During the presidential campaign, Obama criticized No Child Left Behind. “Don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles in a standardized test,” he said. He pledged to lead the nation in a different direction.
We are still waiting.
The president and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have adopted policies that have had far more in common with the previous administration than expected.
Market-based reforms like performance pay for teachers, the excessive emphasis on charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools and the distribution of federal funds through competitive grants all represent a disturbing continuity with the policies of the past.
The administration needs a new vision, one rooted in the recognition that schools must provide equal opportunity for all children to learn if the schools are to fulfill their vital role as the cornerstone of our democracy.
To begin with, Obama and Duncan would do well to exercise better judgment in the language they choose and the approach they take in addressing the politics of education.
Duncan’s assertion that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” was particularly callous and misguided.
It also wasn’t wise for Duncan to describe the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, R.I., as “courageous,” especially given that there is no reserve supply of highly qualified teachers waiting for their chance to replace those who have been dismissed.
Second, Obama and Duncan’s emphasis on narrowly framed pay-for-performance schemes is insensitive to the needs of schools plagued by high failure rates. Rather than launch another set of Bush-type reforms (such as academic standards for preschools) or distributing funds through a competitive process that leaves out most states at a time when funding is scarce (such as Race to the Top), the administration must comprehend why the policies of the Bush years did not produce greater success.
Closing troubled schools may sound like decisive action, but it does not amount to a reform strategy. When policymakers are unclear about why their policies do not result in improvement, and are even less clear about what must be done differently to prevent failure in the future, closing schools is little more than a punitive shell game.
Third, education policy must be devised in concert with health reform, poverty alleviation initiatives and economic development in order to address the roots of failure in the most depressed areas.
Reforms should be designed and implemented in concert with key constituents — parents, teachers, local leaders and students — and with an understanding of how they must be coordinated with other aspects of social policy.
If the Obama administration is serious about pursuing such a vision, it would work with unions to develop a reform agenda that improves conditions for teaching and learning in troubled schools and makes it easier to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms.
It would encourage students and teachers to utilize their talent, creativity and imagination rather than allowing the school curriculum to be reduced to preparing students to perform on standardized tests.
And it would recognize that schools have an essential role to play in renewing and invigorating American democracy by encouraging critical thinking and civic engagement.
The administration must not be afraid to remind the public that this is, in fact, the historic purpose for which public schools were created.
Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. A version of this commentary originally appeared in The Nation magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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