America’s Impoverished Education Policies

By AFSA President Diann Woodard
Featured in The Huffington Post May 1, 2012

The 2012 State of the Union address and budget submission have come and gone without offering much hope of greater understanding among policymakers of the crushing impact on student performance of poverty. As public school leaders, we now find ourselves in the unenviable position of choosing between two likely presidential candidates, one of whom dismisses poverty as a concern and another whom appears clueless about its implications for school performance.

The differences between No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top are without distinction, obsessed as both are with testing as the decisive measure of childhood learning. As education historian Diane Ravitch wrote recently:

To argue, as many corporate reformers blithely do, that poverty is used as ‘an excuse’ [for underperforming schools] … may be a way of avoiding the politically difficult subjects of poverty and income inequality, both of which are rising and threaten the well-being of our society.

The fact that Ms. Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration and became known for her push to establish national standards for K-12 education as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board makes her condemnation of the corporate model of reform all the more powerful.

When used as a diagnostic tool to determine children’s educational needs, the testing that corporate reformers are obsessed with can prove valuable. But, under current policies, the persistent demand for repeated testing as the primary determinant of performance leaves educators no time for addressing children’s identified needs between one test and the next.

The education policy makers in the current administration, like their predecessors, are neither irrational nor blind to the reality of the damage being done to public education by their pass-fail obsession with test results. They are quite simply united in advancing a movement that radically re-envisions schooling as a private, rather than a public enterprise, with no debate over whether the ideology of the free market belongs in American schools in the first place.

Restructuring a system so that it inevitably treats a large number of children as disposable is reprehensible. Invoking mandates, such as demanding that all children remain in school until age 18, exacerbates the betrayal. What the mandate says to children affected by it is clear. It effectively tells them, “You’re worthless. You have no hope of being productive citizens, so we demand that you be warehoused,” with school leaders and teachers effectively being indentured as wardens and security guards.

As we have already seen in what Linda Darling-Hammond calls “the warm-up exercises offered by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top,” the troubled neighborhoods that are unquestionably the target of the new mandate “represent a growing number of apartheid schools populated almost entirely by low-income African-American and Latino students,” a form of educational redlining.

Meanwhile, the most important solutions for these children go begging in the “vision” being offered by the new ESEA. Neither the ESEA nor any other federal policies address the rapid descent of a growing number of families into poverty. They offer no funding to improve learning conditions, and no equitable forms of evaluation for school leaders being forced to cope with the pathologies of impoverished communities, let alone supportive child health care.

The scope of the poverty burdening our profession is staggering. One in four children is living in poverty today, and one in 50 children is homeless and living in a shelter, motel, car, shared housing, abandoned building, park or orphanage. In some school districts, the number of children living in these abysmal conditions is one in 10.

The callous indifference at the national level to the needs of the children we serve living under these intolerable conditions is exacerbated by the cuts in funding at the state level that have resulted from the economic crisis. It is not a pretty picture, but one that compels us to become stronger advocates for our profession, especially during a critical election year.

We owe it to our profession, if not to ourselves; for, as Ms. Ravitch wrote recently, “No profession worthy of being considered a profession would allow legislatures to determine how to assess the quality of its practitioners.”

And there is growing evidence to aid us in raising our voices as leaders of our profession. A new report released on Tuesday initiated by AFSA through the American Institutes for Research (AIR) concluded that principal evaluation systems should not be based on student achievement gains. Equally important, the AIR report found that principals and other school-based leaders are being left out of education reform discussions.

The report, titled “The Ripple Effect,” provides a research-based approach to principal performance evaluation design, evidence that we can use in challenging supervisors and school boards wedded to data-dominated measures of our performance.

So, unless we advocate as leaders in each of our communities for standards and evaluations that reflect the expanded demands of our profession, those measures will be left to the devices of corporate-model “reformers” who are doing more to enrich charter school “entrepreneurs” than to enrich the lives of children, especially those kids struggling under the yoke of poverty.

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