There is plenty to be said about the report released today by the Obama administration’s Equity and Excellence Commission on providing all children with high-quality education. The good news for school reformers focused on helping American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children is that the report doesn’t gloss over the struggles they face. More importantly, the report’s recommendations that the Obama Administration do more to require state education agencies (many of which are bound by the same treaties Indian tribes have with state governments) to allow them to launch their own schools and play stronger roles in education governance, is also commendable. Considering that there is only one Native on the commission, getting even that much into a report is a feat worth noting. It is high time that we stop treating Native students as being invisible, and thus, unworthy of high-quality education.
A particularly pleasant surprise in the report is that public charter schools are at least given some credit for providing high-quality opportunities to poor and minority families, as well as allowing for families and communities to shape instruction and curricula. Considering that ardent traditionalists such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Todd Jealous, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hold seats on the panel, it is nice to see charters (and school choice) being given a little more than mere faint praise. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education staffers who staffed the commission made sure to keep the worst impulses of traditionalists at bay.
Meanwhile the commission’s call for improving early childhood education is to be expected. For one, the Obama administration has made expanding Pre-K its latest reform priority. Just as importantly, pushing for early childhood education is the kind of 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 are compensated and evaluated). What is surprising is its call to move the Head Start, whose $7.9 billion budget makes it the nation’s largest early learning program — and one which has been proven to be ineffective in improving long-term student performance — from control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education. It should have happened a long time ago. That call is actually far more ambitious than President Barack Obama’s own early ed proposal, which keeps Head Start operating under HHS control even as the agency has long-ago proven that it doesn’t understand what it takes to run an education program. Moving Head Start to the Department of education would also be a key step towards integrating such programs into traditional districts — and given that Pre-K gains often dissipate because of the low quality of teaching and curricula offered up by districts — may even force them to overhaul the rest of their systems. There is plenty to criticize about the Pre-K recommendations. But at least the commission does more to acknowledge the complications of implementing such systems (and making sure that the gains kids make in early education are built upon once they move into elementary and secondary schools) than the Obama administration does in its proposal.
But let’s be clear about this: The Equity and Excellence Commission’s report isn’t all that pioneering. It is a muddle of a report — especially compared to the Council on Foreign Relations’ strong call for systemic reform issued around the same time last year — that fails to acknowledge the need to transform American public education.
The commission’s call for extended learning time and afterschool programs is lovely in theory. But as with so much half-measures, the recommendation doesn’t address the best way to extend learning time: Increasing the number of days students actually spend in classrooms with high-quality teachers. But this isn’t surprising. After all, actually increasing the school day would involve confronting the most-fervent opponents to doing so: 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). With Weingarten and her National Education Association counterpart, Dennis Van Roekel, sitting on the commission, there was no way a stronger recommendation would be made.
The recommendations on addressing the low quality of teaching that is an underlying cause of the nation’s education crisis is also rather ho hum. The embrace of the so-called multiple measures approach that is also endorsed by some reformers (and pushed senselessly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) fails to note that data so far shows that multiple measures is useless. As Dropout Nation noted last month in its criticism of the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching initiative, even the most-rigorous classroom observations are less-useful in evaluating teachers (and weeding out high-quality teachers from laggards) than either Value-Added analysis of student test score growth data or student surveys such as those offered up by the Tripod tool developed by Cambridge Education and Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson. The report’s call for simply providing additional support for laggard teachers (who often don’t improve after four years or even 25 years on the job) runs against growing evidence — including last year’s study from Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University — that shows that it would be better to let those instructors head out of classrooms into positions better-suited to their talents. Meanwhile the commission’s call for “a licensing assessment” to keep out laggard teachers (echoing Weingarten’s call for an entry test similar to bar exams for lawyers like herself) fails to acknowledge the reality that teachers already take such tests — most-notably the Praxis exams — take plenty of them (as many as four for a teacher in Indiana, depending on the subjects they teach), and given that 96 percent of aspiring teachers passed their competency exams, according to the U.S. Department of Education, does little to weed out high-quality teachers from less-talented counterparts.
Meanwhile there is plenty that the commission has left out. While it touches on old-school parent involvement approaches, it fails to acknowledge the importance of Parent Trigger laws in seven states that, along with other measures, are allowing families to lead the turnaround of schools in their own neighborhoods. The commission also fails to consider the development of online and blended learning, which is increasingly allowing families and communities to take control of the teaching and curricula their kids are provided. Even the commission’s dismissal of mayoral control as not being a “panacea” (as if anything created by man ever is) ignores the myriad failings of the traditional district model, and ignores its own point that the school boards that operate it (which end up being servile to NEA and AFT locals), do a poor job of allowing taxpayers and families to play real decision-making roles in education.
The commissions decision to ignore the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, which is a major symptom of the nation’s education crisis, is just plain shameful. Considering that young men account for the out of every five eighth-graders who drop out, are the ones most-likely to be labeled as special ed cases, and are the ones who face the harshest of school discipline, the commission could have spent some time addressing the underlying causes of systemic educational failure that out far too many young men on the path to poverty and prison.
Sadly the fact that the Equity and Excellence Commission’s report is so lackluster should be no surprise. After all, the Obama administration’s selection of both traditionalists, traditionalists, and well-meaning-but-weak-kneed education theorists such as Linda Darling-Hammond all but guaranteed that there would be few strong recommendations for engaging in systemic reform. The fact that the administration selected none of the stronger players on the commission — especially Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, Katie Haycock of the Education, Center for American Progress’ Cindy Brown or even New York State Education Commissioner John King — to lead the panel made certain that few strong recommendations would make it into the report. The lack of other strong voices, notably former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein (who, along with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, led the Council on Foreign Relations’ own report) or even more-aggressive school choice and Parent Power activists such as Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, also made clear that the Obama didn’t want this commission to accomplish much.
Add in the Obama administration’s own tendency to ignore the recommendations of its own panels — including the peer review bodies that were ostensibly charged with vetting state proposals as part of its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions — and one shouldn’t be so shocked at the overall results. Especially given that one of the original intentions of the commission was to actually address how to revamp the way American public educations spends the $594 billion poured into it every year. There was an important opportunity to address school funding — especially in pushing states, which already provide 48 percent of all school funding, to take full control of their education finance systems and essentially voucherize those dollars to allow for them to fund high-quality educational opportunities for all children. Such a recommendation would have done plenty to advance the end of Zip Code Education policies (including zoned schooling) that keep poor and minority kids from getting the high-quality education they need and deserve. But that would have been a step too far for the Obama administration to take — and definitely not one many of the traditionalists on the panel would ever endorse.
All in all, the Equity and Excellence Commission report could have been plenty more than what it was. One can imagine that some of its panelists are none too happy about what came out of it. Because it is truly a missed opportunity.