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Superintendents Around the Nation
Discuss Education Isssues At Teachers College
by Dorothy Davis

If the school is failing, call in an ophthalmologist. This is what Professor Gary Orfield of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Co-Director of The Civil Rights Project (www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu) did for a poverty-stricken school in the Boston area, which was threatened with closure because too many students were failing their reading tests. His wife, the ophthalmologist, examined the children, whose vision had never been tested, and found that “about half of them had vision problems, couldn’t even see the blackboard or books. One of the children in Special Education turned out to be gifted. He had a vision problem so he couldn’t see.” How could these children pass their tests? Of course they couldn’t and they weren’t. They were given prescriptions for glasses, which in a middle class school would have done the trick. But the prescriptions were not filled—the children’s families could not afford to do so, and they could not get help. The bureaucratic paperwork maze of Medicaid was too complicated for them to negotiate and, if they somehow managed it, they would only get clunky plastic glasses, which no child would wear. “We are the only advanced society,” said Orfield, “that doesn’t have decent healthcare for poor kids. Our system spends huge amounts on emergency care, but there is no diagnostic, preventive care.”

This is a dramatic illustration of what research at The Civil Rights Project shows—that a school’s lack of achievement, as shown on test scores, correlates nearly exactly with poverty and racial segregation. In New York State in the late 1990s, for example, the percentage of students reading above grade level equaled the percentage not eligible for free lunch. Schools may spend a lot of money trying to upgrade, but the adverse effects of poverty will still outweigh these attempts at improvement.

Yet schools in poverty-stricken, segregated and immigrant areas are held accountable under No Child Left Behind in the same way as wealthy suburban schools. “Does it make any sense to compare these schools and hold them equally accountable?” asked Orfield. “In no place do you have the same achievement level in immigrant and poor schools as in wealthier schools where everyone is a native. This is true around the world. If we don’t have a place in the world where all schools can perform at the same level, what are we talking about with No Child Left Behind?” According to this law, schools that don’t perform at these same high levels are subject to funding set-asides and sanctions.

Over emphasis on test scores is not helping. The achievement gap is widening. This was not always so. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the advances of the 1960s and 1970s including Head Start, for preschool education, the achievement gap significantly narrowed. Since the 1980s and the rollback of these measures and the substitution of testing and sanctions the gap has grown substantially, beginning in the 1990s. “Dropout trends” said Orfield, “have followed a similar pattern. They went down and then up again in the 1990s. In 1988 we had the lowest level of segregation, then three decisions by the Supreme Court lead to resegregation, inequality and the kind of conditions that caused the gap to widen during this period, when reforms using testing based policies were supposed to close it. … Something very troubling is going on. We had a positive trend and now it’s negative.” He compared our current testing and punitive policies to the field of corn that the University of Illinois has been measuring over the last 100 years to help agriculture in the state. “If you think a crop can grow by measuring it and hitting it you are mistaking measurement for treatment. Measurement and sanctions cannot grow a healthy crop. It doesn’t work that way.”

No educators were consulted in the drafting of No Child Left Behind. One of the positive outcomes of the discussion following Orfield’s address may be the determination of some of these leading U. S. educators to make their voices heard after the November elections, when this law can hopefully be revised. As Orfield pointed out, “Any of us who are educators can make a difference. It is time to have a sensible discussion and not a simple minded one. Most of the problems encountered derive entirely from the fact that people went ahead with legislation without understanding exactly what they were doing.”

The Superintendents Conference included talks and discussions on the Achievement Gap from many perspectives over a three day period. According to Dr. Tom Sobol, Chairman of the Conference and the Christian A. Johnson Professor for Outstanding Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University, “Superintendents from every part of the country including Alaska, California and Florida attended. They are a national group and this is a wonderful opportunity for people to examine ideas with each other, to find out what’s working and what’s not working.”

“One of the likely outcomes is an ongoing initiative to stay in touch electronically and personally,” added Dr. Gibran Majdalany, Deputy Chairman of the Conference. “One of the things we have discovered in exchanges this week is that there is much more to get accomplished than we can get done in the time allotted.”

Superintendents were enthusiastic. Said Carol Franks-Randall of Elmsford, New York, “It’s been a wonderful opportunity for learning and for networking with colleagues. We learned how to address the achievement gap—some practical suggestions as well as some theory behind it.”#

For further information about the conference and its 63-year history visit http://conference.tc.columbia.edu.



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