At a Center for American Progress event last Thursday on turning around underperforming schools, Richard Lemons, vice president for policy and programs at Education Trust, said “all children can learn and they can learn at high levels.” All four panelists appeared to agree with Lemons’s point, but the variety of policies each recommended to ensure every student realizes his or her full learning potential, regardless of socioeconomic status, demonstrated the complexity of the achievement gap between high- and low-poverty schools as well as its diverse underlying causes.
Fixing the nation’s lowest-performing schools is a top priority for the Obama administration, and according to the event’s moderator, CAP’s Vice President for Education Policy Cynthia Brown, the event was in part precipitated by steps the Obama administration is taking turn around these schools.
In her opening remarks Brown said that Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation and a well-known advocate for economic and racial integration, approached her about the event because of his disappointment that integration was not mentioned in the Department of Education’s guidance for the new school improvement program. Later in the debate Kahlenberg advocated using magnet schools—public schools with specialized curriculum that students usually elect to attend—as a means to create a racially and economically mixed learning environment.
John Brittain, a visiting law professor at the University of District of Columbia Law School, also supported increased racial and economic integration as a means of increasing educational opportunities for minority students. He claimed that going to school with Caucasian and Asian students correlated to drastically higher reading and math scores for African-American children.
He also emphasized segregation’s role in creating educational disparities, noting that in states like New Jersey housing segregation directly relates to segregated school districts where minorities have access to overwhelmingly inferior educational resources. Rather than focus on creating new schools or improving existing ones to increase academic attainment for students of color, Brittain encouraged policymakers to lessen the district boundaries between suburban and urban school districts.
While Brittain and Kahlenberg focused on racial and economic integration as the best means for turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools, Richard Lemons proposed greater accountability for struggling schools, more high-quality curricula and course work, more equitable funding, and more effective teachers in high-poverty schools. Jay Matthews, the education columnist for The Washington Post, also stressed the importance of high expectations but added expanded learning time and authentic assessment as necessary steps to help failing schools.
To illustrate these items in the real world Matthews drew on his experience interviewing and researching Jaime Escalante, a teacher working in a high-poverty public school in East Los Angeles and basis for the film “Stand and Deliver.” While a teacher at Garfield High, Escalante taught calculus to 18 students who would go on to pass the AP exam largely using the methods Matthews advocated.
The panelists’ critical examination of different approaches to salvaging the United States’ lowest-performing schools demonstrated a significant shift in the consideration given to improving public schools in recent years. Although the success of the Obama administration’s education policy remains to be seen, at the very least it appears to have sparked the serious and comprehensive debate that’s a part of all significant reform.
John Brittain, Visiting Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia School of Law
Richard D. Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
Jay Mathews, Education Columnist, The Washington Post
Amy Wilkins, Vice President for Government Affairs & Communications, The Education Trust
Cynthia Brown, Vice President for Education Policy, Center for American Progress