Top Stories | 4/20/14


Education at the Crossroads: Kumbaya or Battle Ready (or A Little of Both)

Education Policy is again headline news in New York. Reporting on a major speech from Education Commissioner John King on April 10, the New York Times picked up on King’s military metaphor with a headline: “Education Official Says State is `Not Retreating’ on New Standards’” (New York Times). This followed, by a week, a boycott of the state’s Common Core exams by hundreds of parents (here, here, and here), and months of what Times reporter Al Baker called a “sustained attack” on King by opponents of the Common Core.

During this same period, a new Gotham mayor, vowing to turn back the clock on his predecessor’s school reforms, was bloodied by charter school supporters and defeated in his attempt to tax wealthy citizens to pay for pre-K – in both cases suffering a setback at the hands of his putative Democratic ally in Albany, Governor Cuomo, who at one point appeared at a boisterous pro-charter rally (at the same time de Blasio was trying to unite the pre-K troops), and then maneuvered the state legislature to force the new mayor to give charters free rent in public school buildings – and secure funding for a pre-K initiative – on his terms.

The tenor of the fights in New York has been so heated that the Times editorial board called for “a saner” debate.

New York, however, has no monopoly on division and divisiveness in education policy. A number of states are back-tracking on supporting the new Common Core standards and the exams supposed to enable the assessment of the new standards (see Rick Hess and Jay Greene, as well as Education Week), and other states are putting delays on implementing teacher evaluation systems that are linked to student test results (see here).

Clearly however, the debate about the direction of education reform has centered on push-back to the Common Core (again Jay Greene), with Republican Governors flocking to the anti-standards banner (MSNBC). The push-back has been so strong that some warn that the standards themselves are in serious trouble: New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.”

But just behind the headlines, something perhaps more interesting is taking place. In the halls of the think-tanks and State departments of education alike, commentators and practitioners are beginning to forge a way forward that embraces neither the charge-ahead “measure, reward and punish” language of the early reform movement, nor the “abandon it all” rhetoric of a critic such as Diane Ravitch.

In fact, there has been something of a truce declared by many parties of late; part of it due to political expediency, part because of battle fatigue, and part because “saner” voices are indeed speaking up.

Such stalwart reformers as Chester E. Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas Fordham Institute, complained about “Education’s endless, erroneous either-ors,” and Robert Pondiscio, an early supporter of Common Core while at the Core Knowledge Foundation, has expressed doubts on high-stakes testing, one of the key arrows in the reformer’s quiver: “as long as we insist on attaching stakes to testing, for students and teachers alike, we are not merely incentivizing teaching to the test, but functionally requiring it.”

Finn tackles ten tug-of-war issues – from “skills vs. knowledge” to “local or centralized control” – and concludes that false dichotomies “may keep bloggers, debaters, and partisans busy,” but they aren’t doing kids any good.

The challenge will be whether we have learned anything from the fight and whether calling a truce means true peace talks. But what would a saner charter school debate look like? Or a saner Common Core debate? Or a saner pre-K debate? Above all, the question is whether a shift in direction would bring saner results?

The Times editorial board is trying to model the saner debate that it is calling for. But its policy prescriptions show how fraught the questions remain. For example, in the case of charter schools, the board begins begninly enough, suggesting that De Blasio “closely study both types of schools [traditional public and charter] to see how each spends money and how patterns of expenditure in one sector might suggest more effective strategies for the other.” But it rapidly goes on to champion the outcome Governor Andrew Cuomo eventually got from the state legislature: no rent for charters in public schools. On school accountability, the Board re-affirms the Bloomberg policy: “The city should shut down failing schools.” In the end, and on the issues, The NYT editorial board simply came down on the side of De Blasio’s critics.

The Times’ “Big City” columnist Ginia Bellafante took another a stab at compromise with a middle March piece called The Wisdom in the Middle, in which she made the case for conventional public schools by calling attention to the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx, a high school, Ballafante reported, that “strive[s] to offer poor children something like the experience of a private education within the context of the traditional public system” and, she adds, “using union teachers.” The school has its own foundation, which raises $1 million annually, has college counseling and mentoring, and foreign travel. And Eagle sent 82 percent of its graduating class to college, a much better rate than normal city schools. But so many of the tough questions were avoided: is the model replicable? Can the city afford a system of Eagle Academies for its million students without changing its “patterns of expenditure”?

Two weeks later Bellafante was back, this time writing about the “movement of refusal” – the group of parents who were boycotting standardized tests. The Times writer described the refuseniks’ beliefs as not “evolv[ing] out of antipathy toward rigor and seriousness, as critics enjoy suggesting, but rather out of advocacy for more comprehensive forms of assessment and a depth of intellectual experience that test-driven pedagogy rarely allows.” That would certainly seem to be a worthy principle to invoke at the peace table (and it sounded very much like the position that reformer Pondiscio had advocated). But what would that look like?

Bellafante cites the Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE), a Manhattan group that “that fosters the knowledge and the style of critical thinking that the Common Core and most sane, intelligent people understand as essential.” She pointed out that that ICE children in the sixth grade “currently combine a study of ancient Rome with an analysis and performance of elements of `Julius Caesar.’ In seventh grade, a mock trial is conducted around `Macbeth.’”

In both pieces, Bellafante gestures towards a goal that might engender a way past the zero-sum games that too often constitute public education debates – a rich, demnading curriculum embedded in a strong supportive framework, all within the traditional public school system. But the distance between her exemplars and any related policy discussions indicate just how far we are from that “saner” debate. Acknowledging that distance might be the beginning of some genuine sanity.

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