Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Amina reports on Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Hearing, Washington, D.C.


Witness: Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

The Shell Game

It feels a little like a shell game in today’s House Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the reauthorization of ESEA. Duncan’s testimony on the administration’s blueprint presents lots of attractive shells. However, when pressed it’s unclear that anything good lies under them for students of color, their families and communities.

Let’s start with equity. Finally, a proposal that says it will hold states and districts accountable for equitable distribution of resources.  However, the blueprint wording is soft. And Secretary Duncan’s explanation even softer when pressed for details by Senator Harkin. He describes the problem of funding inequity at length, but nothing more. There’s no timeline, no enforcement strategy, no real plan. The shell looks good but there may be nothing under it.

Community what?

Community engagement and parental involvement seem to be under every shell, but so dispersed and lacking in clarity it may not be worth the effort of looking. Senator Dodd asks, Where is it in the blueprint? Yes, yes, yes, this may be the single most important factor in improving schools, Duncan agrees. But clearly the blueprint is out of step with all this importance. The blueprint mentions the word ‘parents’ a total of five times!

More tellingly, community engagement has no dedicated program. It’s mixed in with a potpourri of other good policy ideas with nowhere to go and presumably no real time to dedicate to them. Nutrition, school safety, physical education, mental health, substance abuse, bullying and finally community engagement efforts are all wrapped together with the competitive grant ribbon. 

Community, well specifically community-based organizations are mentioned at length in the Promise Neighborhoods and 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs. The programs beg a distinction that Duncan tends to blur; community-based organizations and actual community engagement are different. One is a thing, the other a process. One can be relied on to provide services, as the blueprint aptly does in the Promise Neighborhoods program and others. The other requires a plan, and an underlying premise and belief that community members must be drawn into discussions of how we talk about schools, teaching and learning. Community engagement--a sprinkle here and there, but really not much anywhere.

Tango with turnarounds

Finally, and perhaps most troubling is the blueprint’s treatment of turnaround schools: schools in which students of color are overrepresented. The blueprint’s approach reminds me of my own childhood in school. There was always that kid in your classroom or grade; the hard one. The one who failed almost every test, disrupted the class at every turn, was constantly in the principal’s office, was warned, sanctioned, and finally expelled. The system just didn’t know what to do with him or her. These students are moved around but are inconsistently engaged. They need the most, but in an overburdened system can get the least. That student seems much akin to how the blueprint treats turnaround schools. Let’s close them, punish the staff and principals, convert them into charters, but not really engage them. To do that we’d have to face what these schools really are: Extreme manifestations of systemic problems. To fix them we may need to revolutionize the whole system, and it takes more than a shell game to accomplish that feat.

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