

Ohio's not immune to those depressing numbers. But new numbers suggest the Governor's Initiative for Raising the Graduation Rate, a statewide program launched in 2007, is actually having remarkable success in erasing them.

The initiative, created by former Sen. C.J. Prentiss, was designed to lower the dropout rates of high-risk freshmen students in urban and rural high schools with the highest dropout rates. The kids were identified as “at-risk” because they failed two or more classes in core subjects during the eighth grade, were absent 36 or more school days, were suspended from school for five days or more, or were overage for their grade.

The students are given a mentor with whom they have daily contact. They also participate in field trips and other activities – a visit to a college campus, for example – that are beyond their normal realm of experience.

The early results of the program were promising. The promotion rate for black male freshmen at each of the 12 participating high schools in Cleveland rose the first year, in some cases by outstanding percentages. At John F. Kennedy High School, for instance, the promotion rate improved more than 56 percentage points in one year. At East High School, it improved nearly 36 percentage points. At Glenville High School, the improvement was some 23 percentage points.

Now, many of those freshmen who participated in the program are getting ready to graduate. I'm told that at John F. Kennedy, seven of the top-10 graduating seniors next spring are African-American males who participated in the program. In fact, some 77 percent of the kids who started the program in Cleveland are on track to graduate this spring – remarkable because the participants, by definition, were students likely to drop out.

"There's definitely proof positive that the governor and C.J. were right on the money," says Bob Ivory, former linkage coordinator for the program at JFK. 

A 2009 report by Policy Matters Ohio tracked the program's progress and concluded its cost-benefit is considerable. Students who complete their high school education go on to college and jobs. Too many who don't go to prison.

I think the Ohio initiative works because it addresses poverty rather than pedagogy. The Great Society programs of the 1960s that helped reduce the income gap between rich and poor Americans actually helped close the achievement gap in education. In 1975, the percentage of white, black and Latino kids who went to college was equal. That all started to fall apart when those programs were dismantled in the 1980s.

“Had we stayed on track, we would have actually erased the achievement gap,” Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond said recently.

It's not too late to stay on track with Ohio's initiative. Rarely does a program enjoy such dramatic success so quickly.


Speculation continues to swirl around the fate of Ohio's $400 million Race to the Top grant.

Federal officials have warned states they risk losing their grants if they stray too far from the plans they submitted. That became a worry in Ohio after governor-elect John Kasich vowed to scrap Gov. Ted Strickland's evidence-based education funding model – the mechanism for achieving the state's Race to the Top goals.

But on Monday, state education officials told the Board of Control they were confident they'd be able to implement Race to the Top regardless of what mechanism the state uses to fund education. However, Assistant State Superintendent Michael Sawyer said the feds want Ohio to put together a “transition plan” that will detail how the state plans to achieve Race to the Top goals under new state leadership.

The board on Monday approved a request to create appropriation authority of the Ohio Department of Education to spend the first $100 million of the grant.

Stay tuned.

“Children are the innocent victims of a very bad economy and a tough time.” -- Lorain schools Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson on the defeat of her district's levy. Lorain hasn't had a new operating levy in 20 years. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What other countries are really doing in education

By Valerie Strauss
The Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post
November 2, 2010
My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, part of the Whole Child Initiative at ASCD, an educational leadership organization.

By Sean Slade

Are we moving forward or chasing our own tail?

As the education reform debate continues – and is fueled by educational documentaries, educational forums and manifestos - let’s take a moment to look at what these countries that we are propping up on a pedestal actually do.

For a while now we have been told that the United States is falling behind and that we must catch-up. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last Aug. 25:

Today, there are many different approaches to strengthening the teaching profession -- both here in America and in countries that are outperforming us such as Finland and Singapore.
Our competitors in other parts of the world recognize that the roles of teachers are changing. Today, they are expected to prepare knowledge workers, not factory workers, and to help every child succeed, not just the [ones who are] easy to teach.

