Thursday, May 26, 2011

School boards must prioritize student equity

Edwin C. Darden wrote this commentary for Education Week, where it was originally published May 24. It is printed here in its entirety.

The American dream of upward mobility is projected as tantalizingly within reach — the reward for hard work that children in poverty should strive to achieve.

But as a society that reveres success, we should worry about dangling false hopes before students in high-poverty schools. Unless a high-quality education is available to prepare their minds for 21st century challenges and negate the effects of being poor, the grand vision of a good life is, in reality, just a mirage.

Throughout the United States, school districts that contain a mix of middle-class and high-poverty neighborhoods demonstrate an “opportunity gap” in which wealthier kids possess better resources that lead to better academic outcomes. In many cases, not only are teachers better credentialed, more experienced and more talented, but children in middle-class areas receive a stronger, more challenging curriculum and learn in buildings that are in far better condition than those of their poorer peers.

School boards are uniquely positioned to reverse this trend, and they should exercise that power to ensure that kids have a realistic shot at the American Dream.

The clear vision of equality in public education is the core promise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision 57 years ago this month. Yet for decades, America’s public schools have been plagued by an unspoken competition of sorts between the “haves” and “have-nots” — a festering, largely unaddressed problem of unequal distribution of resources among schools within the same district.

The transforming impact of excellent public schools is proven. Yet, the sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools.

"The sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools."

If that statement is not shocking, it should be. Students who typically possess greater opportunities are given more. By contrast, those who have less get fewer academic and curricular resources and worse-kept school buildings. Inexplicably, students in the same school district — and often only a short distance apart — have vastly differing chances of acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need for success.

This is where school boards, which hold a singular authority in determining how educational resources are distributed, can play a vital role. School board members approve staff, determine priorities on renovations and new construction, adopt and locate pilot academic programs, decide long-term strategic plans, and more.

Board members are obligated to be fair to all students, and budget shortages are no excuse for anything less. Regardless of how much or how little money a district has, equity can and should be a central value in resource decision-making. Otherwise, inequity becomes a repeating pattern.
Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote in November 2010 about teachers deemed “highly effective” on evaluations in the District of Columbia. He noted that the most affluent ward in the city has four times more high-scoring instructors than the poorest area of the nation’s capital. In January 2011, Turque focused on Washington’s Ballou Senior High School, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. He observed that the school library’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, or about one for each student, whereas, in a typical high school library, the ratio is 11 books for every one student.

Also in January, the nonprofit Appleseed (where I work) released a report titled “The Same Starting Line: Erasing the Opportunity Gap Between Poor and Middle-Class Children.” It noted that middle-class students commonly receive a higher proportion of “soft” learning-related education resources, such as properly credentialed teachers with several years of experience; state-of-the-art science and learning laboratories; extensive library book collections; safe, well-maintained learning environments; or advanced curricula. The study also included a tool that allows a school district, parent group, or community organization to conduct a resource-equity self-assessment.

The solutions are both simple and difficult. A stride toward greater equity requires both a resolve and the courage to rebuff powerful interests. After all, parents in middle-class neighborhoods tend to lobby for their desires and are more likely to vote in elections. That activism, coupled with human nature’s tendency to follow past practices, means resource distribution gets stuck in a rut.
Instead, school boards must judge important resource decisions based in part on their impact on impoverished students. That could mean drawing up an equity policy — provided that it goes beyond mere comforting words to outline specific actions and mandate strict accountability for compliance. While some districts point proudly to their “equity policies” or “equity task force,” these paper tigers too seldom result in actual reforms.

As the professional baseball season ramps up, the players have a right to expect one thing: a level playing field. No opponent would tolerate conditions where only one dugout had padded seats and luxurious showers, where infield divots were smoothed only for the home team, and where the umpire whispered the pitch to the best home-field hitters. Fans would soon demand that Major League Baseball — the objective governors of the sport — change the rules to ensure fairness.
Likewise, a similar din should arise in education. Children in poverty should not be forced to run farther, faster, and with ankle weights to reach the same first base. Hence, school boards—the objective citizen-servants who govern public schools — should align policies and practices purposefully.

