The National Opportunity to Learn (OTL) Campaign, by a coalition of organizations committed to civil rights, represents a growing voice of criticism leveled at the Obama administration's education policy headed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The OTL released a framework for educational reform as a challenge to Obama/Duncan's Race to the Top, NCLB reauthorization, and other policies and agendas. The framework
"offer[s] critiques of federal efforts that would: distribute resources by competition in the midst of a severe recession; advance experimental proposals dwarfed by the scope of the challenges in low-income communities; and promote ineffective approaches for turning around low-performing schools and education systems."
To those critics, Obama sent this message on 29 July 2010: "... But I know there's also been some controversy about the initiative [Race to the Top]. Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change; a comfort with the status quo. But there have also been criticisms, including from some folks in the civil rights community, about particular elements of Race to the Top."
Just two days before, Secretary Duncan offered a similar refrain: "We have to challenge the status quo—because the status quo in public education is not nearly good enough—not with a quarter of all students and, almost half, 50% of African-American and Latino young men and women dropping out of high school."
The rising and new tension between a Democratic administration and liberal organizations provides an ideal opportunity to step back from the educational debate and reassess what we are arguing, what the evidence shows, and how we can move forward. Since the two sides above are disagreeing within the same ideology, we can conclude that this is not simple partisan bickering.
A key element of the debate involves the use of the term "status quo." The Obama/Duncan charge that people disagreeing with the administration are somehow for the status quo of schools and society is condescending and misleading. But it does expose the clear ideological foundation from which Obama/Duncan are working.
In their blueprint for educational reform, the Obama administration makes an erroneous claim: "Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success." This is a compelling and idealistic assertion, but untrue. While teacher and school quality matter, the conditions of students' lives outside of school account for about 67% to 86% of student achievement.
While the OTL is justified in criticizing the Obama administration for focusing on schools without acknowledging the context within which schools function, the misguided work of Obama and Duncan do not absolve us of the need to reform schools.
Education must be reformed. But we must seek reform within the context of addressing the causes of high drop-out rates and low student achievement.
And we do need to change the status quo. Ironically, however, the Obama/Duncan plan maintains the status quo instead of challenging it.
For example, William Mathis has released a look at the potential for National Standards, supported by Obama/Duncan, to help address the failures of schools, and he concludes: "Without addressing both the in-school and out-of-school influences on test scores, common core standards are not likely to improve the quality and equity of America's public schools."
We have been lamenting drop-out rates and our schools' inability to serve well marginalized children (children living in poverty, children of color, children speaking home languages other than English) for over a century, and each time we do, we call the conditions crises and offer the same solution of raising standards and increasing accountability.
And it never works. And it never will.
Like the OTL, I am in fact against the status quo—the status quo of childhood poverty exceeding 1 in 5 children; the status quo of children most in need being assigned to the least experienced and un-/under-qualified teachers; the status quo of spending millions of dollars on standards, tests, and accountability; the status quo of blaming teachers and schools for conditions beyond their control; the status quo of using our schools as political footballs.
We need political leadership brave enough to acknowledge and confront the whole picture of failures that exist in our society and then are reflected in social structures, such as our schools.
In a post on an EdWeek blog, Stephen Krashen expresses well what that leadership could be: "Improving education is not the path to eliminating poverty. Eliminating poverty is the path to better school achievement. All the money going to new standards, new tests, and of course new textbooks, should be spent on protecting children from the effects of poverty: Proper nutrition (no child left unfed), health care, and access to books."