Category Archives: Politics of Education

A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all? Continue reading

Media: “Three Win-Win Opportunities for Middle- and Low-Income Students” in Education Next

Last week, I had a post on the Education Next blog about why we shouldn’t forget the needs of middle class students. The post was inspired by a new report from Melissa Steel King, Justin Trinidad, and me about how private schools seek to remain affordable for middle- and low-income families. An excerpt of my post:

Many education reformers focus their talents and attention on the most vulnerable children: low-income students stuck in the lowest performing schools. This focus reflects a dismay at persistent differences between students of different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, a dedication to equity, and a belief in opportunity through education.

Alongside this focus on high-need students, however, we must not forget middle class students. In fact, there are at least three win-win opportunities for policymakers, advocates, and practitioners to support middle class students while also advancing the needs of low-income kids.

Read the rest of this piece at Education Next, and dive into the report here.

Media: “New York City Comptroller Wants to Start Country’s Largest Teacher Residency; Here’s 3 Ways to Make it Successful” in Gotham Gazette

Today in the Gotham Gazette, I have a new opinion piece about a proposed teacher residency in New York City. The residency, put forth by Comptroller Scott Stringer, would be the largest in the country and cost $40 million a year.

An excerpt from my op-ed:

Teacher residencies are a high-potential pathway into the classroom. And Comptroller Stringer’s plan is particularly promising. The residency would be an alternative certification program to prepare new teachers for the classroom. In it, residents would complete a year of training, primarily in the classroom, under the tutelage of an effective mentor teacher. Classroom experience would be complemented by relevant coursework completed at an institution of higher education. Residents would receive a living stipend during the program, and at the end of it, would be able to teach in a classroom of their own.

And there’s reason to believe that Comptroller Stringer may get his way on this. Past analyses out of Stringer’s office called out issues in physical education and arts education, which ultimately led to $124 million in investments in those programs.

Stringer obviously did his homework, and proposed a residency program built on current best practices in the field. But now is the time to think through implementation. Operating an effective residency requires careful planning and design choices. Here’s what would need to be done to ensure this idea works.

Read the full piece in the Gotham Gazette.

This op-ed is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read Bellwether blog posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.

Media: “Better Ways To Measure Student Learning” in GOVERNING Magazine

I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.

An excerpt of my op-ed:

“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

Read the full piece at GOVERNING, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” by my colleague Brandon Lewis and me.

What the Providence Public School District Can Learn from Newark

 

The word “hope” may appear on the Rhode Island state flag, but it’s in short supply in Providence Public Schools. A recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that students are exposed to “an exceptionally low level of academic instruction” and in some cases, they have to attend school in dangerous buildings with lead paint and asbestos. At fault are byzantine rules and convoluted governance arrangements, the authors argue. Piecemeal reform efforts have not been enough to overcome ossified institutions, leaving unsafe buildings, low-quality instruction, and sub-par teachers shuffling between schools in a “dance of the lemons.”

The situation in Providence is dire, but it’s an important moment to make real, lasting changes as the spotlight is aimed on their dysfunction. Leaders in Providence — and Rhode Island at large — must focus on systemic change to provide students with safe learning environments and high-quality, rigorous instruction. Reforming an entire school system is a tall order, but other districts with similar challenges show that change is possible. One such example is just 191 miles down I-95: Newark, New Jersey.

Newark’s school system was in serious distress in ways that mirror Providence today: high poverty, dysfunctional bureaucracy, crumbling school buildings, and abysmal student outcomes. A voluminous report detailing the crisis in Newark’s public schools ultimately led to a state takeover in 1995.

Under state management, Newark’s school system was governed by the New Jersey Continue reading