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Thompson: Jennings's Call for Education Policy Worthy of Our Democracy

Jack Jennings's Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools is a must-read for anyone seeking to improve our public schools. Drawing upon a half century of political and education research, Jennings writes a history of federal involvement in school reform and makes sensible suggestions for the next era of school improvement.

Jennings chronicled the first generation of federal education reforms and their results. The ESEA Act of 1965 had big goals and it was well-funded.  From the mid-1960s to the 1980s, often fragmented federally funded efforts only produced modest improvements and they did not bring equity.  But, those gains now look pretty impressive in comparison to post-NCLB outcomes, especially since their funding did not increase in order to meet the ambitious goal of closing the Achievement Gap. To produce equity for the most disadvantaged students, who disproportionately were concentrated in high-challenge schools, a far greater investment into their entire learning environments would have been necessary.

Jennings then documents how and why NCLB accountability failed. He bluntly reminds us that "Tests do not a good education make.”  Moreover, “When it came to measuring student progress in school, NCLB got it wrong.” Pulling it all together, Jennings’s analysis of NAEP testing results shows:

It is ironic that from the 1970s to the early 2000s. achievement generally rose and achievement gaps generally narrowed, which would seem to refute the Title I evaluation results used to support the shift to test-driven reform.

He also concludes:

The long-term NAEP results showed gains, especially for Black and Hispanic students, until 2008. A disturbing finding, though, is that since 2008, achievement has not increased for students except for 13-year-olds, nor have achievement gaps narrowed between racial/ethnic groups.

Jennings is judicious in summarizing the evidence about the effectiveness of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, telling Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post  “The record will show these policies brought about minimum improvement. ... They also did considerable harm.”

Then Jennings turns to solutions. First, he calls for a vigorous debate regarding the new direction that federal education policy should take. While I applaud that invitation, teaching in an era of failed test-driven reforms has made me more risk-adverse. But, Jennings’s closing paragraph has finally convinced me:

The biggest lesson I have learned over a half century of involvement in education politics and policy is that if you are not working to implement your own agenda, then you are working off someone else’s agenda. It is time public school advocates established their own ambitious agenda and set out to achieve it.

Jennings’s four goals would be:

  1. Students Prepared to Learn,
  2. Effective Teachers,
  3. Challenging Curriculum, and
  4. Sufficient Funding.  

While I support the goal of a college-readiness curriculum, I question Jennings’s continued support for Common Core. Also, at a time when the anti-teacher Vergara law suit and the viciously anti-union The 74 are misusing the courts, I’m also afraid of Jennings’s call for a stepped-up legal campaign using the courts or even the amendment process for gaining sufficient state and local funding. He would double federal funding from 10% to 20% of total education. Right now that may not be doable. But, surely we  can raise federal spending by $35 billion, or the cost of five F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

My real concern, however, is the process by which Jennings’s would the determine how to award innovative grants to the states. Such a federal effort will be undercut by memories of Arne Duncan’s SIG, RttT, and the rest of his alphabet soup of failed micromanaging. I also worry that the process could reinvigorate the ill-conceived effort of the last two decades which Larry Cuban characterized as seeking to “deputize” teachers as the agents for reversing the legacies of generational poverty and segregation.

But, Jennings has an answer for my big fear. It’s called debate.  The proposed process should allow educators to present the case articulated by John Merrow that the key to school improvement is not “Making a Better Teacher,” but “Making Teaching a Better Job.” The way to do so is by making teaching a “Team Sport.” The federal process should allow us to assembly social science evidence that explains why the path toward effective teaching in high-challenge schools requires the alignment and coordination of socio-emotional student supports.

Hopefully, the process would welcome solutions such as those proposed by Bruce Katz in The Metropolitan Revolution. Perhaps, federal grants could help us break out of today’s segregation of education, mental health, nutrition, career tech, and public health institutions into separate silos. The process could help us institutionalize full-service community schools as a part of a cross-governmental dialogue.

Wow! What does it say about Jennings’s judgment that my first reading of his recommendations scared me?  In this post alone, I repeatedly mentioned his points that frightened me, but then what happened? How did Jennings get me to see his policy gambit and then prompt my counter-proposals that are even more ambitious? I guess that just supports the wisdom of his comprehensive call for the exchange of ideas and evidence, and a repudiation of an unworthy federal “standards/testing/accountability” approach to education’s “fragmentation resulting from state  and local weakness.”-JT (@drjohnthompson)      

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