School & District Management Opinion

Why Pedro Noguera will be Marching to Save Our Schools July 30th

By Anthony Cody — July 02, 2011 8 min read
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Pedro Noguera has been a leader in education reform for decades. I came to know him during the battle to end apartheid in the 1980s, when we were both students at UC Berkeley. As a parent, he became very involved in the local schools, served on the Berkeley Board of Education, and went on to center his research on finding solutions that work for all children. He will be joining us at the Save Our Schools March this month, so I asked him to share some thoughts with us.

You have expressed some frustrations with Department of Education’s policies. Where has the Department gone wrong?

Under the current administration, the US Dept of Education has essentially continued with the policies initiated by the Bush administration. There have been important exceptions: the administration should be given credit for adopting core standards which provide greater clarity to schools with respect to curriculum content and the knowledge students should acquire. I also think the administration should be praised for directing stimulus money to reform in public education at a time when schools have been hit hard by budget cuts. The Promise Neighborhood program, the I3 grants, the administration’s efforts to reduce the burden of college loans on students, are all very significant. Perhaps the most important thing the administration has done is to expand health coverage. This will have a positive effect on poor children when it goes into effect in 2014.

Despite these positive measures there have also been major disappointments. For example, using Race for the Top to force states to use test scores to evaluate teachers may very well be the most damaging thing they’ve done. Though some states may end up taking a more creative approach, it is likely that many others will not. As a result, we are likely to see more teachers who feel forced to emphasize test preparation even more than they do now. I particularly dislike the idea of using a competitive process to award funds to school districts at a time when all of the states are in desperate need of funding. Does anyone really believe that the recipients in the first round- Tennessee and Delaware, are leaders in reform?

Finally, the prescriptions for turning around failing schools are nonsensical. Secretary Duncan’s endorsements of mayoral control and charter schools, and his approval of the mass firing of teachers in Central Fall, R.I., are all signs that politics and ideology are driving policies, rather than empirical evidence of success.

As we look at the possible reauthorization of ESEA, what changes would you prioritize?

NCLB was adopted into law in 2001. The fact that nearly every major city in the US has dropout rates of 50 percent and higher is the clearest evidence that the policy has failed and a new approach is needed.

For the past 3 years I have been working with a broad coalition of educators, policymakers and researchers on what we have called a Broader and Bolder Approach to school reform (see: A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education). BBA has called for three things: universal access to pre-schools, health care, and enriched and extended learning opportunities for all students. The proposals are supported by decades of research that has shown poverty and inequality has a tremendous impact on student achievement. The administration has largely chosen to ignore this research and our proposals and arguments even though Arne Duncan signed on as an early endorser of BBA.

Rather than tweaking ESEA (aka NCLB) we should be scrapping it entirely. It has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and the use of pressure and humiliation as tactics for “improving” schools. There is clear and compelling evidence that the policy has failed.

You have been involved with public schools for several decades. How have you seen NCLB impact schools, especially those of high poverty?

It’s not surprising that the schools throughout America that are struggling are also the schools that are serving the poorest children. We generally spend far more money on schools serving affluent children (isn’t is funny that the only people who say money is not the issue is the people who have lots of money?), and because as a society we are doing very little to address poverty.

Many of the schools that serve poor children are overwhelmed by their non-academic needs: health, nutrition, safety, etc. NCLB has played a cruel game of “equity” on poor kids and poor schools. We hold all students accountable to meet the same academic standards even though poor children are generally being educated under vastly different conditions. There is no focus at all on the “opportunity gap” and until we do we will not see greater equity in student outcomes.

It is also important to acknowledge that the schools serving poor children are, in too many cases, poorly managed. Poor leadership, ineffective teaching and a culture of complacency is sadly, common in many urban public schools. Money alone won’t fix this. Educators must take responsibility for changing what happens in school otherwise the families we serve will abandon the public schools when given an option.

Charter schools have recently been criticized for continuing or even intensifying patterns of racial and economic segregation. Does this concern you?

In general, I support charter schools as a strategy for increasing the supply of good schools, though I do have several concerns. I support charter schools because I believe that when educators come together around a shared vision, they can often deliver a better education to children they serve. Many of the charter schools I work with are successful. They are founded by educators who left the public schools out of frustration with the rules and procedures imposed by District bureaucracy. We need alternative approaches and we must support innovation when there is clear evidence of success.

The best charter schools are providing high quality education to poor children of color. We should support that even as we work to improve the public schools that remain accessible to all. Middle class people have always had choice and none of the middle class people I know would voluntarily put their children in the inner city schools that millions of kids throughout the US are consigned to. I remain concerned about the lack of accountability on charter schools. Many are no better than the public schools, and many are in fact, worse. Some deliberately screen out or push out the neediest children. This creates on uneven playing field and exacerbates the challenges facing public schools.

I remain concerned about the lack of accountability on charter schools. Many are no better than the public schools, and many are in fact, worse. Some deliberately screen out or push out the neediest children. This creates on uneven playing field and exacerbates the challenges facing public schools.

Moreover, in several cities, charter schools are being used to undermine public education. Good public schools are being closed and replaced by charter schools that are not accountable to the community. I am concerned about profiteering and the disenfranchisement of poor communities.

Charter schools were created to generate innovation and reform in public education. This will only happen if charters and public schools collaborate and if charter schools take responsibility for serving the most disadvantaged and hard to serve students. In NY City, new charter schools have been created which will prioritize serving homeless children, and students who have recently be released from correction centers. This seems to be a particularly appropriate role for charters. My hope is that they can use their flexibility to deliver a great education to their students.

Why are you moved to march in protest on July 30th?

I am moved to join the protest on July 30th because I believe that we need a new direction in public education. Too many schools are floundering, especially in our nation’s cities, and too often, our teachers and their unions are being blamed. There are many factors that contribute to the problems that beset our public schools - poverty, racial inequality, bureaucratic and political mismanagement - to name just a few, but ill conceived public policy (i.e. NCLB and RTT) is making the job more difficult and in many ways, is the biggest obstacle to progress.

Our politicians have enacted policies that increase accountability on schools without providing increased support, and that reduce education to little more than preparing students for standardized tests. Under the banner of “no excuses” a new generation of so-called “reformers” is pushing an array of strategies - merit pay for teachers, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, closing down chronically under-performing schools,etc. - that are further distorting the quality of education we provide to students and leaving the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities without schools that are responsive to their needs.

Throughout the country, there is an active debate over the direction of public education. Too often, educators are silenced, marginalized and left out of the discussion. Too often, we are turning to CEOs, philanthropists, and politicians for solutions to the challenges facing our schools, while teachers are left out.

We need to march on July 30th to insert ourselves into the national conversation. The future of American society will be determined to a large degree by what happens in public education. We all have a great deal at stake. That is why it is imperative for educators to speak out and defend this flawed but indispensable institution.

Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. Noguera is an urban sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. He will be one of the speakers at the Save Our Schools rally on the Ellipse in Washington, DC on July 30th. He is also a guest at the next free Save Our Schools Teach-in webinar, scheduled for 8 pm on Thursday, July 7th. Details and sign-up are here.

What do you think of Dr. Noguera’s thoughts?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.