Friday, September 17, 2010

DIANE+DEB: Why Civil Rights Groups Oppose the Obama Agenda + On Not Letting Facts Interfere With a Good Argument

from the Bridging Differences EdWeek blog, an online dialog between Diane Ravitch & Deborah Meier |

Why Civil Rights Groups Oppose the Obama Agenda

By Diane Ravitch on September 14, 2010 8:28 AM

Dear Deborah,

In late July, the nation's leading civil rights organizations issued a withering critique of the Obama administration's education policies. Did you see it? It would be understandable if most people never even heard about it because of the circumstances under which it was released. The statement was issued by the NAACP, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the National Coalition for Educating Black Children, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The press briefing was canceled at the last minute, when the leaders were invited to meet with Secretary Arne Duncan at the very hour they had scheduled their press briefing.

The statement—titled "Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn"—got little media coverage, but its detractors got plenty. Columnist Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post castigated the civil rights groups for daring to challenge President Obama, as did an editorial in The Wall Street Journal titled "Civil rights groups choose the teachers unions over black kids." (Subscription required for full text.) A hedge-fund manager associated with the pro-charter group "Democrats for Education Reform" called the civil rights leaders "gutless weasels" and accused them of putting the interests of the teachers' unions over the future of minority children.

The only thoughtful reprise of the 17-page document was in Valerie Strauss's blog in The Washington Post, The Answer Sheet, where she explained its main points ("Civil Rights Groups Skewer Obama Education Policy"). Strauss, who is now our nation's most indispensable education journalist, summarized the report in these words: "Dear President Obama, you say you believe in an equal education for all students, but you are embarking on education policies that will never achieve that goal and that can do harm to America's school children, especially its neediest. Stop before it is too late."

I hope that our readers will forget the invective directed against the authors of this report. Read it. It contains wisdom and good sense, both as a warning about the errors of current and proposed policies and as a roadmap for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The report criticizes the Obama administration's embrace of competition for federal funding, as in Race to the Top, as well as its intention to make future funding for Title I competitive. The civil rights groups point out that competition cannot provide equal opportunity and that millions of minority children will see no benefit from federal funding if they happen to be in states or districts that lose the competition. The principle of our education system, toward which we fitfully strive, is equality of educational opportunity, not winner take all and the devil take the hindmost.

Instead of fostering competition for federal funding, which was never the intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the report recommends federal "common resource opportunity standards" that would enhance and support common outcome standards. Specifically, the groups want the federal government to require states to make progress towards resource equity and "to ensure, at a minimum, that all students have access to early-childhood education, highly effective teachers, college-ready preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources."

Secretary Arne Duncan often says that "education is a civil right," but if that is the case, then states and districts should not have to compete for federal funding to guarantee the civil rights of their students. Logic suggests that the neediest students should have the greatest claim on federal funding. But, as we saw in Race to the Top, the children in 39 states saw no benefit at all from billions in federal education spending. Poor and minority children in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, California, Texas, Louisiana, and Illinois were left out. If the money were truly intended to strengthen education as a civil right, then it should have gone to those who needed it most, not to those who wrote the best proposal or had the best consultants. "The civil right to a high-quality education," say the civil rights groups, "is connected to individuals, not the states, and federal policy should be framed accordingly." By delivering extra funding to states that compete and win, they warn, "the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind."

Nor were the civil rights groups complimentary about other components of the Obama education agenda. They complained that: "For far too long, communities of color have been testing grounds for unproven methods of educational change while all levels of government have resisted the tough decisions required to expand access to effective educational methods." Instead of providing high-quality, early-childhood education and supporting policies that would provide "a stable supply of experienced, highly effective teachers," current reforms are "stop-gap" measures that rely on "quick fixes" and "offer no real long-term strategy for effective systemic change." The absence of these strategies in affluent communities indicates "the marginal nature of this approach."

These "quick-fix" strategies include closing schools, which is a central feature of the Obama-Duncan education agenda. Although, as the report says, this strategy has little or no evidence to support it, it will be inflicted primarily on low-income and minority communities. School closings have "increased disruption but ha[ve] not improved achievement for the students in these communities. And in some communities, the new schools created do not admit or retain the most educationally needy students." Schools in poor communities should be closed only as a last resort, and only after intensive efforts to help the school improve, and only after close collaboration with parents, the community, and teachers, and only after development of a clear plan to relocate the students to better schools.

The report also takes issue with the Obama administration's reliance on charter schools: "...we are concerned about the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities. There is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide...while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs."

Nor do the civil rights groups support the idea of using test scores as a "sole or primary measure of teacher effectiveness." They believe that schools in low-income and minority communities need a stable and effective staff that is committed to schools over the long haul, and they propose that "any measure of teacher effectiveness must account for the degree of difficulty of the teaching environment so that high-quality teachers will not be deterred from working in high-need schools."

It is a strong statement, and it deserves a close reading. If you believe that education is a civil right, or that education is of paramount importance to the future of our nation, or that every child should have access to a high-quality education, it is hard to conclude that the Obama administration's education policies are wise, practical, or likely to succeed.

