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The Looming Battle on Education Reform

Posted: 12/03/08 02:35 PM ET

Narrowing the racial achievement gap remains one of Barack Obama's top priorities, even in the midst of the nation's economic crisis. Yet for all of the excitement that Obama has elicited, progressives are currently mired in a bitter battle over the future of urban school reform.
Obama's election marked the end of one era of the civil rights struggle yet the nation's disgraceful failure to provide equal educational opportunities to minority students persists. Today, the average black and Hispanic twelfth grader in the United States has the reading, math, and writing skills of the average white eighth-grader. This four-year gap is even wider in high-poverty urban schools, where black and Hispanic students are often five to six years behind their white peers by the time they graduate. If the teenaged sons and daughters of members of Congress had the cognitive skills of 12-year olds when they were high school seniors, the achievement gap would have been closed long ago.
In fact, Democrats, and many Republicans alike agree that closing the achievement gap is the nation's last great remaining civil rights struggle. Like his predecessors before him, Barack Obama, too, aspires to be the "Education President." Yet liberals are now deeply divided about how to best close the achievement gap.
Democrats (and some Republicans) are split into two loosely-defined camps. The first group of reformers supports school improvement as the most effective means to narrow the achievement gap; they favor retaining the emphasis on accountability and tracking student achievement in the No Child Left Behind law. By contrast, their foes in the education wars, including the teachers unions, increasingly support out-of-school interventions (like adding health clinics to schools or expanded preschool and after-school programs) and they favor dismantling much of the No Child Left Behind edifice. With leading liberals split on education reform, what's a progressive supposed to do? Obama himself has shown a Rashomon-like ability to keep a foot in both camps. But early in his administration he will need to pick and choose among his priorities.
Having just authored a new book, Sweating the Small Stuff--which recounts the tale of six inner-city secondary schools that have succeeded in closing the achievement gap--I am a big believer in the importance of school improvement. But there may also be a compromise for Obama, one that would acknowledge the importance of early intervention before school starts but affirms the primacy of classroom reforms once children reach adolescence.
By way of background, both education reform camps are dominated by progressives. The school improvement reformers are led by the Education Equality Project (EEP) and its odd couple co-chairs, Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York city's vast public school system, and Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader and firebrand. The EEP is a formidable coalition. It includes big-city mayors who are close to Obama (Chicago mayor Richard Daley, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, and Newark mayor Cory Booker), top civil rights leaders (Roger Wilkins, Harold E. Ford Jr.), and the nation's leading school superintendents, including D.C.'s hard-charging chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Arne Duncan, Chicago's school superintendent--and a leading candidate to be Secretary of Education--has also signed on to the EEP.
What's new about the EEP is that it is the first high-profile education reform group that has challenged the sacred cows of teacher unions (like tenure) from the left of the political spectrum. In so doing, it has begun to split the civil rights movement away from the automatic adoption of all things union.
Still, the unions and their remaining progressive allies have been refashioning their agenda, too, to move beyond pressing for more spending on minority students and higher teacher salaries. Their recently-formed coalition is the Broader Bolder alliance, which argues that schools cannot be expected to close the achievement gap because low-income minority students suffer from too many health problems and social and economic handicaps. The Broader Bolder (BB) alliance includes Obama education transition team co-chair Linda Darling-Hammond, several Republican apostates, prominent liberal thinkers like William Julius Wilson, and a sprinkling of civil rights leaders as well (e.g., Julian Bond).
BB adherents support a few school improvement reforms, such as smaller classes in elementary school and a longer school day. But they place heavy priority on early intervention, before kindergarten starts. As Susan B. Neuman, a former Bush appointee and BB signatory wrote earlier this year in the Detroit Free Press, "Once a child starts failing behind in school, catching up is mostly a pipe dream."
That defeatist view of school improvement efforts was rejected at the "no excuses" schools that I visited. Black and Hispanic students at these six schools--which included well-known charter schools that were part of the KIPP and Achievement First networks--did in fact eliminate the achievement gap between themselves and white students. Middle school students, though they typically were one to two years behind when they started fifth grade, outperformed the average white student by eighth grade--and they often did better than white students in affluent suburbs. At the high schools I studied, minority students were more likely to graduate and be accepted into college than their white peers, too.
