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In Counter to ‘Joyless’ Schools, Coalition Demands Supports-Based Reform

By Michele McNeil — June 11, 2013 3 min read
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A group of 46 educators and policy advocates who are pushing what they call a more-progressive education agenda ramped up their call for “supports-based reform” by issuing a declaration to “rebuild America.”

They decried the current state of the standards-based movement, particularly the emphasis on high-stakes testing, and said “this approach—along with years of drastic financial cutbacks—are turning public schools into uncreative, joyless institutions.”

In a press call, Jeff Bryant of the Institute for America’s Future said a revolution is brewing, with citizens, parents, and students engaging in “open rebellions” against “top-down mandates.”

“Every revolution needs a declaration,” he said.

Today’s press call is the continuation of a media campaign the group launched in April alongside a new book, “Closing the Opportunity Gap.”

“As we’ve ‘raised the bar’ for achievement, we’ve cut the resources children and schools need to reach it. We must reverse this trend and spend more money on education and distribute those funds more equitably,” the declaration reads.

Indeed, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that for the first time in nearly 40 years, per-pupil spending on education decreased in 2011 from the year before.

Prominent signatories to today’s declaration include education historian Diane Ravitch, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and National Education Association counterpart Dennis Van Roekel. The group also includes parents, city leaders, a former U.S. secretary of labor, researchers, and educators.

They railed against much of the education agenda pushed by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The declaration calls for a limited role for the federal government, except in one instance: when states facilitate “gross inequities in how funding is distributed to schools that serve low-income and minority students.” Then, the signatories say, “the federal government has a responsibility to ensure there is equitable funding and enforce the civil right to a quality education for all students.”

They reiterated their call for more funding (and more equitably distributed), more early education, better teacher training, high-quality diagnostic tests, more-effective discipline, and parent engagement. The group doesn’t have any plans to aggressively lobby their plans in states, however. Their initial plan is to “engage” people, Mr. Bryant said.

“There are certain narratives that are frankly true or not helpful,” he said. “Our intention is to address that narrative and engage with as many people as possible.”

The declaration was organized by the Education Opportunity Network—which is affiliated with the Institute for America’s Future—and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, funded by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation. (Full disclosure: The Opportunity to Learn advisory board includes Anthony Cody, an opinion blogger, and Jerry Weast, a former Montgomery County, Md., schools superintendent and a board member of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

This list includes a diverse set of education policy folks who are not unified on everything. For example, while Ravitch is opposed to the common standards, Weingarten supports them but has called for a pause in high-stakes decisions tied to them during the transition.

The declaration comes nearly four months after a federally appointed commission that examined “equity and excellence” issued a report recommending equitable school finance, improved teaching, high-quality early education, and better accountability and governance of districts and schools. The report, however, has gotten little traction.

It should be noted, however, that Obama has made investing in high-quality preschool a big second-term agenda item.

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