Should schools be held primarily responsible for improving student achievement, or do they need help from health and social programs to ensure their students’ success?
Two sets of prominent educators and policy leaders released statements last week emphasizing different answers to that question. But both groups acted with the same purpose: to inform and highlight the debate over education in the 2008 presidential campaign and to influence the future of the No Child Left Behind Act and other policies of the next president.
The Education Equality Project, formally launched last week by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, plans to organize events at the Democratic and Republican national conventions to promote its message that “public education today remains mired in the status quo” and “shows little prospect of meaningful improvement” without significant changes in the ways schools are structured, its statement said.
A separate group, made up of researchers and former federal officials, is trying to focus debates about the NCLB law in the campaign and elsewhere on the difficulty schools have raising achievement if students don’t have access to health care, early education, and other services.
“Our notion is that schools can’t do it alone,” said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public-policy studies and economics at Duke University and one of the three co-chairs of the group that produced a statement titled “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.”
“We need to work on these other fronts as well,” Ms. Ladd said in an interview, referring to the call for better health services for children and high-quality preschool, after-school, and summer programs.
An adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said the presumptive Democratic nominee agreed with the goal underlying both statements that schools need to improve for all children, but that the candidate didn’t state a preference for one approach or the other.
“He views continuing down our present path as morally unacceptable and economically untenable, and agrees with the signatories to these statements that it is time to move beyond the tired debates of the past and towards a new era of reform,” Danielle Gray, the deputy policy director for the Obama campaign, said in an e-mail.
In a meeting with reporters last week, Lisa Graham Keegan, the top education adviser to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee would lead a “renaissance” in education that would make significant changes to the K-12 system.
“It’s very easy to write a detailed program for an old system,” Ms. Keegan said about the candidate’s plans, although not discussing either statement. “We’re looking at an entirely new landscape.”
Lessons From NCLB
Leaders of the groups said release of their statements on consecutive days was a coincidence after months of work.
But their unveiling one week after the end of presidential-primary season was a sign that advocates hope to raise the level of debate over education in the general election. In the primaries, education played a low-key role in the debates and speeches of the candidates. (“Candidates Are at Odds Over K-12,” June 11, 2008.)
The leaders of both groups hope to change that low profile now that Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama are preparing for the Nov. 4 election.
In releasing the Education Equality Project’s statement at a Washington news conference on June 11, that group called on policymakers to take six “immediate steps” to improve schools.
Those are: ensure all schools have effective teachers and principals; give parents choice among public schools; design systems that hold classroom teachers, principals, and administrators accountable for student progress; spend money “with a single-minded focus: what will best serve our students”; ask parents and students to demand more from school officials and themselves; and “stand up to those political forces and interests who seek to preserve a failed system,” the statement says.
“Education and equal access to achievement is the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” said Mr. Sharpton, the New York City-based minister and community organizer who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
By contrast, the ad hoc group advocating the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” doesn’t call for increasing accountability measures on schools. Instead, it emphasizes that schools need help from other quarters to boost achievement.
The group’s three-page document, published June 10 as an advertisement in The Washington Post and The New York Times, says that federal policies need to help schools reduce their class sizes—particularly in the lower grades—and to ensure that high-quality teachers work in hard-to-staff schools. Policymakers should continue to pursue efforts to “use assessments that provide guidance to teachers and principals,” to improve the quality of professional development, and to coordinate K-12 policies with preschool experiences and higher education, it says.
The statement adds that schools “pay attention not only to basic academic skills and cognitive growth narrowly defined, but to development of the whole person, including physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills, from birth through the end of formal schooling.”
And it says governments at all levels should provide “preventative and routine” medical care that can “minimize the extent to which health problems become obstacles to success in school.”
Members of the Education Equality Project said that they agreed, in principle, that governments should improve health and social services for poor children. But they chose to focus their efforts on changing schools, they said, because they believe educators have the ability to improve student achievement without the assistance of health care or other services.
“We don’t know yet what schools can achieve,” said Mr. Klein, who was a senior official in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Clinton. “Some schools today are getting entirely different outcomes with the very same kids people tell me you can’t educate to high levels of achievement. If that can happen for some, why can’t it happen for all?”
The The Education Equality Project includes Democrats such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory A. Booker; Peter Groff, the president of the Colorado Senate; and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who is now the chairman of ED in ’08, a foundation-backed effort to raise the level of debate over education in the 2008 campaign. (“Effort for Education as Campaign Issue Fights for Traction,” Dec. 5, 2007.)
The Equality Project group includes the chiefs of the Baltimore, Chicago, and District of Columbia school systems, as well as Republicans Marc S. Lampkin, a lobbyist and a former congressional aide, and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who are affiliated with ED in ’08.
The “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” states that K-12 schools need to be held accountable, but envisions a type of accountability different from that of the Education Equality Project or the NCLB law. The federal law relies primarily on reading- and mathematics-test scores in grades 3-8 and once in high school to determine whether schools are meeting student-achievement goals.
“New accountability systems should combine appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods, and they will be considerably more expensive than the flawed accountability systems currently in use,” the statement says.
The statement has fewer politicians signed on than the one issued by the Education Equality Project, but among them are five former members of the Clinton administration—including former Attorney General Janet Reno and former Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith—as well as former Seattle Mayor Norman B. Rice, a Democrat.
The statement was also signed by two former members of President Bush’s administration: Susan B. Neuman, who was the Department of Education’s top K-12 official from 2001 to 2003, and John J. DiIulio Jr., who directed the White House’s faith-based initiative early in the president’s first term. Diane Ravitch, an Education Department appointee under President George H.W. Bush, also signed the “broader, bolder” statement.
Staff Writer Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Broader Approach Sought to Aid Low-Achieving Children