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Obsolescence and Inequality in Schools

By Robert L. Fried — September 16, 2009 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a July 24 opinion piece in The Washington Post with the provocative headline “Education Reform’s Moon Shot,” outlined the Obama administration’s $4 billion school reform initiative. Several of his suggestions have merit, and our beleaguered public school systems can certainly use the money. The new incentive, called the Race to the Top Fund, aims “to reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states,” the secretary said, and to punish states “that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations.”

But such a carrot-and-stick, data-driven, competitive strategy for school improvement reinforces the Bush administration’s market-forces approach to public education, potentially discouraging collaboration among educators who view themselves as public servants. Furthermore, it sidesteps the key obstacle holding back progress in public education: the struggle that reform advocates are locked into over which of two competing diagnoses of school inadequacy—inequality of resources and achievement, or educational obsolescence—is the most critical and needs to be solved first.

All public school systems, but especially those serving students in low-income communities, suffer both inequality and obsolescence: a performance gap between high-achieving students and low achievers (often translated as low-income or minority students vs. higher-income or white students), and an outdated, content-heavy curriculum that denies students from even our most highly rated schools an opportunity to gain what Harvard University’s Tony Wagner calls “survival skills” for 21st-century teenagers (questioning, networking, agility, entrepreneurial skills, and the like).

Both dilemmas are real, pervasive, mired in old patterns, and sadly resistant to change. Trying to solve one without addressing the other will lead to failure on both fronts, further damaging prospects for the very children who most need access to critical skills and knowledge. Yet the competing constituencies lined up behind each of these issues can be dismissive of one another’s objectives, further undermining essential reform of public education.

Those preoccupied with the test-score achievement gap argue that closing it must come first, and that poor and minority students have been left out in the cold by previous high-minded reforms. This gap, defined and measured by standardized tests, was given great emphasis by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, the culture of schools everywhere (but especially in poor neighborhoods) is now subsumed in a race to improve student test scores, with threats to teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts, should they fail to make “adequate yearly progress” on such tests. But this is a price that those focused on achievement gaps seem willing to pay: “Keep the goal steady for 10 years,” they cry, “whatever bar you choose to measure our kids by, so that we can explain it to our community, hold teachers accountable, and help our students meet it.”

Those preoccupied by school obsolescence view even high-achieving schools as cauldrons of boredom, irrelevance, grade-grubbing, cheating, and wasted time, and find that students who emerge from them with high grades lack crucial skills they will need to succeed in college and careers. They fault the country’s national mania for standardized tests for imposing a harsh and mind-numbing pedagogy on the very children who most need to experience creativity, excitement, and relevance in their pursuit of essential skills. But in their passion to reinvent schools as “learning communities,” such advocates often ignore the pent-up rage and disillusionment of many parents and community leaders who have struggled for decades to confront what Jonathan Kozol has called the “savage inequalities” of the status quo.

Public schools will get better only when both advocacy groups align their intellectual and political energies—and when they engage students, parents, and teachers in concrete efforts to help 21st-century learners achieve academic, social, and economic success. If we get diverted into a “race to the top”—trying to beat other countries to the moon educationally—go-getter states and school districts will cash in on temporary infusions of federal dollars, while those schools left back on earth will again be targets of a “blame the victim” mentality. And our children will remain hapless spectators instead of becoming eager pioneers seeking meaning and vitality in their studies.

We can avoid divisive competition among reform advocates if we focus not on the race but on the rescue of our schools by those who have the greatest stake in their improvement: parents, teachers, and students. This will require that we do the following:

• Redefine “achievement,” so that it accurately describes the attitudes, skills, and habits of mind that students need to develop to have realistic options for their lives and careers as citizens in a democratic society. Good work has already been done on this, by reform advocates such as Theodore Sizer, Deborah Meier, and George Wood, among others. The problem comes when politicians and behavioral scientists try to measure such outcomes “on the cheap,” via short-answer tests—and when teachers, parents, and students are left out of the conversation.

• Redefine “achievement gaps” so that students and parents view them as gaps between “where a student is now” and “where he or she needs to be,” in order for their goals to be realistic and achievable. The current definition—one in which a new reading program that increased low achievers’ scores by 20 percent and high achievers’ scores by 25 percent could be rejected because it widened the gap between the two—does not serve any child well. Low-achieving students need to become personally engaged in setting their goals, rather than have officials consistently compare their scores with those of affluent, suburban students who, from birth, may have received thousands of hours of parental coaching in literacy and other vital skills.

Our leaders must refocus national educational goals away from a “space race” mentality and toward a strategy that every good community organizer knows well: People must be dynamically involved in their own self-betterment. This works well in Chicago neighborhoods. It works even better in neighborhood schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obsolescence and Inequality in Schools

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