If that change can actually happen, then schools will indeed be the stadium for big dreams — a place where anybody can hit an educational homerun.

Edwin C. Darden is the director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a nationwide nonprofit social-justice network focused on legal and public-policy issues.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The OTL Campaign welcomes Tina Dove as its new director

By Cassie Schwerner 
Guest blogger for the OTL Campaign

The Opportunity to Learn Campaign took a major step forward this month in its efforts to close the opportunity gap in public education by announcing its new campaign director, Tina Dove.

Tina takes the helm of the OTL Campaign after serving as the manager of public policy and advocacy for ASCD, which is a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that works to improve learning for all students.

Today, the institution of public education is severely challenged, due to state budget cuts from California to New York and increasing pressures to simply blame our nation’s teachers. At a time like this it is critical that the Campaign has a leader who can help develop resources and strategies to strengthen public and political will to demand that every child is guaranteed the opportunity to learn.  Tina’s perfect for this role and we are fortunate to have her.

Her expertise in education is deep and wide. Tina began her career as a high school social studies teacher, working in the District of Columbia, Fairfax County, Virginia, and Redlands, California.

She launched her policy career on Capitol Hill, where she worked for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who represents Tina’s home state of California. She previously served as the advocacy liaison and intergovernmental coordinator for the National PTA, working with PTA members nationwide to strengthen grassroots efforts to increase parent involvement and to help schools.

Perhaps even more important, Tina brings great energy and enthusiasm to the job, which will be critical in her work with you, her outreach to our champions, and her efforts to build grassroots support for OTL campaigns.

Over the next several months among many priorities, Tina will be working on the next OTL Summit in Washington DC – please stay tuned for more details about OTL’s national convening.

There’s a good chance you will be hearing from her to learn more about your efforts. She also will want to hear about the challenges your communities face trying to ensure every child has an opportunity for high quality preschool, effective teachers, equitable policies and classroom resources, and college-preparatory curriculum.

Feel free to drop Tina a line to congratulate her and to share your ideas for how the OTL Campaign can better inform and support your efforts. She can be contacted at

- Cassie Schwerner is Senior Vice President of Programs for the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Supporting Early Childhood Education is Smart Policy

In supporting legislation to expand the access to pre-kindergarten programs in his state, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin recognizes the value of investing in early-childhood education to help build a stronger Vermont.
Gov. Shumlin says he will sign into law a bill that will lift the cap on the number of students who can enroll in state-funded pre-K programs.
“This is one part of our plan to get Vermont back on the path to job growth and prosperity,” he said.
The cap, which has been in place since 2007, limited the number of pre-K students eligible to enroll in state funded pre-K programs and forced students into lotteries in school districts whose programs were at capacity. This new legislation will allow more pre-K students to enroll in programs and work to support making high-quality, early childhood education available to all. Shumlin’s courageous stand runs counter to trends in other states.
While opponents in his state argued that the bill will cost the state too much money during tough economic times, Shumlin maintained that investments in early-childhood education will save Vermont in the long run by cutting down on prison costs associated with dropouts who break the law and other social services needed to support those who lack the education to pursue careers.
The Opportunity to Learn Campaign, which firmly believes in the life-changing value of quality early-childhood education and supports this opportunity for all children, commends the state of Vermont and Shumlin for working to ensure that substantial investments are made in that state’s youngest children. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

We need teachers, not tax loopholes

Under the banner of “Make Big Banks and Millionaires Pay,” thousands of New Yorkers marched yesterday on Wall Street to call on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to avoid laying off more than 6,000 public school teachers – among other cuts to such important services like childcare and public safety – by ending corporate welfare and tax cuts that allow bankers and the wealthy to shirk their responsibility to pay their fair shares.
Among were dozens of community, labor and progressive organizations that participated in the rally were the Alliance for Quality Education and the Urban Youth Collaborative.

Highly effective and prepared teachers are critical to the health of our public school systems, and the futures of children across the country. Let’s stand together in holding our local, state and federal leaders accountable for providing the resources needed to give all children the opportunity to learn.
Check out video of the rally:

Monday, May 9, 2011

The "real crime" is the education gap

Kudos to the Connecticut lawmaker who understands that parents shouldn’t have to choose between breaking the law and securing a quality education for their children.