If this is our goal then – to catch up with the rest of world - how do we get there? A logical step would be to at least look closely at educational underpinnings of the countries most commonly cited - Singapore, Finland and Canada - and replicate. 

Let’s take a quick look at what these countries are actually doing:


Prime Minister Lee of Singapore (Aug. 29, 2010): 

"I think we should do more to nurture the whole child, develop their physical robustness, enhance their creativity, shape their personal and cultural and social identity, so that they are fit, they are confident, they are imaginative and they know who they are.

"Every child is different, every child has his own interests, his own academic inclinations and aptitudes and our aim should be to provide him with a good education that suits him, one which enables him to achieve his potential and build on his strengths and talents. Talent means talent in many dimensions, not just academic talent but in arts, in music, in sports, in creative activities, in physical activities.

"We need to pay more attention to PE, to arts and music and get teachers who are qualified to teach PE and art and music. 

"Give each one a tailored and holistic upbringing, so you get academic education, moral education, physical education, art and a sense of belonging and identity. We aim to build a mountain range with many tall peaks but with a high base, not just a single pinnacle where everybody is trying to scramble up one single peak. And we are realizing this vision."


Timo Lankinen, Director-General, Finnish National Board of Education (Sept. 13, 2010):

"We are not actually talking a lot about numeracy or literacy, the agenda for change is more about increase of the arts and physical education into curriculum, and the highlight of 21st century skills or as we call them citizen skills.
"We have relatively small class sizes so there is the possibility to individualize that attention for each children (sic) ability to personalize ... but we have questions to ask ourselves, do we enable teachers and students to flourish enough, for example giving them individual aspirations, and engaging students so that there will be more experiential learning.

"Looking at basic education and success in PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] results, we have to bear in mind that children also participate in early childhood education ... which is mainly through play and interaction.

"We will be great when every student and stakeholder says for example ‘I love school’ and ‘I’m doing well in school’ – so it’s not only the subject knowledge we are seeking after."


Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, Canada, Sept. 13, 2010:

"It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, it doesn’t matter how much you want change -- you won’t get results unless you enlist your teachers in the cause of better education.

"We have worked hard to build a positive, working relationship with our teachers. We do not engage in inflammatory rhetoric. We do not use our teachers as a political punching bag. Public bickering undermines public confidence. 

"Policy development and implementation happen in dialogue with our education partners.

"We don’t always agree, but I am reminded of some of the best political advice I ever received. I got it from my mother, on my wedding day, she said: 'Whatever happens, keep talking.'

"So we keep talking to our teachers. I make it clear to them, and all our education partners, that our pursuit of improvement will be relentless. And there is no place to hide."

To summarize:

*More emphasis on the whole child, physical education, the arts, fostering talents and citizen skills.

*Less emphasis on numeracy and literacy or testing

*Greater respect for teachers, the profession and their role as partners in educational reform.

I wonder if these people would be interested in putting together a manifesto?

Friday, October 1, 2010

The strange media coverage of Obama's education policies

by Valerie Strauss
The Answer Sheet blog, Washington Post
September 30, 2010

NBC News president Steve Capus said that his network’s Education Nation summit this week -- a multi-day affair that included interviews with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- would be a fair, serious look at public education today.

It wasn’t even close.

The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama's school reform agenda -- focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It gave short shrift to the enormous backlash against the plan from educators and parents around the country who say that Obama's education priorities won't improve schools but will narrow curriculum and drive good teachers out of the profession.

NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama’s education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic. It was a forum for people to repeatedly misstate the positions of their opponents.

The one school district that was the subject of a panel was New Orleans, which was remade after Hurricane Katrina with public charter schools. (Never mind that charter schools educate less than five percent of the schoolchildren in the country and can never be a systemic solution to the troubles that ail urban districts.)

A panel on innovation was packed with charter school folks, sending a message that only charter schools are innovative, which they, by and large, are not.

