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