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Monday, September 19, 2011

EDUCATION NATION: Congress Gridlock Enables Racially and Economically Biased Education Initiatives

Kirk Clay
Special Correspondent: Kirk Clay

Last week the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held yet another hearing about the No Child Left Behind Act. As Congress continues their never-ending debate about the perils of NCLB, two education initiatives that disproportionately and negatively impact the poor and people of color are about to be overlooked again.

As it becomes clear that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), will not be reauthorized by Congress any time soon, the Government is compelled to allow states to waive some of its provisions. The Government is planning to issue waivers for states that agree to continue these initiatives.

The two initiatives are: 1). Using student test scores to make decisions about teachers. 2). Using specific approaches to turn around low-performing schools. Both initiatives compound racial and economic injustice in the school system, harming all students, but especially students of color, immigrant students, and students from impoverished communities.

Using tests scores to make high-stakes decisions about schools and students has been the hallmark of the U.S. school system since ESEA was last reauthorized in 2002. The law uses math and English language test score results as the main way to measure schools. The National Research Council recently completed a review of 20 years of test-based accountability, and found that this approach has little or no effect on student learning.

The pressures on schools to do well on math and English language tests has pushed them to neglect other subjects such as science, social studies, the arts, and physical education.

The government has aggressively promoted the use of student test score gains as the major component for evaluating teachers, giving them tenure, deciding how much to pay them, and making decisions about retention and dismissal. When each teacher feels his or her job is on the line, the negative effects of test score pressure multiply. The schools already suffer from an inequitable distribution of teachers with more affluent students disproportionately receiving better prepared and qualified teachers.

There are four specific approaches to turning around schools, and we feel that these four models may not be grounded in strong evidence-based research and may have components that are ineffective. Most of the lowest-performing schools also receive the least resources. Yet, none of the four models call for allocating more resources. What are these four models?

School Closure: We should take closing a school very seriously because it can be disruptive to students and families.

Charter Schools: While there are a small number of excellent charter schools, research indicates that most charter schools preform the same as regular public schools. Also, some charter schools are selective about the students they enroll.

Replacing Staff: Of the remaining two models, one calls for replacing the principal, and one calls for replacing the principal and at least half of the staff. This may result in a "blame the teacher" dynamic in the community and that would not be helpful.

For a number of years, it has been clear that the current version of ESEA is a bad law. After repeated unsuccessful attempts at reauthorization, it now appears that it will not be reauthorized for a few more years. We believe that a successful public school system is essential to America's future. Its importance is magnified in an economy still recovering from the Great Recession.

(Kirk Clay is Senior Advisor at PowerPAC Foundation).

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