Before Education Nation's televised panels, some participants in New York were treated to a screening of the movie "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that significantly skews the reality of public education. It, for example, blames teachers unions for failing schools, without noting that the problems remain the same in non-unionized states. On a panel that followed, the only person defending teachers was American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who could have used some help.

Matt Lauer interviewed Obama; Tom Brokaw interviewed Duncan; Andrea Mitchell interviewed D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. (“Michelle, you’ve been through so much, and you’ve been so plainspoken,” Mitchell said sympathetically, ignoring the fact that Rhee has, in fact, not been as plainspoken as all that.)

Other journalists interviewed other school reformers with little journalistic pushback. Sometimes credit was given where credit wasn't due. David Gregory said to Duncan:

“President Bush isn’t often given credit for driving accountability because No Child Left Behind became unpopular, and yet, indeed, that accountability is what the Obama administration has built on.”

Actually, No Child Left Behind became unpopular because it didn’t create real accountability and subverted teachers by putting standardized tests at the center of the learning experience.

The Obama administration is taking that obsession with standardized tests to a new level, funding programs that pay teachers by the test scores of their students. It doesn't seem to matter that such merit pay plans have been used off and on since the 1920s with less than stellar results, as education historian Diane Ravitch explained in this piece.

NBC is not the only media outlet to seemingly take for granted that Obama’s education initiative is the answer to fixing failing schools.

The recent project by the Los Angeles Times, in which some 6,000 teachers were evaluated solely on the basis of student test scores, was another example of a news organization promoting a highly controversial way to assess teachers as effective. The largest study to date on the “value-added” method of teacher evaluation, released earlier this month, found that linking test scores to teachers’ pay was not effective. That didn’t stop the Obama administration from handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to states to develop such programs. The study and earlier ones like it were not a big topic at Education Nation.

The New York Times' film critic reviewed “Waiting for Superman” and seemed to take as gospel the tendentious narrative in the film. Meanwhile, CBS anchor Katie Couric wrote about her Waiting for Superman impressions on her Couric & Co. blog:

“I was so inspired by how this documentary shines a light on so many issues -- the heartbreak of kids who don’t get into charter schools, the controversy over teachers’ unions and the failure factories that churn out kids who are unprepared or drop out in terrifying numbers. I admire the revolutionaries who are out there shaking up a broken system. So I became obsessed with covering with this story from multiple angles, and we’ve decided to spend a great deal of time this fall and throughout the school year looking at education.”

Capus and Lisa Gersh, NBC's president of strategic initiatives, told journalists at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. last week that the televised Education Nation Summit was not designed to support Obama's agenda and was intended to be the start of the network's focused look at education. Couric announced that CBS, like NBC, was launching a series of reports on education.

Education, the subject that people have long said was super-important but that never got much coverage, is suddenly huge news. The question is why it is not being examined with the same skeptical view that, say, Obama’s health care proposal was.

Obama-style school reform also became the focus of not one but two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show last week, though one would not expect a journalistic objectivity from an entertainment show.

On one episode, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used the occasion to announce to the world that he was donating $100 million to the ailing Newark, N.J., public school system for Obama-style business-driven reforms.

The money comes with strings, the most important that he, a man with no background in education reform, gets to decide what schools are working, according to this story in New Jersey's Star-Ledger.

Billionaires picking out school districts they want to help: What a great way to fund public education.

All this cheerleading for the administration can’t take away from this: There are excellent reasons, as well as evidence, to show that many of its education policies won’t work, and some may be counterproductive.

The biggest study of charter schools yet shows that only 17 percent of them are more effective than their neighborhood traditional public schools, and that more than double are worse. The tough prescription that Obama and Duncan have written for failing schools has proved to be more punitive than helpful, and has not worked in improving a majority of the schools that have undergone the process.

There will come a time when this current wave of “reform” proves as unsuccessful as past fads -- and journalists may look back on their fawning coverage and be very, very sorry that they gave their objectivity on this subject.

