Bill Gates Is Not the Issue: Our Silences and Failures Are
Bill Gates is not the issue. What should concern those of us on the American left is not that Gates has made some negative comments about American high schools, but that in so doing, he has outflanked "the left," especially the "educational left," from the left.
The reality, as Gary Orfield and his colleagues in the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University have carefully documented, is that 1 in every 2 students of color in the United States do not graduate high school on time, and that most of these young people do not graduate high school at all.
Meanwhile, 3 in every 4 white students graduate high school on time -- nothing to cheer about, but a whole lot better than the graduation rate of students of color.
That graduation rate for students of color is a national scandal, pure and simple. And the achievement gap which underlies that differentiation in graduation rates is a national scandal, pure and simple.
And yet an American left which once championed the cause of ending racial segregation in American public schools, of doing away with separate and unequal schools, is largely silent and inactive on these issues. Instead, it is Bill Gates who is speaking out, and who is giving his philanthropic money to efforts to remake and reform American high schools. So we attack Bill Gates? Denounce him as the "hit man" on public high schools?
Yes, we should be shouting "shame," but on ourselves, not on him. The world's richest man is more of an advocate for educational equity than we are, and that is our problem, not his.
If we had been addressing this issue properly, we would be in the position to note that notwithstanding his powerful call for equity in education, Bill Gates' analysis of what is wrong in public education is inadequate and incomplete. A far deeper and richer understanding of the achievement gap is required. We need to recognize that this gap begins to take shape long before students pass through the doors of a school for a first time, as a result of a wide array of developmental differentials that result from the conditions of growing up in poverty, and dramatically accelerates in the middle school years. High schools make their own contribution to the problem to be sure, but they are hardly the sole source of the problem.
Consequently, a solution must include a range of social programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty on a child's development, from proper pre-natal and infant health care to a balanced, nutritious diet and lead abatement in low income housing, and must focus on the problematic middle school years. But high schools also need to be reformed, and we should be intervening in this debate with reasoned voices about what types of reforms make sense, not proclaiming "that God's in his heaven and all's well with the world." There is a place for many of the reforms Gates advocates and supports, such as the creation of small learning communities in which teachers and students have many opportunities to know each other well, in a public education system with delivers a quality education to all.
Yet on many of the listservs of the "educational left" to which I subscribe, volumes have been dedicated to excoriating Gates and other centrist advocates of educational equity, such as Kati Haycock and the Education Trust, who support the No Child Left Behind legislation. At the same time, I have seen welcomed a report of the far right, libertarian Cato Institute, the voice of Social Darwinism in American policy debates, because it condemned NCLB from the viewpoint of an anti-federal government perspective.
"Those who try to frame the NCLB debate in simple left-vs-right terms," we were told with reference to the Cato Institute, "are ignoring a broad range of potential allies." States rights arguments, echoing the rhetoric of those who opposed the civil rights movement in the Deep South, are embraced, so long as they are used against NCLB and a federal government role in education. [A little reading of educational history would quickly lead one to recognize that since the end of WW II, it has been the federal government that has been behind progressive policy after progressive policy in education, from the GI Bill and Brown v. Board of Education to Head Start, Title One, and protections for the rights of English Language Learners and students with special needs.] The efforts of the Utah State Legislature to exempt their state from NCLB are promoted, with no mention made of the fact that among their main complaints is the fact that NCLB requires the disaggregation of performance data by sex, race and ethnicity, making it quite clear when a school district and a state such as Utah are ill serving their students of color.
I do not want to be misunderstood here: there are very serious problems with NCLB. But there are also parts of the legislation, such as the disaggregation of performance data, which were long overdue and need to be embraced. A more nuanced and careful critique, one which does not run to join hands with the far right when they attack NLCB for all of the wrong reasons, needs to be articulated. There are reasons why the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which has brought the successful class action law suit against the underfunding of urban, especially New York City, public schools in New York State, affirms NCLB and the regimen of standardized state tests aligned with it -- they have been crucial in making the case that students in inner city schools were being denied the "sound, basic education" required by the New York State Constitution. These are the very same reasons that have led many national civil rights organizations to support NCLB. Why do we not hear their voices in our circles?
Standardized testing in American public schools is out of control, and NCLB has contributed mightily to that problem. But it is not the only -- not even the most important -- problem we face. With all due respect, the continuing issue of equity -- the growing resegregation of American public schools, the numbers of failing inner city schools and the achievement gap -- is far more important. Ask any inner city parent. The mounting efforts to privatize public education, now using our failures to provide equity in education as an argument for vouchers, tuition tax credits and the like, are far more important. Only from the vantage point of well-to-do suburbs, which provide quality public schools to all who live there, does standardized testing become the primary issue. And only when standardized testing and NCLB is seen as the primary issue does one rush to ally with the Cato Institute, the advocates of states rights and the Utah State Legislature.
Will the epitaph of the American "educational left" be that we saw the world through the eyes of the well-to-do suburbs?
Leo Casey, Special Representative for High Schools. United Federation of Te
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES