Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A New Agenda for Public Education

On May 17, the Learning First Alliance (LFA) honored Jack Jennings, who founded (and recently retired from) theCenter on Education Policy after a long and distinguished career on Capitol Hill, with our 2012 Education Visionary Award. In accepting the award, Jennings explained what he believes will bring about major improvement in education in the United States: A focus on curriculum, teacher quality, and funding.
What follows is an excerpt from his speech.
We are in a world where you can’t stand still. We are in a world where we have to improve. And unfortunately, national leaders are coming across in education as saying that things are okay, and I don’t think that is helpful. I think that it is much more helpful to say that American education must be better than it has been in the past for the sake of the kids, but also for the sake of the country.
But I also believe that we are on the wrong agenda today. We are on an agenda that is not going to get us very far. We need a new vision and we need a new agenda for education.
Let me tell you how I arrived at this. I wrote a paper…looking back on 50 years of school reform. We’ve had three major movements in school reform. The equity movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which brought about a lot of good, especially for kids with disabilities, for women, for  African-American kids, but did not bring about broad improvement in education in the way that we expected, because it was underfunded and it was placed on top of inequitably funded schools. And the idea was to add on programs to the basic structure of education.
We had the choice movement, the second major movement, dealing with vouchers, dealing with charter schools. Parents are happier, to a degree, but you cannot say that American education is better, because the evidence shows that kids in voucher schools, kids in charter schools in general, are not doing better than other kids. So that is not an answer either.
Then we have the accountability movement, the last major movement – NCLB and accountability. And what that has done is bring greater attention to kids who are behind and many kids who have been neglected in school. Test scores have gone up to a degree, but it has been at the price of narrowing the curriculum, and it has been at the price of labeling schools unfairly. So that is not a solution.
What these three things share in common is that they were movements that were meant to improve education from the outside. By adding programs with the equity movement, by changing the structure of schools with the choice movement, and by trying to put pressure on teachers through accountability, through tests, and through labeling schools. These were outside pressures.
I think what we have to do for a new agenda is look directly at what happens in a classroom with education. And I think we have to demand that there be a challenging curriculum for every child, that there be a well-trained and effective teacher for every child, and that the money be provided to make that possible for every child.
I think that the new agenda ought to concentrate on curriculum, on teacher quality, and on funding. And that this agenda ought to replace the agenda that we have today.
In my eyes, the agenda we have today has not been set by those who know education best. By those who are running the schools, by those who have studied education, by those who are training teachers. This is an agenda that has been imposed on education from outside. And we need a new agenda that comes from the inside of education and that concentrates on the essentials of education, not on peripheral things that are not going to bring about major results. To me that means a challenging curriculum, teacher quality, and funding.
And I would hope that this would come from national education organizations. To me…I have worked so long on Capitol Hill and in politics…If your agenda is not the agenda that is focused on, if you are dealing with somebody else’s agenda, you are always in a defensive posture. You are always trying to somehow make it a little bit better than it is. And that is what has happened with public education in this country.
Public educators are trying to make the accountability program a little bit better than it has been. They are trying to fiddle with NCLB to make it a little bit less punitive. They are trying to fiddle with charter schools so that they are a little bit better than they were before. They are fiddling around. I think that what you need is an agenda for improvement in education that is based on evidence, that is embraced by the major education groups, and that the major education groups make their passion.
I know that this is a very difficult thing to ask of people just after lunch. But also, it is difficult because each education organization has its own governance process, which means that you have to go through resolutions. You have to go through agreements. You have to go through all these internal structures.
And the problems that I am proposing that should be addressed are very difficult problems. Who controls instruction? Is it the local school district level? Is it the state level? Who controls the training and hiring of teachers? Teacher pay? Eligibility of teachers? Who controls school finance? Does it mean higher taxes? Does it mean that there is limited spending?
These are very difficult questions. But in my eyes, after almost 50 years of dealing with this, we are fooling ourselves if we don’t deal with those issues. We are going to things that are not going to have much of an effect. We are spending tons of money, tons of time, tons of energy, arguing about peripheral issues, not arguing about the central issues. And I think we have to argue about the central issues of curriculum, teacher quality, and funding.
So, I would leave you with this. Thank you for the award. I am sorry to be so serious in accepting it, and to give you such a challenge. But I don’t think that we are going to have major improvement in education in this country – major improvement, not just improvement in one school district, or ten school districts, or a hundred suburban school districts, or a couple classrooms that are using technology better than in the past. I am talking about major improvement in American education so that we can become competitive in the world. I don’t think we are going to have that unless we concentrate on the essentials of education, and unless the major education groups, and the people who know education the best, unify themselves behind a common agenda and insist that that become the agenda. That that be what is put before people, and let other people attack that. But put that before people and insist that that be the major agenda.
And to me, I would even go as far as to write legislation to make this agenda a national civil right. In looking back over 50 years, the greatest progress that has been made has been made with Title IX for women, it’s been made with IDEA for children with disabilities, it’s been made with the Civil Rights Act and other acts that helped minorities do better in school. These were uncomfortable things; these were things that people did not like at the time – the desegregation of schools and so on. But these are the legal guarantees that lead to progress in American education for those groups.
I think that we ought to have the same type of legal guarantee for every American child, so that every American child has a good curriculum, every American child has an effective teacher, and every American child has money behind his or her education so that they can do well in life.
So let me leave that challenge with you. I would hope especially that the national education groups would take this seriously, would assign themselves this very difficult task. Otherwise, you are all going to be reactive. You are all going to be going to the Secretary and asking him to change a comma in the administration’s proposal on NCLB.
Have your own agenda. Have your own agenda, and make sure that becomes THE agenda, because it is based on evidence, and it is based on the experience of teachers and those who know the best about education. Have the attention focus on that as what we should fight about, and more importantly, what we should fight for.

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