Amina writes from Washington on the Dept. of Education's recent release of its blueprint for ESEA reauthorization:
A seismic shift is taking place in public education with the Obama administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the helm. Despite the shortcomings and utter failure we’ve seen from Wall Street’s values of competition, self-interest, short-term gains at long term sacrifice, we still seem sold on incorporating these ideals into education policy. The ultimate losers in this “edu-business” world may be those most in need; students of color.
What happened to the Civil Rights Movement?
This is an ironic outcome for legislation steeped in the civil rights movement. ESEA was intended to right racial injustice and support the provision of education to those children formerly disenfranchised. Obama’s blueprint has ignored the very essence of the law they seek to reauthorize, replacing these ideals with competitive grants and competitive choice in schools. Children with civil rights become states and districts with the right to compete for funding.
Though always paltry in amount, federal funding by formula has at least been a promise of support for all children in need. As with the competitive grant process started with Race to the Top, Obama’s blueprint, converting a portion of this funding into competitive grants starts a trend to revoke that promise and once again leave some children behind. Moreover, for already cash-strapped states it creates a perverse incentive to game the system: to say and at least appear to do what’s necessary to receive funding.
Despite studies demonstrating that teachers are not primarily motivated by salary, the Obama administration introduced the unproven and self-interested business model of pay for performance into a system over-reliant on test scores. Although they’ve tempered the language in the blueprint, allowing other factors to be considered and the use of student progress to be included, the system as it stands does not support these changes. For the foreseeable future testing remains supreme.
To its credit the Obama administration is concentrating time, funds and effort toward turnaround schools; those at the lowest rung of achievement. However, promoting that schools be closed, or principals, teachers or other staff fired, may be short sighted at best. Although in the short run these strategies provide a short-term prize; removing the most egregious numbers. It does little to reshape the system in the long-term to ensure that the same problems don’t resurface. Turnaround strategies may also mean reopening as a charter school, a strategy that has shown mixed results. Closing schools altogether may also mean re-distributing students to schools well outside their neighborhoods that may be similarly under performing and under-resourced. Moreover, none of these strategies requires meaningful community participation in their selection and implementation, creating a fatal disconnect between the policies and students they profess to serve. We can do better.
Though the administration, policymakers and the general public may have tired of the civil rights and racial justice argument for education change, it doesn’t make it any less applicable. Civil rights doesn’t go out of style, and the persistent presence of vast racial disparities in resources and outcomes evidences its necessary inclusion in policy discussions. Let’s not let a fascination with business models and numbers out-weight the lives of the children behind them.