A few weeks after I read the civil rights document, I came across a table showing inequities in funding within states and among states. Take a look. Wealthy communities typically spend two to three times as much to educate their children as districts with poor and minority students. The civil rights groups want to change the status quo. The Wall Street titans who are now promoting privatization, competition, tough accountability, and merit pay don't think this is a topic that bears discussing. They like to talk about how education (if run like a business by a leader who has a chain saw, a bat, or a broom, and who ignores the views of parents and teachers) will close the achievement gap, but they never talk about closing the resource gap.

If the Obama administration won't listen to the groups who are most assertive in defending America's neediest children, if they listen instead to hedge-fund managers and venture philanthropists, what hope is there for a more thoughtful approach to federal policy?



On Not Letting Facts Interfere With a Good Argument

By Deborah Meier on September 16, 2010 7:41 AM

Dear Diane,

It would be interesting to know what influenced the change of heart among those civil rights organizations, Diane. I've been exploring in my head—while I do my daily laps in the pond—what kind of data might persuade me to reverse my current educational convictions. What could convince me that I'm wrong?

Suppose someone could demonstrate to me that test scores would rise fastest if all schools served only a single "racial/ethnic/gender/economic" group? Suppose test scores suggested that the more segregated our lives were, the better our children's test scores?

I doubt this would be the case (see Anthony Bryk's Chicago study), but this is a thought experiment. Closing the test-score gap was not, actually, the central Supreme Court argument in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. But suppose one reheard the case—would we still reach the same conclusions? Supposing, horrors, that we could "prove" that racial segregation lessened the gap? Or that the most-advantaged-students' scores declined in integrated schools?

Is this something we dare talk about?

Or, imagine that the reduction of jobs that pay middle-class salaries and benefits continues to decline in both percentage and absolute terms, at least for the next generation. Supposing we had evidence that, if 100 percent of our youngsters were college graduates, it would have a deleterious effect on both the nation's civic and economic competitiveness. Supposing that the optimum number of graduates was 33 percent—with half in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields? Would that change my education recommendations? Yours? Would the ideal policy tend toward insuring that each group had a similar percentage headed to college? And, how much support would the "haves" provide for policy reforms aimed at increasing the odds that only about a third of their children had a chance at getting the schooling needed for the limited number of well-paid jobs?

Ditto for a long-term study of civic participation? Or support for democracy, or generosity toward others, or ...? What if it proved ...?

How level do we really want the playing field to be? And what data do we most highly value?

As I think about this, am I thinking about the good of the nation or my family? If the two are in conflict, how do I respond? Oddly enough, I once read a survey that demonstrated (and since I can't remember enough to cite it, let's "just pretend") that lower- and middle-class people were more, not less, aware that their own "self-interest" might conflict with the nation's. The rich saw the two interests as being, inevitably, closely allied. What was Good for General Motors was Good for America. So, what do we do when there's a conflict between our family's interests and our patriotism?

There was a recent study that showed that charity was in reverse order to one's affluence—which probably means in reverse order to years of schooling, too!

I was always disturbed by the idea, implicit in the Brown ruling, that people of color needed to sit next to whites if they were to become better educated (and not vice-versa). As a kindergarten teacher in an almost all-black school in Chicago, and again in central and East Harlem, it didn't seem inevitable at all. (Besides, I suspected that soon enough "we'd" find other ways to separate children within integrated school buildings.)

One of the "respondents" to the blog last week suggested it was all about safety. White and middle-class parents wouldn't tolerate unsafe schools—and could afford to find alternatives. Implicit: low-income schools are less safe. Yet, I noticed that even in the schools I was part of in East Harlem (which were unusually safe and had about a one-third white, one-third Latino, and one-third black population), the white families were far less likely to remain at Central Park East for the secondary school, despite its safety and the good record the school had in getting kids into colleges. There are other kinds of "safety" that may explain why most white families flee from schools that are less than half white. It's true also for many parents of color.

Once again, it's definitely not test scores that "suffer" from integration. Studies show that if race and class are held constant, whether kids go to the lowest-scoring and least-safe neighborhood school or the best has little effect on their SAT scores. Further, middle-class kids who go to "bad" schools increased their odds of getting into selective colleges—just as moving from New York City to Wyoming for one's senior year helps. It's akin to the fact that, all else being equal, more teens get killed in the suburbs than in the city. Which doesn't convince many whites to move in or keep blacks from moving out. (Cars are the No. 1 killer of teenagers.)

We apparently prefer being with others who are more like ourselves? It's more comfortable and in some cases a clear-cut advantage re. school resources (playing fields, labs, big libraries, social networks, etc.). Are there other values at stake? What evidence would convince us to choose one set over another?

Readers, try asking yourselves what long-term evidence would be sufficiently convincing to shake your views about what constitutes the best education—for your own child and/or society. Over the years, we asked our CPE graduates these questions, too—as part of their graduation exercises.

"Playing" around with ideas in this manner is not so very different from the "playing around" described in Playing for Keeps—about young children.


P.S. Note that I'm assuming the proper skepticism about "the facts."

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