The problem is that the schools will likely be in worse shape then than they are today.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John Adams and Yes We Can

By: Michael Holzman
The latest report on Black male students and public education from the Schott Foundation—Yes We Can—continues the Foundation’s effort to focus national attention on education as a fundamental civil right.  Most of the research involved in the report was highly detailed.  But it is useful to step back and think about our education system in historical and international perspectives.  One of our nation's Founders, John Adams, was adamant that the duty of the state (the state of Massachusetts, in this case) is to ensure that the quality of education does not vary with where a student lives or the position in society of his parents.  Have we achieved that, or do those two factors now define our education system?  I am sorry to conclude from the findings in this latest report that the latter is the case.  The resources available to students, their opportunities to learn, change from block to block, depending on town boundaries and local tax levies.  The resources needed by students vary as much, if not more, depending on the income and education levels of their parents.  The first of these—variations in school resources due to location—is unheard of in most developed countries.  It is not true in Canada; it is not true in Britain; it is not true in Western Europe.  We accept property-tax-based school finance a natural because it is how things are done in much of the US.  John Adams would not.  The second—variations in opportunities to learn based on a family’s “station in society” seems as natural to many.  It would not seem so to John Adams.

John Adams was right.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Civil rights groups hit Race to the Top

by: Tim Wheeler
WASHINGTON - President Obama defended his "Race to the Top" education reform program in a July 29 speech to the National Urban League just days after they and five other civil rights organizations criticized his plan in a hard-hitting report .
Race to the Top offers $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states that commit to the Obama education reform program. The president said charges that Race to the Top is not "targeted at those young people most in need" are "absolutely false" and he vowed to veto cuts in the program.

His reaction suggested that he had not read the civil rights groups' 17-page report. It is a balanced critique. It praises measures in the president's program that promote public education, but also provides a list of recommendations including a call for "universal, high quality, early childhood education" and "universal access to highly effective teachers" paid higher wages and with better working conditions.

Click here to read the rest of the article

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Common Core: Where's the OTL?

By David G. Sciarra
Executive Director,  Education Law Center

Originally posted on National Journal Online

It bears repeating that “national” or “common” content standards alone, even if adopted and implemented by the states, are insufficient to improve educational quality and performance in public schools serving the nation’s high poverty, high minority communities, no matter how well written. The NJ Supreme Court in Abbott v. Burke said it best 12 years ago when state officials offered common standards without the resources needed to deliver them: “the standards themselves do not ensure any substantive level of achievement. Real improvement still depends on the sufficiency of educational resources, successful teaching, effective supervision, efficient administration, and a variety of other academic, environmental, and societal factors needed to assure a sound education.”

It’s heartening that the nation’s leading civil rights groups have now stepped up to offer a comprehensive blueprint for reform to provide all students the opportunity to learn, as a framework for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Click here for the framework

Civil Rights Leaders Promote Education as a Civil Right

Leaders of six major civil rights organizations and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have put forth a bold framework for school reform designed to provide every child with an Opportunity To Learn.  The framework outlines six major principles to guide the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“As a community of civil rights organizations, we believe that access to a high-quality education is a fundamental civil right,” the leaders wrote in their policy framework. “The federal government’s role is to protect and promote that civil right by creating and supporting a fair and substantive opportunity to learn for all students, regardless of where and to whom they were born.”

For the full Civil Rights Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn, follow this link.

Voters Want Federal Action on High School Reform, According to New National Poll

Improving the quality of public high schools through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a voting issue for more than eight in ten voters, according to a new national poll released on July 14, 2010 by the Alliance for Excellent Education.  This support cuts across party lines. 

A full two-thirds of voters (68 percent) say they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors renewing ESEA in a way that gives significant attention to improving public high schools even if it means increasing taxes.  Click here for more on the poll results

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch

Posted by Michael Holzman

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a critique of Federal education policy, the role of business and private foundations in education, and, finally, an impassioned defense of public schools as “intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life.”

