The Road to Education


The invitation only “Chicago Contributes” event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium September 10, 2009, convened by the University of Chicago, attracted faculty, trustees, alums, Washington DC policy makers and funders. I was an invited guest, representing Project Exploration, primarily attending for the second session of the day, Urban Education.

So, what would you hear if you got four people working in the thick of education reform onto a stage with the U.S. Secretary of Education and a moderator? If the event is being hosted by the University of Chicago you’ll (mostly) hear about the role of higher education in the work of urban schooling. And if the folks on stage are Linda “Teach’” Darling Hammond, Codirector of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, John “Data-man” Easton, the new Director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education; Tim “In the Know” Knowles, Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, and Charles “No Pain No Gain” Payne – you’ll hear about how the work of schools and school improvement is hard.

In the midst of conversations about teacher merit pay and other corporate models being retrofitted for public education, panelists explained that when it comes to knowing how schools (and students and teachers) are doing, we have yet to figure out how to test this. We know that the tools being used right now don’t tell us much about what matters in the moment. Tim pointed out the practical uselessness of standardized tests for teachers. “They’re basically autopsy. By the time the results come in, it’s too late to do anything about them – the kids have already moved on.”

Moderator Ray Suarez, a UChicago alum, now a Senior News Correspondent for the NewsHour on PBS, only needed to scratch the surface of the issue of “resources” and the panel was off and running.(“Data-man” Easton had already taken off with the Secretary of Education by the time this conversation unfolded, but more about them later). “What is the reasonable level of resources for educating kids and how should they be distributed?”

Linda pointed out some countries have actually changed the way schools were funded in the interests of equity and fairness – with markedly positive results. “Countries that have worked on this – Finland, Singapore, Korea – fund schools centrally and equally and put more into schools that need it. Versus the United States, where top spending schools spend three times as much in the same states as the lowest level schools.”

“Should all kids be expected to learn the same things at the same time, regardless of what school they go to or where it is? Is this equal schooling?” wondered the moderator.

“Justice is not charity. It’s building systems that work for all children and all families,” explains Linda.

“What looks like the conceit of equality is actually the pretense of equality,” adds Charles.

“These are really good points. I’m going to make access to quality education for every student the anchor of my education policy platform. And I’m going to begin with equal funding for all schools” said Secretary Duncan.

Oh, wait. That last part didn’t happen. Secretary Duncan didn’t say those things. Actually he wasn’t there for the panel discussion.

During his opening remarks, Secretary Duncan outlined five areas of work taking needing attention at the national level: 1) raising the bar on standards 2) data systems that track students back to teachers and teachers back to schools of education 3) investing in great (teacher) talent and 4) working on the bottom 1% of high schools, (roughly 2000 schools), which produce 50% of the country’s dropouts. And 5) working with higher education to increase the number of college graduates.

I asked, “Secretary Duncan, I am concerned, especially for science education, that the investments being made won’t reach the students who need them most. Can you talk a little bit more about what it means to work with the 2000 lowest performing high schools you mentioned? How will we reach students who are currently not being served by schools?”

Secretary Duncan was glad to take my question. (My question was something like this – I was nervous. I can’t remember exactly what I said I really did ask a question though. Here is the evidence).

Embedded in Secretary Duncan’s answer, (which didn’t really address the question I’d asked), was the following statement: “What we have to do is create a critical mass of caring adults with high expectations. This is the change factor for kids in historically underperforming schools.”

I like this idea. I think this the only thing that matters for students who are not academically successful or have become hostile to school.

What’s most striking to me about the conversation about Chicago’s Contributions to Urban Education is that in the early days of the 21st Century the conversation being had was one that for the most part could have taken place in the early days of the 20th Century – about education in schools that were designed in the 19th Century.

Kids don’t start or stop learning when the school bell rings. What kids learn out of school may be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than what happens for them in school. Relationships give life to the power of what kids learn. Which is why Secretary Duncan’s point about caring adults with high expectations is so relevant.

Most of the current conversations about trying to making education more equitable are really about making education more about school, and in tandem making school more standardized, more measurable and more efficient. All things which are less likely to engage students who are currently left out, not participating and not finding measurable “success.”

Different standards could help schools organize instruction and teacher professional development. They could bring clarity for students, teachers and parents alike about what students ought to know and be able to do – but changing curriculum tends to have the most impact on students who are already engaged with schooling.  Here’s another example, increasing the availability of AP would be good; many schools that serve students of color, students who are poor and students who are immigrants don’t even offer them. But it’s important to remember these classes will be for students who are performing in the top 20%; they’re not investments likely to have a positive affect on non-AP track students or their teachers.

The persistence of the achievement gap can be linked to the lack of access to positive, stimulating, meaningful experiences that take place out of school. We may find that the road to 21st Century education for our least successful students ought to begin outside the classroom door.

One response to “The Road to Education

  1. What a stunning review. So helpful article! Love it, Thanks.

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