Education experts and advocates from across the political and ideological spectrum gathered here this week to trade views—and pose competing policy recommendations—on ways to close persistent achievement shortfalls among poor and minority children.
The two-day achievement gap “summit,” called by California’s elected state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, drew more than 4,000 teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, and others from most of the state’s 58 counties for a variety of sessions Tuesday and Wednesday. It was intended to showcase programs and districts that are improving performance among the various subgroups tracked under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Tuesday’s program featured a debate between two high-profile figures in the education field with opposing views on what both described as a persistent problem: Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, and Chester E. Finn, founder of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.
Mr. Rothstein asserted that social and economic reforms, such as fully funding subsidized housing programs and putting dental clinics in schools, could have a powerful effect on closing achievement gaps.
But Mr. Finn described such policies as “pie in the sky” and countered that there is plenty that the education system itself can do to make schools more effective at improving achievement among poor and minority children—collecting and tracking better data on children from preschool through college, for one.
Mr. Finn said that, more than ever, he favors school choice programs, such as charter schools and vouchers for private schools.
“Don’t keep kids trapped in ineffective schools,” he said. He highlighted as an example of a model alternative the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, charter schools in cities such as Houston.
Mr. Rothstein argued that such model schools are “not representative” of the communities they’re in and that their success should not be used to beat regular schools “over the head.”
Still, Mr. Finn countered, successful charter schools “are more replicable than is being replicated.”
The two took highly divergent views on NCLB and how—or whether—Congress should amend it in the pending reauthorization of the federal law.
“Abolish it,” Mr. Rothstein said forcefully. “The federal government has no role in micro-managing schools to this extent.”
NCLB, and the philosophy that schools are solely responsible for closing the achievement gaps, he said, sets schools up for failure and “demoralizes” hard-working teachers.
“We’ve told them that they have to get middle-class results out of disadvantaged children,” Mr. Rothstein said.
In his response, Mr. Finn said that not only should NCLB remain, but that there should be national standards and a national assessment tied to those standards.
“The states’ rights arguments never persuaded me that all states would do right by kids,” said Mr. Finn, inviting some chuckles from the audience about his Republican affiliation.
In another keynote session, Douglas B. Reeves, the founder of the Center for Performance Assessment in Englewood, Colo., challenged school leaders to implement reforms in a much deeper and more thorough way, even if they think they’ve already done it.
“Hot new strategies aren’t worth anything if they’re not being implemented,” he said.
Secondary schools, he said, also need to do a better job of rewarding and recognizing achievement among students, in order to keep young adolescents focused on academic goals. Displaying student work shouldn’t be limited to elementary schools, he said.
Finally, he warned educators against adopting another new program just because someone else has said that it helped their school.
“Programs don’t teach kids,” he said, “teachers teach kids.”