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Education advocate urges a change in national and state educational policy

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, February 2013)  At the January meeting of the Cleveland Education Committee, Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness for the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, spoke of the folly of a national educational policy geared toward test based accountability without demanding investments to provide quality education for children.

Resseger said the 22% child poverty rate in the United States was the highest in the industrial world. She talked about the growing segregation along economic lines that is happening in the United States as people with similar income levels congregate in the same communities. The impact of this economic segregation on the nation’s school systems has resulted in a large “income inequality achievement gap.” Resseger points out that primary factor contributing to the educational achievement gap is poverty.

Rather than addressing the nation’s high childhood poverty rate, Resseger says on the national level, both the Democratic and Republican political parties have embraced creating an official set of academic standards and creating tests to measure those standards. National educational policy, from No Child Left Behind in the George W. Bush Administration to Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants in the Barack Obama administration, uses standardized testing of students to judge the performance of schools and teachers with an eye toward blaming schools and teachers for low performance on the tests.

Resseger says current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ties Race to the Top School Improvement Grants to punitive measures that punish schools and teachers. These measures include: the willingness of states to tie teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, states agreeing to increase the ease with which teachers that don’t measure up can be fired, states assenting to close low scoring schools and to replace the principals and staff of low performing schools, or to turn closed schools over to charter schools. The states are also asked to remove caps on creating more charter schools.

The national educational policy being pushed by Educational Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration is based on testing and punishing schools and teachers that don’t measure up, says Resseger. Sanctions will be placed on failing schools starting with the bottom 5% of schools, she said. These schools, Resseger noted, are almost always in the poorest neighborhoods.

Designing and scoring tests has become a growth industry, says Resseger, while the test scores that result “punish the most vulnerable schools.” In Ohio, the state actually provides money to reward excellent schools, she said. At the same time policy makers in Ohio have stopped talking about investments in struggling schools. She noted in Ohio there is also a massive outpouring of State dollars going from public schools to charter schools.

Resseger said researchers know what investments will help improve education in struggling schools. The investments include quality early childhood education, resources to attract quality teachers and to reduce class sizes, a curriculum that prepares students for college or post secondary education, and equitable distribution of resources such as libraries, textbooks and science labs.

Instead of investing more in education, state budget shortfalls have led to cuts in budgets for education, says Resseger, with over 320,000 educational job cuts nationwide. Resseger points out research by Stephen Dryer presented at the First Unitarian Church Forum in Shaker Heights in October of last year that said it would take a 15 mill levy in Cleveland just to replace the $84.72 million cut by the State of Ohio from the Cleveland School District’s Budget since the last biennial state budget.

Given the implications of the recent 15-mill levy passed in Cleveland simply replacing lost state funding, Resseger urged educational advocates to pay attention to state educational policy and to lobby for a better school funding formula in Ohio. She also urged lobbying on the federal level to restore Title I funds to their original intended use as a means to help schools provide additional resources to educate the nation’s poorest children. Resseger says Title I dollars are instead being used for competitive grants to reward innovative school programs.

Local educational plans in Cleveland are echoing the national and state policies and would likely result in the closing and turning over to charter schools the schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Cleveland, said Resseger. She said improving the schools in Cleveland would take exceptional school leadership and exceptional investment in the schools. She urged educational policy makers to “Stop punishing the very poorest schools and their teachers.” Instead she urged reformers to “support and improve” those schools.

Editor’s Note: The Cleveland Education Committee meets monthly at the Goodrich Gannet Neighborhood Center, 1400 E. 55th (just South of St. Clair). The next meeting will be at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13th. 

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