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Forum Seeks A New Vision for U.S. Role

By David J. Hoff — April 23, 2008 8 min read
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Congress and the next president need to offer a new vision for the federal role in K-12 education, creating a sustained effort to increase the quality of teachers, tailoring accountability systems to measure higher-order thinking, and ensuring that all spending is equalized across school districts, a report from a group of educators and researchers says.

“The federal strategy of attempting to improve schools through mandates and sanctions cannot get us where we need to go,” the Forum for Education and Democracy says in the report, which was scheduled for release April 23 in Washington.

Instead, it argues, the government should do what other countries with high student achievement do. That would mean making “substantial investments in teacher training,” holding states accountable for equitably financing schools, and using assessments that foster “critical thinking and problem-solving” in the curriculum, the report says.

“It asks the federal government to take a leadership role in public education,” George Wood, the forum’s executive director and the principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, said of the report. In the forum’s conception of such leadership, the federal government would back off prescribing the types of tests states must use—something it is “uniquely unqualified to do,” Mr. Wood said in an interview—and establish systems to improve the quality of teachers and create incentives for states and districts to equalize their resources.

The expansive vision would cost an extra $29 billion a year, the report says, a 75 percent increase over the $38.2 billion fiscal 2008 budget for K-12 programs in the U.S. Department of Education.

“What we’re talking about is an asterisk” in the total federal budget, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University’s school of education, who edited the report with Mr. Wood. “It is tiny in terms of where we are putting our money. But it is huge in the pay out on the investment.”

Timed to be issued the same week as the 25th anniversary of the release of the 25th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk, the Forum for Education and Democracy report argues that the United States has failed to respond adequately to that influential 1983 federal report’s call to improve the quality of the nation’s schools.

Instead, the new report argues, other countries have improved their elementary and secondary education systems, while the achievement of U.S. students has stagnated or declined on international exams, mostly because the country has not ensured a high-quality teaching force or distributed resources equitably.

Evolution or Revolution?

In “Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education,” the forum says that 2009 would be an “ideal time to rethink the federal government’s role in education.”

With a new president in office and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act likely to be Congress’ top K-12 priority, policymakers will be ready to engage in a substantive debate over the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education, the group hopes. The 6-year-old NCLB law was scheduled for renewal in 2007, but efforts to revise it have stalled.

Federal Role Reimagined

Highlights of the Forum for Education and Democracy’s recommendations for expanding and improving the federal government’s role in K-12 policy:

IMPROVING TEACHING Offer incentives for teachers to work in tough-to-staff schools in areas with teacher shortages. Create opportunities for teachers to work together in “collegial learning opportunities.” Support the development of new pathways that recognize teacher expertise and encourage teachers to become mentors or coaches. Begin a national strategy to recruit new principals.

ENGAGING COMMUNITIES Encourage parents to be engaged in their children’s schools. Give parents a role in determining the school improvement efforts of their children’s schools. Create community schools that are “hubs of educational services” for children and families.

RESEARCH Identify promising practices and work to publicize them. Revise the National Assessment of Educational Progress to emphasize open-ended performance assessment and pay for state exams that measure “intellectually ambitious learning.” Give states money to expand their data systems.

FINANCES Increase federal funding for special education to 40 percent of schools’ costs of addressing the needs of students with disabilities. Provide states with incentives to provide “equitable opportunities to learn.” Give communities money for safe housing, health care, and other services to improve children’s success in school.

SOURCE: “Democracy at Risk”

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, was scheduled to be one of several speakers at the forum’s news conference for the release of the report.

Federal policymakers almost certainly will be ready to do a thorough review of the NCLB law and other K-12 legislation, according to Washington observers. But Congress and the new president—Democrat or Republican—would be unlikely to be interested in making the dramatic changes recommended in the forum’s report, one experienced policy hand said.

“The tendency of policy is toward inertia, to maintain the same policy or add on to it incrementally,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group that has tracked implementation of the NCLB law.