Dr. Ravitch has for many years been known as a conservative education historian and commentator, associated with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institution, among others. The Death and Life of the Great American School System represents one of the most spectacular turnarounds in recent American intellectual life. In this book she warns against handing over educational policy decisions and schools themselves to private businesses and corporations. She asserts that there is "something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of public educational policy to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people.”

She argues against vouchers, questions charter schools, and emphatically criticizes high-stakes standardized testing as invalid, unreliable, and tending to narrow the curriculum and devalue the practice of teaching. Ravitch believes, on the other hand, in high standards, a broad and rigorous curriculum, treating teachers with respect and good comprehensive neighborhood high schools as centers of community. She refers to studies by Cecelia E. Rouse of Princeton University and Lisa Barrow of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, casting doubt on achievement gains by students receiving vouchers, and by the RAND Corporation, whose research similarly failed to find achievement gains for charter schools.

Ravitch makes the case that government has failed in the attempt to reform the schools from above in part because it lacks a clear understanding of how schools work on a day-to-day basis. She believes that the No Child Left Behind Act has damaged our schools, not improved them. Focusing on the education program of the current administration, Ravitch points out that the improving test scores in Chicago, a major factor in Secretary Arne Duncan’s appointment, were exaggerated. She criticizes President Obama’s administration for offering increased federal funding to school districts that adopt the same programs that she believes have failed the children of Chicago.

In response to perceived anti-union positions of both the Bush and Obama administrations, Ravitch points out that the highest NAEP scores in the nation are achieved in strong union states, such as Massachusetts, and the lowest scores are in the South, where unions are weak or non-existent.

She suggests that while the standards for achievement should be set federally, the paths to the implementation of those standards should be selected at the local level, using data provided by Washington (as opposed to the more easily manipulated state data sources).

Dr. Ravitch delivers a severely negative critique of programs like Teach for America that send well-educated but untrained young people into schools for only a couple of years—just long enough to begin learning how to teach. She believes that once a broad, high-quality curriculum is in place, we must recruit and train teachers who fully understand that curriculum and the needs of their students, teachers who have learned how to teach and who have a long term commitment to the profession. Then we must develop programs to overcome the real deficits with which many students in our most at-risk communities begin their academic careers.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System Dr. Ravitch articulates a clear vision of what we should expect our schools to accomplish for our children, a vision of educating “all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences and physical education.” Her remarkable change of course—based on intensive studies of the effects of the policies she criticizes—has been received with astonished approval by many of those who agree with her that the public schools, offering an equitable opportunity to learn to all students, are the foundation of of democracy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Jersey school children show big gains

Posted by Michael Holzman
Rising test scores in New Jersey schools offer strong evidence of what students can achieve when given adequate resources to learn.

Following the Abbott v. Burke legal rulings, New Jersey became the first state to fund urban schools to bring their quality up to par with successful suburban schools. The state put $240 million in new money into struggling urban schools, created tough new curriculum standards, and established a network of free high-quality pre-schools.

The results have been dramatic. In Newark, the state’s largest school district, 67.6 percent of fourth-graders tested as “proficient” or above on the state’s language arts test in 2007-08. This compares with 19.7 percent of fourth-graders in 1998-99. Similar gains were demonstrated at other elementary schools in the 31 districts that took part in the lawsuit.

Also in Newark, the graduation rate among black males jumped dramatically. Seventy-five percent of Newark’s black males graduated on-time in 2008, compared to 47 percent in 2002. This contrasts sharply with the national graduation rate for black males of 47 percent.

The transformation got its start in 1981 when poor urban school districts sued the State of New Jersey. Represented by the Education Law Center, the districts made the case that their high dropout rates and low achievement levels were the result of disparate funding and programs, high poverty rates and low property wealth in the “Abbott districts,” which denied children an equal opportunity to an adequate education.

A new framework for “education adequacy” emerged from the New Jersey legislature following the court rulings. For more about the Abbott reforms and their outcomes, go to the Education Law Center’s website at