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Education Equity Across The Nation
Campaign for Education Equity at Teachers College:
A Two Day Symposium

By Liza Young

Laurie Tisch
Laurie Tisch
John Merrow
John Merrow
(Ryan Brenizer/Teachers College)
Michael Rebell
Michael Rebell
(Ryan Brenizer/Teachers College)
Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein
(Ryan Brenizer/Teachers College)

At this year’s second annual Campaign for Educational Equity, sponsored by the Laurie M. Tisch Foundation, and hosted at the Cowin Center of Teachers College, experts on educational policy gathered to discuss the state of equity in education, an apt setting for the symposium as indicated by Teachers College President, Susan Furhman, who kicked off the event, stating “from its inception Teachers College has focused on research that is responsive to and shaped by the needs of educational institutes and policy makers.”
Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, underscored key findings from last year’s symposium—the gargantuan dollar cost of inequity in education, and presented directions taken this year: examining the current situation from a historical context, with a comprehensive analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including recommended directions for the future in light of its upcoming state of reauthorization.

Dr. Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education and Coordinator of Policy Studies at Teachers College, examined the history of federal involvement in educational and social policy, asserting that the gap in academic performance stems from the historical trend in the US of placing the huge burden of reducing inequality on school house doors, in contrast to other industrialized nations which built and expanded social welfare programs to support citizen equality.

Wells summarized Harold Belinsky’s comparison of policies that further “absolute equality,” such as welfare programs, to those which further “equality of opportunity,” which is through education, and stated that the “profound question we need to ask as we reflect on role of federal government in education and other social policies is whether or not we can ever accomplish anything resembling equality of opportunity through the public school system when children are coming through the door with day to day ‘levels of living and being’ that are so profoundly unequal.”  Wells’ conclusion is that the educational gap can’t be closed until inequities outside of the classroom are closed.

She joined Rebell in applauding the efforts of Dr. Edmund Gordon, Director of the Institute of Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, in supporting supplemental education for underserved youth.

In presenting his review of Wells’ paper, Dr. Gordon cited Mao Tse Tung’s notion of contradiction, that there’s “almost no aspect of life in which we do not see the opposite of what we are focused on.” Tying this with his perspective of Wells’ presentation, Gordon addressed the issue of dualism in education, noting Lawrence Cremin’s interpretation of John Dewey’s account of education and life, the cautionary notion that “it is a mistake to focus so sharply on schooling that we neglect many aspects of living that are educative.” Gordon emphasized the need for supporting academic development through proper nourishment, keeping children healthy and use of museums, libraries and faith based institutions. “As we roll out our discussions of comprehensive education, you’ll see we are trying to break down the separation between school and life and make life a more active part of deliberate education,” stated Gordon.

Session II
In a forum on “Narrowing the Achievement Gap,” moderated superbly by John Merrow, President of Learning Matters, Inc., expert panelists presented their views on the performance of special needs, English as a second language, and minority students within the framework of NCLB.

Dr. Eugene Garcia, Vice President for Education Partnerships, Arizona State University, credited NCLB with drawing attention, for the first time, to the progress of English language learners (ELL), as well as other minorities. While there have been increases in academic performance for ELL students, a widening of the gap between English learners and ELL exists especially in areas where use of the native language is prohibited such as in California that adheres to an “English only” initiative based on the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998.

Garcia indicated what Merrow termed a “complexity in education gap,” where there is evidence that English language learners are doing well on the basics, such as phonics, but fall behind in later years on more complex skills.

His recommendations include early intervention—he cited an early education program for four-year-olds which demonstrated a closing of the gap by kindergarten and training of professionals for English language learners, which should include support of the culture of English language learners, using some aspects of their language, as NCLB does not prohibit assessment in native language. Garcia reported on the positive progress of students in Texas who are doing well in bilingual education and dual language programs.

