Opinion Extra

Thomas: New president, same failed education policy

When Barack Obama stormed onto the presidential scene, "hope" and "change" became political refrains that many hoped would become realities - for a change. The education community probably had the greatest sense of hope for change from the policies enacted under the George W. Bush administration, No Child Left Behind, because those policies created mandates that are impossible to fulfill. More problematic was the misinformation that trickled from federal officials who seemed compelled to claim NCLB a success whether the data supported those claims or not.

Under Obama, the Department of Education was handed to Arne Duncan, and the education community sat poised for the change so hoped for.

Earlier this fall, Secretary Duncan delivered a talk about the future of NCLB (www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2009/09/09242009.html), and we can draw one clear conclusion from his message: Nothing of substance has changed, and nothing will be much different any time soon.

As political rhetoric, Duncan's words sounded bold: "For too many of our children - the promise of an excellent education has never materialized. We remain complacent about education reform - distracted by tired arguments and divided by the politics of the moment."

But the words are embedded in a talk that is itself little different from the tired call for standards and testing that has plagued education and educational reform for more than a century.

In the 1890s, led by Harvard president Charles Eliot, the Committee of Ten established high standards for secondary schools. These standards grew out of a concern that schools were failing - as would be the charge decade after decade until today.

Even after the Committee of Ten's standards, the Douglas Commission in 1905 reported: "Eighty per cent of our public school pupils drop out of the schools before attaining to the high school, and 97 per cent of all our public school pupils, from the primary grades to the high schools, drop out before graduation from the high school."

And novelist Ralph Ellison spoke in 1963 to teachers about "the difficult thirty percent" - the disturbing reality that African-American males were disproportionately failing and dropping out.

Since the late 19th century, we have had high standards for education. But for more than a century we have bemoaned graduation rates failing our children and our society, while wringing our hands about low student achievement, achievement gaps and the impotence of our public school system.

As we heard in the words of Duncan, we make repeated calls for yet higher standards and even greater accountability: "But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn't encourage high learning standards.... We have to tell the truth, and we have to raise the bar." Echoing Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for urgency in his letter composed in Birmingham jail, Duncan crafted a rhetorically powerful plea that is ultimately tired itself because it follows the exact ground traveled before him by nearly every political leader in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The message we do not hear, but should hear instead, is this: The picture we see in our schools is a mirror of the society we have created and now tolerate.

Student failure in schools is a stark reflection of how our society fails children. Between 70 percent and 85 percent of student achievement is directly linked to the homes and communities of students - yet we spend rhetoric, time and money on school reform while ignoring this reality.

More damning is research that shows our schools not only reflect the social stratification of our society but also tend to perpetuate those inequities. For example, marginalized children (often of color, living in poverty and speaking languages at home other than English) are highly likely to sit in classrooms with high student-teacher ratios and to be taught by inexperienced or uncertified teachers (especially if the course is math).

Soaring political discourse cannot hide that the Obama administration is continuing down the fruitless road of high standards and accountability - despite decades of practices that perpetuate the exact inequities we claim school seeks to overcome.

NCLB cannot and should not be salvaged, because it is trapped in tired assumptions about educating children. Duncan seems skeptical of Utopian expectations and the test-mania that have come before him, but he somehow believes that new mandates driven by urgency will succeed where no mandate has succeeded before.

Holding one person accountable for another's behavior is a flawed process. Holding anyone accountable while ignoring larger forces at the root of outcomes is futile. Duncan's rhetoric fails on both of these counts - and thus will continue to fail students.