Leaving no child behind — for real this time

Policy advisers are calling on President Obama to actually grapple with child poverty and its effects on students instead of tinkering with accountability measurement.

This year, education was nothing like the centerpiece issue it was in the 2008 election. President Obama did not present any second-term plans for a fresh education agenda to help the many students who are behind. He’s going with the plan in place.

But education, especially of poor urban youth, is hardly a success story for the education reformers who have pushed their agendas on the country and the current administration. Their silence in this election might suggest a touch of failure and a new awareness of how daunting it is to ensure that all children succeed

These masters of education reform are suddenly not so sure what to do. And this could actually mean progress, because it creates an opening for educators who do know.

The silver bullets of the last few years are tarnished. It turns out that some charter schools are highly segregated, and not all provide a good education for low-performing students. Evaluating teachers on test scores hasn’t improved urban teaching so far. If anything, testing the dickens out of poor and minority youth and closing “failing” schools have resulted in furious public backlash.

So while there is still momentum behind all of these education “solutions,” the vision behind them has become blurrier. That reform agenda has lost some of its spirit, and the country may be casting about for new directions.

In the heavily red state of Indiana, organized teachers helped vote out Tony Bennett, the state education superintendent who allied with the governor to put limits on teacher unions, expand charters, institute test-based teacher evaluations and bring in a new voucher program. Teacher unions also successfully challenged candidates in Idaho and South Dakota whose platforms reflected the dominant education reform agenda.

NCLB waivers aren’t a vision

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Nov. 16 that he’ll focus on waivers to the No Child Left Behind law for the next four years. The waivers allow states to set different achievement targets for different subgroups, now that NCLB’s original goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 is clearly beyond reach.

This doesn’t have the ring of a bold new vision, and bloggers and commentators have said so. As long as Duncan stays, they write, the federal government will continue to advocate for more charters, pay for performance and school “turnarounds,” the agenda of the new status quo.

Obama will push for increasing access to higher education and preschool programs, both critical areas. But in terms of K-12, it seems Duncan’s education department will ignore the growing chorus of educators who are alarmed at what is happening to our young people.

Yet their voices are growing louder. Those educators are suggesting that leaving no child behind means just that.

The possible effect of NCLB waivers disturbs them. In the District of Columbia, according to Education Week, the new goal for reading is 70 percent proficiency among black students and 94 percent among white students by 2017. In New Jersey, the waiver permits a math proficiency goal for English language learners of 73 percent; for white students, it’s 93 percent. Is that what we want for our kids?

Educators’ advice

Policy advisers are calling on Obama to actually grapple with child poverty and its effects on students instead of tinkering with accountability measurement. Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation wrote on Nov. 7 that rather than offer waivers the president should “think big” about helping students in concentrated poverty to attend economically integrated public schools.

In a Nov. 7 article in The Washington Post, Arthur Camins, the director of a science and engineering education center in New Jersey, warns that pursuing the current education reform agenda flies in the face of “contrary, well-articulated evidence.” Countries with successful education systems have far more substantial social support systems to mitigate the effects of poverty, he writes. We should change our focus “from spending millions on testing to spending millions on support services.”

Up to now, the reform elite have brushed off support services as outside the mission of schools. But that position loses its punch when something like Hurricane Sandy tears down walls to reveal the hardships that students in poverty face.

“Critically needed to make any kind of education possible is wraparound support that thinks about young people holistically, the way I’m sure you think about your daughters,” teacher Alison Upton Lopez wrote to President Obama in a letter posted recently on Diane Ravitch’s blog. “You would never take away art and music classes for them because test prep is more important ... (y)ou would never allow them to suffer through the pain of watching classmates shot and family members killed without any counseling because there is only one social worker at a school of 2,000 students.”

There is not yet a new national consensus on education reform, but the voices of teachers like Lopez are getting hard to ignore. It’s time for teachers to get louder.

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