Mathis: In the ESEA reauthorization, distracting disputations about the wrong things
Ohanian Comment: Speaking with longtime experience and expertise, Bill Mathis nails both Republicans and Democrats for lack of principle and refusal to face the poverty that is the real problem in our schools.
by William J. Mathis
In unintended irony, the Republicans touted their House committee version of the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) reauthorization over the Fourth of July week, and as we commemorated the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. The Declaration of Independence said all men were created equal and Gettysburg left 46,000 dead, wounded and missing. The legacy of this pivotal battle, as Lincoln proclaimed, was to make equality a reality.
In furthering this paramount principle, the purpose of the reauthorization(section 102), is to provide equality of educational opportunity to our neediest children and to close the achievement gap. Sadly, in this palest imitation of great visions and nation-changing accomplishments, this would-be successor to the near-universally criticized No Child Left Behind Act, is much less than the high and universal equality of opportunities it promises. (To be fair, the Senate Democratic version is arguably no better).
Conceived inside the tone-deaf, echo chamber of the beltway, politicians, pundits and insider groupies failed to comprehend that the great rejection of No Child Left Behind was due to the top-down, test-based, rigid punishments inflicted on the needy. Reflecting the research consensus, the National Academies concluded that it just did not work. Amazingly, both Democrat and Republican versions of the reauthorization continue this mandated, lock-stepped testing approach. The big difference is that Republicans seek to impose this vision through the statehouses while the Democrats want to inflict it through Washington.
Not addressed in any of the reauthorization versions is the simple fact that there are great spending inequalities between and within states. Our children of color and those in impoverished circumstances have the greatest needs and the fewest resources. Yet the federal government pays less than ten percent of education costs --and this share is plummeting with the end of ARRA funds and the sequestration. As a nation, the United States ranks near the bottom on income equality.
Conceived inside the tone-deaf, echo chamber of the beltway, politicians, pundits and insider groupies failed to comprehend that the great rejection of No Child Left Behind was due to the top-down, test-based, rigid punishments inflicted on the needy. Reflecting the research consensus, the National Academies concluded that it just did not work.
Lacking the vision or the will to do anything substantive about inequality, this most fundamental of education problems, has led to a great deflection and misdirection in the reauthorization debates. Heated and partisan disputations are voiced -- about the wrong things.
For instance, the evaluation of teachers based on standardized test scores is one of the hottest political and think-tank reform strategies. While all reasonable people agree on the need for high quality teachers, test-based evaluation systems have such a high error rate that their use in teacher evaluation is too unstable. Beltway insiders and think-tankers go wrong when they fail to comprehend that teaching is a complex and qualitative undertaking. How effective teaching is defined varies tremendously based on subject, grade level, personal relationships, student characteristics and caring. Reducing this to a one-size-fits-all quantitative scheme is scientifically weak and educationally unwise. Missing the point entirely, Senate Democrats and House Republicans again myopically argue about whether this approach should be required by the federal government or whether it should be mandated by state governments.
Continuing to point-out the obvious, both House and Senate versions would still "disaggregate" test results by ethnic affiliation and income levels so as "to shine a light" on educational disparities and inequalities. These inequalities have been well-documented for the last half-century. National Assessment data has published achievement gap data for decades. The problem is that the simple act of exposing inequalities does nothing to actually resolve the inequalities. It would seem that it is time we attend to the actual problems.
This would require politicians and inside the beltway actors to actually press for funding equal to the mandates. It would require significant investments in job, community and comprehensive educational support systems. Sadly, when the politicians actually talked about funding, the best the Senate could do was to propose that school districts be required to pay equal salaries across rich and poor schools. Not to be outdone in marginal trivialities, the House funding solution is to tweak the rules about when it is OK to move funds from one source to another.
Perhaps there are some people who believe this tangential tinkering will actually result in an educational renaissance. Perhaps, it could also be an avoidance of the greater issues of inequality and inadequacy.
When Abraham Lincoln called on the mystic chords of memory, he drew upon those principles that bind us together. He drew upon the common good. At that time, equality was so embraced that it found Constitutional power and protection in the thirteenth amendment. At the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of state Constitutional amendments enshrined public education because a functioning democracy demanded education and equality for all. In 1965, when we dreamed of a great society, we furthered our reach with the supportive help of the ESEA.
Today, both Democrat and Republican versions of the reauthorization give vacant, distracted nods to these principles. They fail to ring with great purpose and do not stir the soul. Clattering with the counting of dry beans, they are unlovely and parrot our social and economic strategies. In both we punish the poor, loudly proclaim liberty and equality, and provide only the rhetoric of opportunities.
William J. Mathis, is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont school superintendent. The views reflected here are his own and do not represent the positions of any group with which he is affiliated.
William J. Mathis