The founders of these schools, several of whom were young, white, and self-identified liberals, did not deny that socioeconomic differences had an important impact on student achievement. But they adamantly disputed the notion that a great school could do little to close the achievement gap. And by studiously copying their successful schools, they have demonstrated that gap-closing schools can be replicated, rather than being one-time flukes whose outstanding performance is due to a charismatic principal.
During the election, Obama staked out a sensible compromise between the two progressive camps. He supported spending billions more on quality preschool and early childhood education programs and he spoke in favor of funding twenty "Promise Neighborhood" zones that would provide cradle-to-adulthood parenting classes and support services, modeled after the renowned Harlem Children's Zone. But once children reach school age, Obama placed primary emphasis on in-school reforms for closing the achievement gap, including doubling federal support for charter schools, experimenting with merit pay for teachers, and instituting new programs to recruit more teachers to underserved schools.
Most important, Obama rejected the idea that schools should not be held accountable for substantially boosting student achievement. He frequently urged parents during the campaign to take more responsibility for their child's performance in school but was equally insistent that teachers had to be accountable. "The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement," Obama said in speech in May, "is not the color of their skin or where they come from. It's not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is."
Obama's compromise--basically focusing on school improvement for adolescents but adding better preschool programs for toddlers and the pre-K years--ultimately asks more concessions from the Broader Bolder camp than the Joel Klein-Al Sharpton school improvement camp. Many school improvement advocates already support expanding high-quality early childhood and preschool programs, and they favor, say, providing school eye exams and eyeglasses to low-income students who need glasses to read. Indeed, it's no coincidence that Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan signed both the Klein-Sharpton and Broader Bolder manifestos.
By contrast, focusing on school improvement to close the achievement gap among adolescents is anathema to many of the Broader Bolder adherents, including the teacher unions. They believe it is a dangerous delusion to hold schools and teachers accountable when their low-income students fail to close or substantially narrow the achievement gap. Teacher unions, in particular, are staunchly opposed to ending tenure and instituting the performance-based job contracts that prevail in other professions. On two occasions, Obama was booed by members of teacher unions for proposing to experiment with pay-for-performance schemes. For the most part, teacher unions would prefer to gut the existing accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind act, rather than try to retain the law but patch up it's numerous flaws.
It's often said that radical school reform is impossible without the involvement of the all-powerful unions. True enough. Yet the reverse holds true as well: Far-reaching reforms to close the achievement gap will never happen without the unions giving way on some of their bedrock job privileges and antiquated pay systems. At some point during his presidency, Obama will likely have a pivotal moment with the unions that will help determine how committed he is to making a large dent in the achievement gap, as opposed to tinkering with the status quo.
The litmus test in this balancing act between the two camps of progressive reformers should be the same principle that animates all of the gap-closing schools that I studied: It's the kids, stupid, not the adults that matter. At the moment, the nation's dysfunctional inner-city high schools are designed to serve the interest of adults. The system is dominated by the district bureaucrats who demand endless reports from principals; the principals who demand endless forms from teachers; the education schools, which hold on to their pet pedagogical theories though they have little bearing on the reality of inner-city classrooms; and the teachers, too many of whom are ultimately more concerned with their seniority rights and tenure than with providing the best education to children, by any means necessary.
That's not how outstanding schools for low-income students function. In every high-performing inner-city school that I visited, principals and teachers were zealously committed to doing "whatever works" to raise academic achievement among minority students, even when doing so conflicted with their personal political ideology.
At times, Obama himself talked about education reform in much those terms during the campaign. And as the nation's first African-American president, Obama could have a chance to pull off a radical Nixon-goes-to-China coup on inner-city school reform, starting with Washington D.C.'s pathetic public schools. But to go down in history as the president who made real inroads in closing the nation's shameful achievement gap, President Obama will have to disappoint some of the progressive allies that helped get him elected in the first place.