Best and Worst in Education of 2010
by Richard Kahlenberg
In 2010, the education world was dominated by discussions of which states would win the “Race to the Top” competition for federal money, and which students would win the lottery to attend a charter school in the highly-touted documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” In Washington D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee resigned after her boss, Mayor Adriane Fenty, was defeated in his bid for re-election, and Cathie Black replaced Joel Klein as chancellor of New York City Public Schools. Of all the big stories, two developments stand out as the best and worst in education in 2010:
The Worst: The Left Joins in on Teacher Union Bashing
Looking back on the year, the worst development in education was the dubious embrace of teacher union bashing, not just by the right wing but by those on the political left as well.
In March, the President of the United States stunned many observers when he weighed in on a local matter in support of the firing of every single teacher in a struggling high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. As I pointed out at the time, the move was both unfair and unlikely to help students. The primary driver of failure at schools like Central Falls High is the concentration of poverty. A given student in a high poverty school is surrounded by peers who on average are less academically engaged; a parental community that is not in a position to be actively involved in the school to hold school officials accountable; and teachers, who, on average, teach to low expectations. Simply firing teachers might look “tough” but it doesn’t do anything to address the root problems that underlie low performance in high poverty schools.
Then, in the Fall, movie director Davis Guggenheim, a self described liberal, released his anti-union tirade, “Waiting for Superman,” that garnered glowing reviews from everyone from President Obama (who met with students in the film) to Oprah Winfrey. The central thesis of the movie was articulated by liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who appeared in the film to declare: “It’s very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.” The dichotomy, I pointed out in The American Prospect, is one that’s long been invoked by Republicans but as the late leader Albert Shanker asked, “Who started teacher unions? Who pays the dues that keep them going? Who elects the officers and determines union policies?” While teachers' unions aren’t perfect, there is no evidence that non-unionized environments are superior (witness the mediocre performance of charter schools and schools in the American South, where unions are weak.) Conversely, top performing countries like Finland have very high teacher union density rates.
Nevertheless, in December, Michelle Rhee, undeterred by her implicit rejection by Washington D.C. voters in the city’s mayoral election, announced the creation of a new organization seeking to raise $1 billion to counter the influence of teachers and their unions, as if teacher organizations posed education’s central challenge.
Meanwhile, much of the education reform community ignored what is a true threat to education – the growing rise in economic segregation of American schools. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released an alarming report finding that the proportion of students who attend high poverty schools increased by 42 percent between 2000 and 2008. We heard next to nothing on this critical issue from Obama, Guggenheim, Winfrey or Rhee.
The Best: Growing Support for Addressing Economic Segregation
If the issue of segregation was ignored by high flying national figures, however, the best news in 2010 was that at the local level, many citizens and education leaders fought back vigorously against growing segregation.
In Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, which has had a highly successful socioeconomic school integration plan in place for years, supporters repeatedly challenged a conservative school board’s attempts to re-segregate the public schools. In March, I gave a speech at a conference organized by the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, as part of an effort to lay out the research on the importance of integrated schools. The conference was followed by protests from the NAACP, a lawsuit from civil rights lawyers, and a federal investigations into re-segregation. While the school board squabbles, the local Chamber of Commerce (hardly a radical organization), hired an esteemed education planner, Michael Alves, to come up with a proposal that will honor parental choice in schooling, manage explosive growth in the system, and preserve integrated schools.
Meanwhile, school officials in Jefferson County (Louisville) Kentucky, whose racial integration program was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007, have devised a new integration plan that emphasizing socioeconomic status. Although some predicted that the new plan, though legal, would not withstand political attack this year, the good news was that in the November 2010 elections, board members supportive of integration were readily returned to office.
Nationally, momentum for socioeconomic integration grew, as the number of school districts pursuing socioeconomic integration plans reached an all time high of 80. As Alan Gottlieb noted in an article in the Huffington Post, 35 school districts from across the country attended The Century Foundation’s Consortium on Socioeconomic School Integration in June, in order to share ideas and approaches for reducing concentrations of school poverty.
Moreover, powerful new empirical support for socioeconomic integration came from a Century Foundation study, released in October, finding that low-income students who had the opportunity to live in middle-class neighborhoods and attend middle-class schools in Montgomery County, Maryland performed far better, particularly in math, than students who attended higher poverty schools in the county, even though those schools had greater resources for smaller class size, extended learning time, and teacher development. The report’s findings, which drew upon a randomly assigned group of students in public housing, received front page coverage in The Washington Post, and gave new momentum to the idea of trying to bring down barriers in public schools between rich and poor.
Here’s hoping, in 2011, that the national educational conversation begins to catch up with the important innovations that localities are already pursuing.