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Herb Kohl: How About a Race to Equity?

From Washington comes word that this Friday afternoon Arne Duncan's Department of Education will unveil its "blueprint" for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, (which they have gone back to calling ESEA). This law has done more to damage public schools than anything else. This will be our chance to see if Duncan has actually listened to teachers as we have written and spoken to him about the many things wrong with federal policy.

Since this law must be reauthorized by Congress, this process will be our only chance of making changes to it. Over at Teachers' Letters to Obama we are sharing letters we are sending to Congress and Duncan. Last week I got the following letter from Herb Kohl, who gave me permission to post it here. With Secretary Duncan making the rounds declaring education to be the "civil rights issue" of our era, Herb raises some provocative questions.

Opportunity to Learn: Some suggestions for the reauthorization of ESEA

Herbert Kohl


During the last attempt to rework ESEA I worked with Senator Paul Wellstone on building Opportunity to Learn ideas into ESEA. Let me explain our thinking then, which I think might be useful as progressives consider what specific suggestions to make this time through.

When considering school failure, consideration must be given to the situation and circumstances under which children learn. Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities dramatically documents the lack of opportunity presented to many poor children. Taking off from this, we raised the issue of how to negate those inequalities. The question that droves this analysis was: Do all children have the same opportunities to learn? We were careful to avoid the question of poverty, family background, etc., because we wanted to make strictly educational arguments. We wanted to focus specifically on the conditions of schooling and make the opportunity to learn an equity issue. In this context we wanted to create a series of measures of equity, amongst which were:

  • What are the facilities necessary to promote equitable learning?

  • What is an equitable ratio of students to teachers?

  • What is the range and scope of a learning program that promotes equitable learning - this would include the arts, opportunity for athletics and cultural learning, advanced placement courses, science labs?

  • What are the credentials teachers are expected to have to produce excellence in learning?

  • What kind of wages and conditions of work contribute to educational opportunity for children?

  • What kinds of supplies and equipment must all school have access to (text books, computers, etc.)?

  • What kind of facilities should house an equitable learning environment for all children?

  • What kind of standards and measures should be used to measure a school's effectiveness as an equitable learning institution?

  • What role should parents and community organizations play to ensure equitable schools in their communities?

There were other conditions, but the idea was to establish a base for what was equitable based upon an analysis of successful public schools across the nation. We did not want to tie this notion into variables that had to do with conditions outside of the context of schools, as we wanted educational solutions to educational problems. In other words, we wanted to assert that, when given the resources, schools across the country could deliver excellent equitable education. We were not advocating a single standard, so much as a series of base lines. Once agreements on what successful and effective total school environments are like (there, of course can be multiple models, a range of effectiveness, but there have to be minimums), the idea was to craft legislation that would fund school facilities improvement, special programs in the schools, school reorganization, heightened credentialing programs for teachers, etc. Instead of taking the punitive stance that did emerge from Congress and the Presidency with NCLB, the idea was to bring the schools up to standards as a means of bringing their students up to standards. The idea was not, however to brush away problems. Accountability had to be built in and communities that would not commit to equitable schools would not be given funding. All of this remained, of course, at the talking stage since only a small number of members of the Senate and House bought into it. Nevertheless these general ideas might help people who are trying to propose alternatives to the current punitive and coercive conditions s that are likely to be incorporated into ESEA this time through.

My feeling is that progressives should advocate a "race to equity" - a multibillion dollar initiative to bring some of the most impoverished schools up to the material and pedagogical conditions of the most effective public schools in the country.

What do you think of Herb Kohl's proposal? How should we address the issue of equity in public education?

photo by Anthony Cody

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