The real crime, says Rep. Bruce V. Morris, is happening every day in classrooms across that state – where a homeless Bridgeport mother faces felony charges for enrolling her son in a Norwalk school – as failed policies and practices continue to deprive inner-city children of the opportunity to get the same quality of education that is afforded to their suburban peers.

Closing this opportunity gap is critical to stemming the achievement gap that persists in school systems across the country.

“Equal access to education is the civil rights issue of today and it’s something that needs to be addressed across all borders,” he told a Greenwich Time reporter. “Education is the equalizer.”

Tanya McDowell is being prosecuted for stealing nearly $16,000 – the cost of a year of school – from the city of Norwalk. Though her 5-year-old son, A.J., was withdrawn from the school in January, the mother is being charged for the full school year, a move that makes it clear that officials are using her case to make an example, and aren’t remotely interested in treating McDowell’s situation in a just and compassionate way.

McDowell’s supporters, including Morris, agree that the quality of A.J.’s and every other child’s education should not be determined by ZIP code.

What we need now is not well-meaning mothers being dragged into court on felony charges for trying to do what’s best for their children’s educational well-being.

What we need is action in every state to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have access to school systems that provide top-notch early childhood education, highly effective and qualified teachers, a college preparatory curriculum, and the best instructional materials available. We commend Rep. Morris for his leadership.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Kind of Society Attacks Its Teachers?

by Molly A. Hunter, Director of Education Justice, Education Law Center
What kind of society turns against its own school teachers? They are not the bankers or hedge funders. They did not cause the economy to crash.

These caring and dedicated professionals earn modest salaries and benefits, and most work hard. Let's remember, they are tasked with the crucial responsibility of shaping the nation's next generation of citizens and workers and parents. They "touch the future."

Suddenly, the richest men in the world, such as the Koch brothers, tell us that breaking teachers unions is urgent! The best way to help students is to fire teachers! Never mind that struggling schools already have high teacher turnover, or that poverty is at the root of many students' struggles.

Why? Denigrating and demoralizing our teachers seems a weird priority.

So, why? Jon Stewart humorously exposed some of the hypocrisy, available here, in a video. Diane Ravitch calls it a "moment of national insanity," here. And, Paul Krugman warns that it's a power grab that could end "government of the people, by the people." He explains here.

Finally, a new report looking at education systems around the world found that, to improve its schools, the U.S. should raise the status of the teaching profession, not lower it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Important Reading for Teacher Appreciation Week

It would be great if we could all take a moment to say thanks to the 3.5 million teachers that are building our nation’s future one student at a time. After all, today kicks off  Teacher Appreciation Week.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough this year.

Along with our thanks, we need to raise our voices against the growing and harmful assault on teachers and unions and oppose the demonizing rhetoric and blatant mistruths being promoted for political gain.

Education luminaries Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine’s recent article in The Nation details the assault that teachers and their unions are under on a number of fronts. Leading teacher critics include former D.C. schools’ chancellor Michelle Rhee and state leaders such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who slashed school aid by $1.2 billion while refusing to comply with a court-mandated formula for school funding equity – both often demonizing teachers to advance their case and neither making any substantive progress in their education systems during their tenure.

No doubt speaking for many colleagues across the nation, veteran California teacher Kathie Marshall doesn’t hold anything back in her Washington Post education blog about what outrages her these days—as she faces such attacks and, at the same time, staffing cutbacks in her high-needs middle school that is beating the odds and improving test results.

While blaming teachers’ unions may be popular with conservatives, it is wrong, says Diane Ravitch, author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System. As she pointed out in a recent National Public Radio interview.  “[Unions] are not the problem. The state with the highest scores on the national test, that state is Massachusetts, which is 100 percent union. The nation with the highest scores in the world is Finland, which is 100 percent union.”

The Opportunity to Learn Campaign expresses deep appreciation to all the teachers who are working so hard every day.  And we’re proud to be a part of what Noguera and Fine call  “…the rumble of solidarity, with parents, teachers, labor and youth taking back what is rightfully theirs—public schools and democratic public education.”