Special Report
Federal Opinion

Stimulating the Schools: A Plan for Federal Action

By Pedro A. Noguera & Alan M. Blankstein — February 13, 2009 4 min read
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The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has enormous potential to improve the quality of our nation’s public schools. This legislation represents a historic investment in children’s futures that could eventually change the very future of this nation. This is an opportunity that cannot be squandered.

Over the last eight years, educational progress in the United States has been modest at best. President Barack Obama’s administration will need a bold new strategy for reforming our public schools if they are going to play a more significant role in moving the nation forward. There can be no future for the auto industry, for example, if the schools in Detroit and other manufacturing centers are not capable of educating a new generation of workers to design the cars of the future. In cities and towns across America where jobs are being lost at a dramatic rate, revival of local and regional economies will require strategic investments in human capital. This will be possible only if our schools have highly trained and motivated teachers and a curriculum that provides students with 21st-century skills.

To solve the pressing problems confronting our economy and schools, national leadership by the Obama administration and the teachers’ unions will be needed. We have to move the conversation about teacher quality beyond a narrow debate over merit pay and job protection, to one focused more broadly on how to ensure that teachers receive adequate support and training to meet the academic needs of their students, and to ascertain their effectiveness in the classroom.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may soon have $5 billion at his discretion that could go a long way toward making research-based strategies available to underperforming schools and students who desperately need help. The bill also provides $200 million in funding for districts that want to reward educators for outstanding performance or for taking on additional responsibilities and leadership roles. A portion of the stimulus focuses on training and recruiting outstanding teachers for classrooms that need them most. Too often, the least-experienced teachers have been sent; why not send the best teachers to schools that are struggling?

We know that America’s school systems need more than just money to fix the many problems they face. New approaches to educating children and managing schools and districts are required to bring about the kind of changes we wish to see.”

There is another $100 million allocated to address teacher shortages and modernize the teaching workforce. This money could be used to provide training for new teachers to help them improve overall student achievement. These funds should be directed toward enhancing professional-development activities for new teachers, strengthening teacher recruitment and training efforts, and improving the preparation of general education teacher-candidates so they could more effectively teach students with disabilities. In addition to these critical efforts, we need extended site-based mentorship during the first two to three years of service to help increase the likelihood of success and retention for these teachers.

We know that America’s school systems need more than just money to fix the many problems they face, and that increased funding alone will not produce better results. New approaches to educating children and managing schools and districts are required to bring about the kinds of changes we wish to see. Policies and systems must be in place to promote best practices in teaching, reward high performers, and provide opportunities for feedback and development for those in need of improvement. We also must ensure that like the countries to which we typically compare ourselves, we provide high-quality early-childhood education, health care, and extended learning opportunities to all children in need. The United States will not be a leader in the 21st century if we continue to ignore the basic needs of vast numbers of children.

Finally, while teacher quality is crucial, sustainable school improvement can only be achieved if there is leadership development on a districtwide basis. We need a new generation of leaders who possess the skills required to engage in “positive deviance”—employing the tactics essential to achieve success within an otherwise failing or mediocre system.

The views expressed here echo sentiments expressed last week at a high-level forum sponsored by the HOPE Foundation. Participants included two former governors, policymakers, and top education leaders. Although those attending came from different backgrounds with opposing perspectives, and from both sides of the aisle, we were able to put aside political differences to focus on the future of this country’s young people. We worked hard to identify what we agreed were the six most important education policy actions facing President Obama and members of Congress today. If we can achieve broad consensus on these important issues, our nation’s policymakers can and must collaborate as well.

Strong leadership by President Obama and Secretary Duncan will be needed if we expect to see superior academic outcomes and greater accountability for the dollars to be invested. The federal government must send a clear message to the states that failure is not an option. Our children deserve that, and our future as a nation depends upon it.

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