A higher standard

By Michelle Chen Jul 03, 2009

Under the banner of reform and equal opportunity, the country is moving toward national education standards. But in education, a "common" standard isn’t necessarily an "equal" one, especially for the communities hardest hit by failures in public schools. EdWeek reports that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is using the federal stimulus to push states to adopt “voluntary” nationwide standards, designed to “eliminate the patchwork of academic standards across the country that result in students in the same grades learning different things in different states.” Broad national standards would seem to complement No Child Left Behind’s stated goal of pushing for equal opportunity in education. But in theory and practice, NCLB has alienated many progressive education advocates, who see it as a vehicle for narrowing the social mission of public schooling. Another aspect of Duncan’s reform approach—reflecting his controversial hardline reform efforts in Chicago Public Schools—is a highly politicized push for charter schools, which are often not unionized and tend toward a more “entrepreneurial,” some say corporate, model of education. He has also suggested bringing teachers under firmer government control, by potentially tying compensation systems to test scores Bruce Dixon at Black Agenda Report says “the education policies of America’s First Black President Obama’s education policies are not discernibly different from those of his Republican predecessor.”:

Improving education is not the goal. Privatization is the goal. The targets of school privatization are not supposedly underperforming students and teachers. The target is democracy itself. Private interests are just that – private. Turning public schools over to private interests frustrates even the possibility of democracy. Charter school apologists often claim that greater parental involvement is a hallmark of their model. But to the extent that it is true at all, it’s involvement of a select group of parents, and not open to those of the entire community. Charter schools undermine what is left of community.

Though Duncan has argued that the administration would prioritize quality in charter schools, new research reveals decidedly mixed results for charter school performance, with uneven outcomes for students of color. According to a study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes:

Black and Hispanic charter students do not fare as well in reading gains as their TPS [traditional public school] peers. Both groups of minority students have significantly lower gains than their TPS comparison students. As with reading, Black and Hispanic students were seen to realize significantly lower learning gains in math.

Bob Peterson of Rethinking Schools said the charter school movement is only as equitable and inclusive as the people and institutions driving it:

… while the charter school movement includes some very well-intended individuals and some quality schools, it’s also become a favorite of conservative forces and conservative foundations that have really championed charterizing and the marketizing, as I say, the whole public sphere of public education…. And the concern I have is that we’re setting up a two-tier system, where there is the most difficult-to-educate kids, a higher percentage of special needs, English language learners, kids who are counseled out of charter schools and voucher schools because of discipline problems—they end up in the public schools, where there’s a self-selected group in the charter schools. That’s not right.

Deborah Meier, a longtime education reformer based in New York City, also commented on Democracy Now! about a corrosive culture of elitism that has continued through the Obama administration:

segregation has been with us a very long time, but it hasn’t changed. And you can send your kid, if you’re an upper-middle-class New Yorker, you can send your kids, for example, to schools in New York City from kindergarten through twelfth grade that have fewer black and Latino kids in it than most private schools. I know this personally. And we have not—we’re so interested in the best and the brightest, by our very narrow definition of what we’re looking for in this country, what we mean by merit and what we mean by leadership. So I’m also just stunned by the Department of Education that includes virtually no educators, whose definition of being well-educated is that you graduated from Harvard. There’s something basically missing about what we want from our schools. And if we don’t get that right, and even discuss it, so that the only meaning of achievement now is improving test scores.

Will federal education policy under Obama continue to hold back the most vulnerable students? Even NCLB’s harshest critics recognize the deep inequities plaguing conventional public schools. The controversy is perhaps less about the educational format than about how to fix “failing” schools without punishing the communities that rely on them. So far, Duncan gets higher marks for discipline than for playing well with others. Image: Maria Glod / The Washington Post