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Race to the Top will never reach the finish line

Ohanian Comment: Milton Schwebel is correct about the 22% poverty figure. But that includes all children in the country. In urban schools, poverty figures are 50% and higher, making the situation even more drastic.

That said, Milton Schwebel gets it right: The problem is poverty. Until our corporate politicos address poverty, all their efforts will fail to raise school performance. Of course the the so-called school reform isn't about helping kids; it's about destroying teaching as a profession.

By Milton Schwebel

President Obama’s intention to improve the quality of low-performing schools is consistent with our nation’s needs, but his method of achieving that goal — Race to the Top — is fatally flawed.

Two of his predecessors had somewhat similar goals, and President Bill Clinton’s Education Goals 2000 and George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind failed on two important counts. They did not narrow the achievement gap between black and white students, and did not raise American students’ rank among advanced industrial nations on tests of reading, mathematics and science.

Race to the Top will suffer the same fate and for the same reason: its failure to recognize that poverty — and poverty alone — is at the root of the problem. The nation will be on the road to correcting its major school problem only when poverty and its consequences, including its physical and psychological effects on parents and children, as well as its effects on beleaguered, inexperienced teachers are addressed, as they were with success through President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.

Children in poverty, almost 22 percent of the population of those under 18, are severely handicapped in comparison to their middle-class counterparts. They are also handicapped in comparison to children in poverty in the many advanced nations that give them a solid social safety net. In Finland and Denmark, for example, less than 5 percent of children live in poverty and their families receive benefits that our poor can only dream of.

Children prosper when their family life is relatively free of tension. Consider the difference in outlook between poor parents in the United States and those in countries that offer strong support. Those countries provide paid maternity and even paternity leave, which is a mental and physical health preventive measure. They provide national health insurance, which removes another potential source of parental worry, a major cause of strife between parents struggling for economic survival.

Poverty takes its toll in the school, as well as in the family setting. Experienced teachers here are drawn to higher-paying suburban schools where teaching conditions are much more favorable. So the urban schools, serving lower-class children, tend to have fewer experienced teachers. The difficulty of teaching in schools serving the poor stems in large part from the fact that as many as two-thirds of their students require individual attention, compared with one or two possible students in suburban schools.

Some nations that lead in international comparisons choose teachers from among the highest-performing undergraduates, pay for their professional education, give them competitive salaries, close supervision and much freedom in the classroom.
The political and economic reality today forecloses the possibility of another war on poverty, but not of improving the quality of teaching. In 2009, Congress approved appropriations for Race to the Top. This is the time, however, to end Race to the Top and use those funds to provide ongoing, supportive supervision and teaching aides to inexperienced teachers in low-achieving schools.

Race to the Top does not do that. On the contrary, its competitive nature has so far limited its funding for “innovation” to only 11 states and the District of Columbia, and the useful results, if any, might not be evident for another five years or more.

Americans in poverty have seen two reform programs fail them over the course of almost two decades. They should not have to wait another decade to witness another failure. This is the time to reassign proposed appropriations for Race to the Top in the 2012 budget to support what works in the classroom — substantial supervision of inexperienced teachers, assisted by teacher aides.

Milton Schwebel is a dean and professor emeritus in the graduate School of Education and professor emeritus in the graduate School of Applied & Professional Psychology, both at Rutgers University.

— Milton Schwebel


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