Photo credit: Woodleywonderworks
by David Greene
When the the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was passed, until 1979 when it was amended, (creating the U.S. Department of Education) we saw a great deal of improvement in American schools and students’ scores because the law provided funding without mandating curriculum. It created ESL and improved Special Education. It did the right things and then got out of the way for pros to do the work.
It was originally the job of the newly-created U.S. Office of Education to “write—and enforce—regulations that would ensure states and districts sent the federal dollars to communities with the highest concentrations of poverty and used the money appropriately.”
It set the stage for Finland’s imitation of what we accomplished during that time. Was it perfect? Of course not. Did it provide for equitable funding? Inadequately. But it sure beat whatever Republicans or Democrats plan to do to us now.
We must understand the differences between policy incentives over time.
Then, federalism was an issue tied to civil rights legislation and therefore who was to be taught and where that was to take place. The question was about segregation vs. integration. Over time, those states may have lost one war but won another. Those that bought textbooks en mass, like Texas, actually controlled what publishers would include in texts, especially social studies and science. As a result, they could still control what was being taught if not who and where.
Today the issue dominating the question of state vs. federal control of education has evolved. What has crept into the equation has been the increasing goal of businesses to make education an economy of scale and thus oligarchical. Our oligarchs, one of whom is Arne Duncan, have decided to sort of adapt an old 1950’s motto, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” This time the thought is that what is good for the education oligarchs is good for American education.
Federalism in education is now less about southern dixiecrats with their conservative Republican allies revolting against federal power to control where they educated their newly “freed” black students, but more about having professionals at local and state levels develop syllabi and techniques to do what is best for educating all of their students.
We also know that within every state there is a huge difference among districts regarding their students’ success rates. These success rates are mostly influenced by the economic status of the student population and the ability of school districts to pay their staff and provide them with the best resources to do their jobs.
As opposed to what our national leaders will tell you, federal policy should not be about the quality of our national corps of teachers. Rather, it should be about students’ social environments and the relative quality of staffs hired by districts based on the income levels of each district, and its ability to attract and pay the best teachers possible.
What both sides in this argument miss is simple: Unless the questions of socioeconomic environment and relative quality of staffs are addressed, the ESEA’s changing rules about Common Core State Standards and standardized testing are both a distraction and a wild goose chase.
How would I fix the ESEA?
I propose a joint effort between the HUD and DOE.
The first front needs federal housing regulations to move poorer students to economically integrated and wealthier areas as Dallas is doing and the Obama administration wants to replicate. As long as you have areas, as Jim Schutze puts it, “where as many as 60 percent of adults don’t even qualify as ‘unemployed’ by federal standards, because they have never been employed,” you will never fix the education in those areas regardless of how much you “score” tests and evaluate teachers based on those tests.
In other words, it’s the poverty, Stupid!
The second front must direct federal money toward a plan to assist universities and districts to better recruit, develop, supervise (less than evaluate) and pay a larger cadre of teachers instead of steadfast support of Teach For America, Leadership for Educational Equity, and charters. We need to stop aiming federal money at getting rid of so-called “bad teachers,” but aim that money at getting a greater number of high quality teachers as our wealthy suburbs do.
Imagine this approach:
- Create housing policy that results in fewer pockets of high poverty areas, thus creating communities where children have greater reinforcement of the values that will help them succeed in school.
- Make Pre-K universal.
- Help states create an educational system based on increasing teacher status, income, and the desire to teach, providing greater and more equitable access to resources to improve their teaching and therefore the learning of their students.
- Celebrate and support cooperation and collegiality instead of competition among schools, districts, and teachers.
Redirect the effort and see how things improve. What we have been implementing since the writing of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, and the passing of both No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top sure isn’t working.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of David Greene.