In K-12 education, for example, Congress has changed direction only twice in the past 50 years, according to Mr. Jennings, who worked as an aide to House Democrats on education issues from 1967 through 1994. The first was when it passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The ESEA created the Title I program for disadvantaged students—the largest federal K-12 program.

The next time was when Congress required states to adopt standards for student performance in the 1994 version of the ESEA, Mr. Jennings said. In passing the latest version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind law—championed by President Bush—in 2001, Congress put more teeth into the law by requiring states to hold schools accountable for meeting goals for student performance in reading and mathematics.

Mr. Jennings’ organization has convened a group of researchers to evaluate federal efforts to improve schools and recommend whether the federal law should be just tinkered with or totally overhauled.

One staunch supporter of the NCLB law said major changes are unlikely. Congress may be ready to amend the accountability rules and add efforts to improve states’ curricula, but it is unlikely to rewrite the law or add major new provisions, said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit that lobbies for improving the educational opportunities of disadvantaged children.

“I see this [ESEA reauthorization] as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary,” said Ms. Haycock.

Critical Voices

The Forum on Education and Democracy is a group of scholars and practitioners who have been critical of the No Child Left Behind law and other efforts to hold schools accountable based on student test scores. Its members include Ms. Darling-Hammond, who is advising the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; Theodore R. Sizer, a former dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education and a prominent author and school reformer; and Wendy D. Puriefoy, the director of the Washington-based Public Education Network.

The 4-year-old group is based in Stewart, Ohio, where it has one employee helping Mr. Wood, who is the volunteer executive director.

“Democracy at Risk” is the group’s first comprehensive statement on what it believes is wrong with federal policy and what can be done to fix it.

The NCLB law has “generated much-needed attention to inequalities,” but its emphasis on using tests to rate schools has been ineffective, the forum’s report says.

“Rather than developing schools’ capacity to improve their practice,” it says, “NCLB has substituted test-based sanctions as remote controls for micromanaging schools.”

In implementing the law, states have relied mostly on tests that measure low levels of knowledge and skill, the report says. Because the test scores are used to determine a school’s standing under the law’s accountability system, schools have responded by teaching to those tests, the forum says.

High-achieving countries have assessments that “require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems in mathematics, and defend their ideas orally and in writing,” the report says. “This focuses students’ and teachers’ attention on the skills that democracy, higher education, and 21st-century jobs will require.”

Those countries, it says, also ensure that schools have the resources they need so that students have the opportunity to learn the challenging material and demonstrate the advanced skills that appear on those tests.

The main source of that opportunity, it says, is in high-quality teaching.

Countries with high achievement have developed their teaching corps by offering high-quality preparation, equalizing teacher pay at levels on a par with those of other professionals, and offering teachers up to 20 hours a week for planning or professional development.

Equity Efforts

The forum also calls for the federal government to set policies that would ensure that high-quality teachers are available in all schools, especially in those with a lot of disadvantaged students.

But that would be only one sign that a state or district was offering students an “opportunity to learn,” the report says.

The federal government also should measure whether all schools have high-quality teachers. And it should determine whether all schools have challenging curricula and equitable distribution of money for schools, the forum says.

To hold states accountable for doing so, it recommends, the federal government should determine a state’s eligibility for federal funds by its progress in meeting such opportunity-to-learn standards.

That recommendation revisits a major policy debate.

In 1993, Democrats in Congress wanted states to meet opportunity-to-learn standards under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act—the school reform bill proposed by President Clinton. Congress rejected the proposal because states contended it would put too much power in federal hands.

Mr. Wood argued that the six years of experience in implementing the NCLB law has shown policymakers that the nation needs to distribute resources equitably so schools have equal chances of increasing student achievement. The federal government should set goals for equalization that states would have to meet in their opportunity-to-learn standards.

“People now get that this is heavy lifting,” he said. “If you don’t [equalize resources], verbiage like ‘no child left behind’ is empty.”

Because of limits on federal spending, Congress is unlikely to approve any significant increases in K-12 spending, said Ms. Haycock, who had not read the report.

“There’s not going to be boatloads of money” in future years, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Forum Seeks A New Vision for U.S. Role

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