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Final Thoughts on Expanding Education Opportunity

Dear Deborah,

As you know, I am about to take off for a sabbatical leave in South Africa, so I will be away for the next few months and will have to take a break from our correspondence in Bridging Differences. I've enjoyed our exchanges, but I will need to focus my time and energy on the important work occurring in the townships of the Eastern Cape. The Centre for the Community School at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University has established a support network with several schools and I will be working with the network while I am there, providing technical assistance to help these schools improve the quality of education and mitigate the effects of poverty. I am looking forward to this work.

For my final communiqué with you I would once again like to make the case for a change in direction in how the Obama administration and state departments of education across the country are thinking about school reform and the effort to close the so-called achievement gap.

We have already spent a lot of time in our exchanges criticizing the excessive reliance on standardized testing, the punitive approach to school accountability, and the dangerous movement toward privatization. I am sure that you, Diane Ravitch, and others (read Barbara Miner's new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City), will continue to warn the public about these dangers while I am away.

Again, I think it is important that we do more than merely critique what's been going wrong. We have to offer concrete strategies that can help schools address the challenges they face, and we have to reframe the way we think about reform and outline a strategy for change and renewal.

I know this is a lot to take on, and I realize that there are powerful forces behind the current narrow strategy that is dominating the policy agenda. However, as I travel throughout the country I am struck by how many educators and parents are fed up and frustrated with the direction in which we have been headed and who are looking for guidance in charting the course of a new direction.

Given that the Obama administration has been granted another term, let's play the role of critical friends and offer them a new way to think about reform.

To begin with, they need to stop using assessment as a punitive measure to rank students and schools, and evaluate teachers. Instead, we must start using assessment as a tool to diagnose learning needs, to monitor progress, and to implement timely interventions. This is not a radical idea, and we have the means to begin doing this now. If you haven't seen it, take a look at the report based on an evaluation of the 38 performance-based assessment schools in New York. These schools have higher graduation and college attendance rates and fewer of their students are required to take remedial courses in college than similar schools that are required to take the state exams. This is an idea that makes a lot of sense and could result in real change if it were embraced.

Let's get the administration to stop using accountability as a means to pressure struggling schools to improve and focus instead on the work of capacity building. As we know, the vast majority of these so-called "failing schools" are serving the poorest children and they generally lack the resources to meet their academic and social needs.

I just visited a district that serves this type of "high need" population in Mapleton, Colo. The district is under pressure from the state to improve performance and has been threatened with a loss of accreditation. But the district leadership is pushing back, refusing to adopt a narrow approach that focuses on simply raising test scores. They are trying to implement more creative strategies to meeting the needs of their students, and they have evidence that what they are doing is working. It is important to note that they are not using poverty as an excuse, but they are acknowledging that it can't be ignored. One of its high schools—MEC—has been recognized by the state of Colorado for its accomplishments. We should encourage other schools serving "high need" populations to learn from schools like this one rather than merely threatening them with ill-conceived turnaround strategies and closure.

Finally, let's reframe the entire effort to close the achievement gap. Under the guise of reducing academic disparities between students from different racial and socio-economic groups, schools are desperately searching for ways to raise test scores. Meanwhile, we are ignoring more fundamental issues related to the opportunity to learn.

The Schott Foundation has been a national leader in drawing attention to the ways in which poor children of color are being short-changed by disparities in school funding and inequities in resources; critical parts of the gap that the administration has largely ignored.

I like the way that Year Up has reframed the issue as an effort to close the opportunity gap. I serve on the board of this amazing organization that is serving nearly 2,000 young people between the ages of 18-24 in Boston; Providence, R.I.; New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, Miami, and San Francisco.

In a relatively short period of time it provides these students with the social, technical, and academic skills needed to be "job-ready," and then places them in jobs at private companies that pay decent wages. Year Up recognizes that structural obstacles related to the way our economy is organized perpetuate a cycle of poverty, and to counter this it is preparing to expand its efforts into community colleges to increase the number of young people who have access to good-paying jobs. At a time when unemployment for young people is so high (above 25 percent in several cities), such an initiative is critical.

I could say more, but I'll leave it to you to expand. As I've said before, we have to do more than rehash the he political debate over the direction of school reform. We need to start working for real and genuine progress.

Despite Barack Obama's re-election many people are losing hope because the degree of suffering and despair is growing. I truly believe that education can serve as a means to restore hope and to create a more just and equitable society, but this can only happen if we change course. This means placing equity and social justice at the center of our reform efforts and thinking creatively about how to use the enormous resources in this country to expand opportunity for those who have been marginalized and left behind.

Take good care, Deborah.

Pedro

P.S. Here's a big shout out to Ryan Heber, the 40-year-old teacher at Taft Union High School in California who talked a student with a shotgun in his hands into putting down his gun after the student shot a classmate. Heber didn't need a gun to keep his students safe; he used his heart and his brains. He's a true hero.

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