« What Does the Tax Cut Deal Mean for Medicare, Social Security and Health Care Reform? | Main | 2010 Year in Review: Maggie Mahar on Health Care Reform »

December 20, 2010

Best and Worst in Education of 2010

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.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Best and Worst in Education of 2010:


JCPS Parent

Despite the school board's continued commitment to diversity, the district is currently in flux. Superintendent Sheldon Berman's contract has not be renewed. He will be replaced by July 1, 2011 and there is currently pre-filed legislation in Kentucky that would call for a return to "neighborhood schools, BR 111. The sponsors of this legislation, Senator Dan Seum, Senator Elizabeth Tori, and Senator David Williams (who is currently running for Governor), filled this bill after a recent law suit was filed and failed. The Bill would permit a parent or legal guardian to enroll a child for attendance at the school nearest to the child's home, except in cases in which there are academic or skill prerequisites for attendance at the school. The bill goes on to state that "if the number of children living in a school's attendance area were to exceed capacity of a school, children residing the shortest distance from the school would be given first priority in assignment to the school." Jefferson County Public Schools has appx 98,000 students in attendance. JCPS has responded to this bill by stating that, in part, the bill would resegregate the schools by race and income, negatively impacting equitable educational opportunities and student achievement across the district and in effect would eliminate current school boundaries and eliminate the existing magnet program as well as create massive disruption and create a more complicated student assignment plan. While the intent of Senators Seum, Tori and Williams was to focus on Jefferson County, in truth, this would impact all the school districts in the Commonwealth. In addition, as there is no funding attached to this legislation, leaving it up to the local district to impliment the plan. For Jefferson County, this plan would cost more than $200 million dollars in order to create six new schools to accomodate boundary changes and student attendance (this is only for the building, not for the staffing, etc. required).

While there are some parents within the district who are frustrated by the bus situation and length of time their children spend in transit, and these parents are often quite vocal and often negative about the schools/district, there are also parents who believe in the magnet school program and wilingly choose to place thier child/ren on a school bus to attend a program. Part of the disput seems to be about zip code location of magnet schools (often in areas seen within the community as "undesireable neighborhoods") and less about the schools/programs themselves. The thought is that by returning to neighborhood schools there will be more community/parental involvement in a child's education because a parent will be more closely connected to the school, via proximity. One could make this presumption, but it is faulty logic. Parents (and this includes extended family members/grandparents, etc) make choices about what they will consider a priority, often scheduling extracurricular activities for which time/travel/cost is excessive and create conflict with attending school related events. Parent engagement does not always means being at the school, while certainly that is advantageous, in today's culture where we are all contacted via email, facebook, etc, being on site doesn't always mean that one is engaged in the school or even with their child. A return to neighborhood schools, while evoking nostaglic references to walking hand in hand with one's child to school, will actually not be a posibility for many families, as state law also requires bus transportation if a familiy resides 1 mile or more from the school. Therefore buses would not be eliminated under the proposed plan.

As this is a complex and complicated situation, involving not only local vs state control of education, of diversity and a commitment to desegration, of parents and community trying to achieve educational equality (which still does not exist), please continue to keep a watchful eye on our situation, it is not over yet, and although many believe because this legislation session is only 30 days this bill will fail, there are those who wish to use this bill for political leverage in the upcoming election for governor.

Richard Kahlenberg

I will be out of the office until Monday, January 3 and will be
checking email only intermittently. Happy Holidays.

Rick Kahlenberg

Medical Assistant

Really awesome post about education.I like the post .Thanks richard for sharing all the issues and pros & cons about the best and worst education at 2010.
Merry Christmas and happy new year
with regards

Richard Kahlenberg

I will be out of the office until Monday, January 3 and will be
checking email only intermittently. Happy Holidays.

Rick Kahlenberg

The comments to this entry are closed.