Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: The 1st Senate hearing on ESEA Reauthorization

Amina's perspective from Capitol Hill:

Economics vs. Civil Rights

The first Senate hearing on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives a clear indication that the civil rights imperative of educational opportunity has been discarded for arguments of economic necessity and America's standing in the global marketplace.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the committee’s chair, defined the hearing as an introduction to reauthorization, protecting the goals of the existing law while changing what hasn’t worked. For him the importance of education reform is predicated on the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy. To his credit Harkin noted serious concerns about the achievement gap. Minorities, he described, as failing in the system. Yet, most tellingly is how Harkin funneled this sad reality through an economic lens. He cited a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) saying that if the nation’s high schools and colleges were to raise the graduation rates of Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans students to levels of white students by 2020, the increase in personal income across the nation would add more than $310 billion to the US economy. He noted that in the past the achievement gap has been couched as a civil rights issue and moral imperative yet that idea was quickly cast aside for the supremacy of the nation's economic concerns.

The panel’s witnesses were selected with this idea in mind, two were directly from the business community, with the third gentleman being from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The panel members were Andreas Schleicher of the (OCED) in Paris, France, Dennis Van Roekel, President the National Education Association (NEA), Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B, and John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable.  (To watch and read their testimonies go to: http://help.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=201fe113-5056-9502-5d36-207b90e58b96.)

Congressional Concerns

The discussion and questions from the Senate members seemed less than informed and thoughtful. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) surmised the problem as a need to improve parental participation and the need for businesses to support that participation. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), touted his teacher pay for performance scheme in Tennessee, the first state to have such a program, and wanted to see similar schemes supported at the federal level. Senator Jack Reed (R-I) emphasized the need for better principals. The more “progressive” points of view came from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with his emphasis on how college is government funded in Europe, as is other services that assist in insuring equitable access to education for all students. Also Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) who questioned over emphasis on testing and teaching to the “bubble” (teaching to those students whose test scores can easily be raised). Senator Al Franken (D-MN) who touted his proposed legislation to recruit and train principals, interestingly expressed a belief that testing was being inappropriately used. Testing results were being released too late for teachers to use them to modify and improve curriculum. His solution: test more often and have it be progress based.

Regardless of these concerns, the responses with the exception of  VanRoekel of National Education Association (NEA), were based on an economic and business perspective. A move away from the moral imperative and toward an economic one in education reform is unsettling at best. First, it indicates a belief on the Hill that there is an overall malaise and weariness in America toward civil rights and racial justice. The message is “we’ve been there and done that with civil rights, it didn’t work, let’s use something more effective”.  More importantly, when lives and injustice are defined solely in economic terms, it narrows and warps the solutions we identify. When the benefits and costs are defined in dollars, of course the value of teaching can be reduced to test scores; improving teachers becomes a discussion on pay for performance and failing schools can be cured by school choice. Without a moral compass it’s easy to slip out of language of how the system is failing students of color and into language of how students of color are failing the nation, and are responsible for our decline in the world economy.

 More to come.

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