The NAACP’s One Step Forward on School Reform
It is hard to take the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seriously when it comes to education policy and school reform. From stubbornly opposing school choice and Parent Power, to its New York City affiliate’s unsuccessful and embarrassing collaboration with the Big Apple unit of the American Federation of Teachers on stifling the expansion of charter schools, to its failed attempt with the National Urban League and other old-school counterparts to force the Obama administration into abandoning its school reform agenda, to its less-than-thoughtful effort to address the school-to-prison pipeline (without consideration that we spend $228 billion on criminal justice badly because we spend $591 billion on education abysmally), the old-school civil rights group has long-ignored solutions that could actually improve education, lost opportunities to ally with reformers, and alienated a younger generation of black families. As a result, the NAACP’s once-proud legacy as both a school reformer is collecting as much dust as old W.E.B. Du Bois-edited copies of The Crisis, while it has lost ground as a civil rights leader to a new generation of Parent Power activists and young black school reformers who understand the importance of overhauling American public education.
So one can’t help but be skeptical about the NAACP’s release yesterday of its new education policy and advocacy agenda – especially when one remembers that it comes two years after Jealous promised to release it back in 2010 during Jealous’ appearance at an American Enterprise Institute confab. For good reason. While the NAACP has sensibly embraced some reforms, it refuses to support the bold teacher quality reforms and school choice efforts that will help all black children succeed.
At least the NAACP admits that improving early childhood education makes sense. This shouldn’t be shocking. After all, this is the kind of reform measure that those who want to play at reform (along with all but the most obstinate traditionalist) would support. After all, expanding pre-kindergarten programs doesn’t involve actually overhauling traditional districts (or involve revamping how teachers – including the Baby Boomers who dominate the NAACP’s membership – are compensated and evaluated). Yet, as with so many Pre-K advocates, the NAACP makes its case for supporting the expansion of early childhood education programs with shoddy data; it cites the Perry Preschool Project, one of the few long-term studies of Pre-K, which has criticized for the use of non-standard research techniques such as combining I.Q. scores of four different cohorts. The fact that the NAACP come out and backed the Obama administration’s effort to overhaul federal Head Start programs (which has proven to be ineffective in improving student achievement during the early years) – and actually calls for expanding the program – makes one wonder if it is serious about its stance. But then, why should anyone be shocked that it has refused to go far and call for shutting down failing Head Start centers? Such a move would not be well-received among the gray heads in the NAACP’s membership, and the save for the matter of recognizing the constitutional rights of gays to civil marriage, Jealous and association chairman Roslyn Brock have proven to be anything but willing to challenge their thinking.
The NAACP’s move to embrace extended learning time is also not all that path-breaking. Jealous has touted this since he took the helm four years ago. It also smartly admits that additional hours in the school day doesn’t necessarily lead to better results unless the quality of teaching, curricula, and learning opportunities is improved; for that, the NAACP deserves credit, because extended learning time advocates often fail to admit this. But beyond calling for districts and charter school operators to build stronger partnerships with cultural institutions and other organizations to expand experiences for our kids (which makes plenty of sense), the NAACP doesn’t actually address the biggest obstacle to increasing student learning time: Affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (including its infamously bellicose Chicago affiliate) who have refused to amend collecting bargaining agreements with districts to increase the time teachers actually teach in classrooms (and accept what high quality teachers already know – that the teaching profession is changing, and that instructors will have to work longer hours to improve student success). The NAACP passed on an important opportunity to show that it stands for black children by calling out its financial backers for being more-concerned about the comfort of laggard instructors than about helping kids get more time to learn.
The NAACP even deserves a pat on the back for its call for states and districts to develop early-warning systems to track students on the path to dropping out, as well as interventions to help kids get back on track. But as I noted, the NAACP isn’t exactly taking a bold step here. School reformers have been pushing for this since Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz began pioneering this effort eight years ago with his powerful work on identifying the nation’s dropout factories and failure mills. Still, the NAACP deserves praise, and perhaps, it will be able to coax its affiliates into advocating strongly for such efforts at the nation’s statehouses and district central offices.
The NAACP deserves some faint and measured praise for supporting these reforms. But this isn’t good enough.
Its call for districts to provide salary differentials to high-quality teachers who work in schools serving poor and minority kids ignores the evidence that shows that those methods don’t work (along with the fact that simply adding on small bonuses that don’t factor into existing income streams or reward teachers for improving student performance achieves little). It dances around the consequences of near-lifetime employment through tenure in restricting the ability of districts to improve the quality of teaching for the very black children the association purports to defend. The NAACP’s refusal to call for a full overhaul of teacher compensation – including moving away from seniority- and degree-based pay scales that have proven ineffective at spurring improvements in student achievement – is laughable. And the NAACP’s declaration that Value-Added Assessment of longitudinal student test score growth data is too unreliable for evaluating teacher performance fails against three decades of evidence that it is the best, most-objective measure of instructional quality.
It’s good to see that the NAACP supports moving to weighted student funding approaches to school finance. But it doesn’t go further on this front by calling for states to take over full funding of education, which would allow for weighted student funding to become more effective by essentially voucherizing school funding so that it goes to any high-quality school opportunity and end Zip Code Education policies that harm poor and minority children. But such a move, of course, would mean taking a further step and embracing school choice. And as the NAACP has consistently shown over the past few years with moves such as passing a referendum opposing charter schools, taking a step in the right direction isn’t going to happen.
Meanwhile the NAACP’s unwillingness to embrace school choice and Parent Power –– even as black families, younger generations of black professionals, and even such big names as pundit Roland Martin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza have done so – is as disappointing as ever. For all of the NAACP’s posturing about recognizing the need to overhaul American public education (and that it is the civil rights issue of our time) it continues to support policies and practices that condemn far too many of our black children it is supposed to defend to poverty and prison, as well as perpetuate the Zip Code Education policies which effectively promote the very segregation it has long opposed.
The NAACP’s refusal to back Parent Trigger laws and other measures that allow families to lead the turnaround of schools in their own neighborhoods shows that it embraces the conceit of traditionalists (and even some reformers) that families are too incapable of making smart decisions for the kids they love. Given the NAACP’s almost in utero skepticism of impromptu leaders, it isn’t shocking. But by refusing to accept the idea that black families (along with those from other backgrounds) should be lead decision-makers in education, the NAACP is losing an opportunity to build up a new generation of impromptu leaders who can transform American public education as well as lead the charge on other civil rights and economic empowerment issues.
Then there is the question of will the NAACP actually follow up on its agenda with real action? It is an important one. Save for a few branches (notably its Connecticut affiliate), it has long been all show and no action. Considering that it has taken two years for the NAACP to come up with an education policy agenda, you have to expect that it will be another two years before it advocates strongly for it. And our children and communities don’t have time for cheap talk.
The NAACP, in short, refuses to the embrace the bold legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the Freedom Riders, James Meredith, and other civil rights activists of a half-century ago, who dared to mount real challenges to the established order. Even when given the opportunity to live up to its legacy, the NAACP refuses to do so. Its leadership knows better and should do better.
All that said, at least for once, the NAACP has shown that it is willing to give the school reform movement its due. This isn’t enough. It is high time for the old-school civil rights group to fully embrace the systemic overhaul of public education –and take its rightful place in the movement where it should be.