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Civil rights groups skewer Obama education policy

Valerie Strauss hits the nail on the head: civil rights groups--and others who care about education--need to be stand up and be tough on a president they like.

by Valerie Strauss

It is most politely written, but a 17-page framework for education reform released Monday by a coalition of civil rights groups amounts to a thrashing of President Obama's education policies and it offers a prescription for how to set things right.

You won't see these sentences in the piece: "Dear President Obama, you say you believe in an equal education for all students, but you are embarking on education policies that will never achieve that goal and that can do harm to America’s school children, especially its neediest. Stop before it is too late."

But that, in other nicer words, is exactly what it says. The courteous gloss on this framework can't cover up its angry, challenging substance.

The "Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn" is a collaboration of these groups: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Schott Foundation for Public Education, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Coalition for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Leaders of these groups were scheduled to hold a press conference Monday to release the framework but it was cancelled because, a spokesman said, there was a conflict in schedules. The delay was, presumably, not connected to public appearances this week by Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the convention marking the 100th anniversary of the Urban League in Washington D.C. Obama is making a speech on Thursday; Duncan on Wednesday.

The framework's authors start the framework seeming conciliatory, applauding Obama's goal for the United States to become a global leader in post-secondary education attainment by 2020.

But quickly their intent is clear. They take apart the thinking behind the administration’s education policies, and note a number of times the differences between what Obama and Duncan say about education and what they do.

To wit:

About Race to the Top, the competitive grant program for states that is the administration’s central education initiative thus far, it says:

"The Race to the Top Fund and similar strategies for awarding federal education funding will ultimately leave states competing with states, parents competing with parents, and students competing with other students..... By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader."

Ouch.

About an expansion of public charter schools, which the administration has advanced:

"There is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide....Thus, while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs."

And there's this carefully worded reproach to the administration:

"To the extent that the federal government continues to encourage states to expand the number of charters and reconstitute existing schools as charters, it is even more critical to ensure that every state has a rigorous accountability system to ensure that all charters are operating at a high level."

Double ouch.

But there's more.

The framework says that the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, "should seek buy-in from community advocates." But it notes that Obama's Blueprint for Education reform makes "only cursory mention of parent and community engagement in local school development."

It blasts the administration's approach to dealing with persistently low-performing schools, saying that closing them in the way now being advanced is wrong, and it says that the administration is not doing enough to close gaps in resources, alleviate poverty and end racial segregation in schools.

And it says that the government should stop using low-income neighbors as laboratories for education experiments:

"For far too long, communities of color have been testing grounds for unproven methods of educational change while all levels of government have resisted the tough decisions required to expand access to effective educational methods. The federal government currently requires school districts to use evidence-based approaches to receive federal funds in DOE's Investing in Innovation grant process. So, too, in all reforms impacting low-income and high-minority communities, federal and state governments should meet the same evidence-based requirement as they prescribe specific approaches to school reform and distribute billions of dollars to implement them.

"Rather than addressing inequitable access to research-proven methodologies like high-quality early childhood education and a stable supply of experienced, highly effective teachers, recent education reform proposals have favored 'stop gap' quick fixes that may look new on the surface but offer no real long-term strategy for effective systemic change. The absence of these 'stop gap' programs in affluent communities speaks to the marginal nature of this approach. We therefore urge an end to the federal push to encourage states to adopt federally prescribed methodologies that have little or no evidentiary support -- for primary implementation only in low-income and high-minority communities."


This is really tough talk, and it is about time that America's civil rights leaders are speaking up.

The only question is whether anybody in the Obama administration is actually listening.


UPDATE:

Now we know why civil rights leaders suddenly cancelled today's press conference at which they were going to talk about their new powerful framework for education reform, which includes a withering critique of the Obama administration's education policies.

They met instead with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said in an interview that he and other leaders felt that meeting with Duncan to discuss policy differences was "a better use of our time" than holding a public press conference.

Considering that most press conferences are a waste of time, Jackson makes a point.

But in this case, the postponement -- or, perhaps, cancellation -- left the impression among some that the civil rights leaders chose not to publicly criticize President Obama's education policies any more than the framework already does.

The press conference was originally called for 10 a.m., which, it turned out, was exactly the time that the Duncan meeting started.

Jackson said Duncan listened as he and other civil rights leaders explained their concerns about ensuring equitable resources for each child and about how education reform should be part of a comprehensive urban renewal strategy that involves the Departments of Justice and Labor.

If quiet diplomacy can actually get Duncan to change some of his ill-conceived policies, then we can applaud this effort.

But if it doesn't, it will be incumbent upon the civil rights leaders to shout to everyone who will listen that this administration is not doing what it must to ensure an equal education for every student.

They have to be as tough on a president that they like as they would be on a president that they don't.

— Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Answer Sheet
2010-07-26
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/education-secretary-duncan/civil-rights-groups-skewer-oba.html


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