With reference to assessments for English language learners, he advocates doing so in both languages, and conducting assessments following at least three years of study in English, to provide enough time to demonstrate improvement.

Dr. Margaret J. McLaughlin, Professor and Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, University of Maryland, provided an overview of the history of special education, and its nature within the context of NCLB. She compared the progress of students with disabilities as similar to ELL students in terms of the “complexity in education gap,” but raised the question of whether the gap has to do, in this case, with the nature of the student body, or with the nature of schools and curriculum approaches. The passage of NCLB, with the call for increase in standards, requires, according to McLaughlin, that “all teachers need to know how to teach diverse children.”

NCLB has also shed light on the performance of the special education students, and the consequent shift from individualized education programs to teaching special education students equivalent subject matter used in regular education. McLaughlin stated that many children end up in special education because of lacking general education…and over-identification of children as requiring special education as an easy way out of taking the time to properly classify students. “Due to NCLB you can no longer hide” under a special education category, McLaughlin indicated.

With reference to performance outcomes of special education students, some methodological differences, based on differences in defining subgroups, remain in measuring performance of special education students. Results of studies are that an increased number of special education students are participating in statewide assessments following the passage of NCLB. Qualitative studies have revealed a beneficial effect for special education students instructed in grade level subject matter, and reports from mandatory state-reported data as well as several nationally representative studies, show an increase in the graduation rate, while other studies point to an increase in the performance gap, particularly in California, Maryland, and NY.

Addressing the performance of African American students, Dr. Michael Nettles, Edmund W. Gordon Chair for Policy Evaluation and Research at the Educational Testing Service, reported that the achievement gap between blacks and whites, as measured by NAEP in 2005, is evidenced at grade four, and by grade eight, widens further in math and science. He attributes this gap to factors including a lack of qualified teachers for African American students compared with white students. Poverty is a factor in the education gap; there is a direct correlation between schools with a population of poorer children and unqualified teachers.

He recommends attracting African American teachers, citing that currently only three percent of white students have African American teachers, while over 61 percent of African American students have white teachers. He further advises that additional studies be done to explore the current status of family involvement in academic performance.

Session III
In a session examining standards and assessments in education, Dr. Robert B. Schwartz, Academic Dean and Professor of Practice, Harvard University Graduate School of Education, reported the general discrepancy between state standards, and measures of three independent organizations that have been reviewing state standards and assessments over the course of ten years. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute found only three states worthy of an A, giving more than half the states grades of D or F. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found only 11 states met quality standards and assessments in line with those standards. Achieve, a national network focused on equal opportunity and access to post-secondary education reported only one out of 14 examined states as having high quality standards and assessments.

Schwartz expressed agreement with Garcia and McLaughlin, that a closing of the education gap can be found in early, but not later years, and attributed this to inadequate state standards and assessments.

Schwartz recommends investing in high quality assessments, and underscored the need for standards to be based on future employability and citizenship requirements. He presented the possibility of non-governmental organizations setting forth appropriate standards for curriculums and assessments. Such work has already progressed through the efforts of the American Diploma Project (ADP), of Achieve, The Education Trust, and The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where 26 states are currently working towards aligning high school standards with benchmarks set by ADP. 

A second proposal, which Schwartz deems more controversial, is to change the role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the context of the reauthorization of NCLB. Its current role is based on the expectation of shaming states who do not meet the performance standards of NAEP. Schwartz’s suggestion is for NAEP to serve as the new accountability measure, where states would be required to demonstrate progress—which would be based on particular benchmarks for states depending on their level of performance—every two years.

Dr. Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University reiterated the discrepancy between NAEP and state assessments, and asserted her longstanding call for national standards, especially in light of statistics showing one-third of college students requiring remedial services during freshman year, and testing on international standards across cities in the US and the world.

While she supports Schwartz’s idea of turning to the private sector for development of standards, she also believes the public sector in the form of “Federal Standards and tests overseen by a strictly non-partisan board of governors” is another viable option.



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