Reform of Education Policy

Two-thirds of Latino and African American and Latino children and youth in urban areas cannot achieve minimally acceptable scores on tests of core curricula.1

At the high school level, over the last fifteen years, the drop out rate has remained the same. Almost one quarter if the nation's high school students fail to graduate, although some go on to earn GEDs and other credentials. The drop out rate is highest in a few hundred schools in the nation's thirty five largest cities, based on research at Johns Hopkins University. Most of these schools are in poor African-American or poor Hispanic neighborhoods. Here, the drop out rate is about fifty percent. The drop-outs are fifty percent more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates. When employed, the dropouts earn about twenty-five percent less than high school graduates.2

How can we reverse these realities?

Support Head Start Preschool

One of the best examples of what works is Head Start preschool. Head Start was created by experts in pediatrics, education and mental health. The goal of Head Start is to lay the foundation for literacy for three and four year olds in poor families -- "teaching, for example, basic concepts like what a rhyme is, or helping to increase children's vocabularies by talking and reading to them." Relatively few children this age have the cognitive capacities to give meaning to abstract symbols, like written words. Whether or not they do have these capacities, most teachers and other experts have concluded that Head Start preschool time is best spent learning behavior needed in school -- like listening, taking turns and getting along with others.3

The conservative CEOs on the Committee for Economic Development in New York have argued that, for every dollar invested in Head Start preschool, America receives almost $5.00 of benefits in return -- over the lifetime of a child who participates in preschool. Those benefits, the CEOs said, include less involvement in crime, less involvement in drugs, less involvement in teen pregnancy, more likelihood to complete school, and more likelihood to become economically independent. A more recent and sophisticated state-by-state study by the Rand Corporation demonstrated that access to Head Start preschool increases student achievement, especially in impoverished communities. Another recent and refined evaluation, by the Weststat Corporation, showed Head Start graduates are more ready for school and have more solid gains in vocabulary and other prereading skills -- compared to children from similar backgrounds who do not have Head Start.4

Yet less than half of all eligible poor children are enrolled -- because, we are told, the nation doesn't have the money for our children, especially the eighteen percent of the youngest who are living in poverty. At the same time, in many European countries, like France and Sweden, preschool is considered a basic human right.5

In spite of the evaluations documenting the success of Head Start, the Administration proposes to change it -- adding literacy development to the original emphasis on learning the behavior and habits needed to build achievement in future years. We do not see sufficient scientific evidence for such a change. For example, although a model of success in Texas has been identified, other literacy programs for poor children, like Even Start, administered by the Department of Education, have shown minimal evidence of success.6 The proposed new policy would run counter to the conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics in one of the leading guides to parents:7

The crucial factor that determines whether a student will do well or poorly in school is not how aggressively he was pushed early on, but rather his own enthusiasm for learning. This passion cannot be forced on a child by forcing him to read at age four. To the contrary, many so-called early learning programs interfere with the child's natural enthusiasm by forcing him to concentrate on tasks for which he's not yet ready.

In addition, there are no assurances that, over time, literacy development would become the dominant theme of Head Start. There are plans to possibly move Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education. However, as Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund, argued when the President sought such a move in the late 1970s, minority parents wield more influence and power in the present Head Start centers than they would in the public education system, where they would fall if the Department of Education administered the initiative.8

In terms of resources, Head Start teachers average only $20,000 per year. That is deplorable -- in absolute terms and in comparison, for example, to CEOs who receive over 400 times the pay of their workers. Head Start teachers need substantial pay increases. Given the successes measured by the Rand, Westat and other evaluations, Head Start needs to be replicated to scale, not limited to less than half of all eligible students. Yet there are no plans by the Administration or a majority in Congress to increase salaries or to replicate to scale.

Support Public School Reform and Youth Development

Most experts who work with children and youth have learned that we need a continuum of interventions from early childhood through adulthood. That is one reason why, for children slightly older than preschoolers as well as for preteens, safe havens after school have worked -- based, for example, on evaluations by Columbia University and the Eisenhower Foundation. Evolving from the formative Carnegie Corporation report, A Matter of Time, in 1992, safe havens are places where kids can go after school -- for help with their homework, snacks, social support and discipline from adult role models. During the week, youth get into the most trouble from 3:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. in America. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why social support and discipline by paid adult staff during these hours will have a positive impact. Such evaluated success is illustrated by the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston; Koban, Inc. in Columbia, SC; Centro Sister Isolina Ferre in Puerto Rico; and Boys and Girls Clubs in public housing.9

But this is after school. There are many good examples of public school reforms that work during school hours. One is the School Development Plan of Professor James Comer, at Yale University. Parents, teachers, and principals take over the management of inner-city schools. Additional investments in youth, like counseling and mental health services, are available. Evaluations have been positive -- for example, in terms of less crime, less drugs, and higher grades in Comer Schools than in comparison schools. Professor Comer has widely replicated his plan, also with evaluated successes. Similarly, "full service community schools," as articulated by Joy Dryfoos in her book Safe Passage, have begun to demonstrate their worth. A good model is Intermediate School 218 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Such schools integrate the delivery of quality education with whatever health and social services are judged necessary by a specific community. For high schoolers, a good example of success is the Ford Foundation's national Quantum Opportunities program. Well-trained adult mentors work one-on-one with inner-city high school youth -- keeping them on track to good grades and high school completion, working out ways to earn money in the summer and providing venues for college education, if youth so choose. The original Brandeis University evaluation showed that Quantum Opportunities students did much better than controls -- for example, in terms of less crime, less drugs, less teen pregnancy, better grades, more likelihood to complete high school and more likelihood to go on to college.10

These and related public school successes are being replicated. What principles are emerging for replication in the inner city? To be successful, a public school should:

  • Reduce classroom size.
  • Pay teachers decent salaries and improve their training.
  • Restructure academic programs to focus on a core of common knowledge and skills.
  • Place policy for each inner-city school in the hands of a local management team, led by the principal and including teachers, parents, counselors, and other school staff.
  • Increase involvement of and assistance to inner-city parents.
  • Provide focused intervention by a mental health team for children with emotional, behavioral, or academic problems.
  • Locate nonprofit organizations in public school buildings -- to provide health, family, community, cultural and recreational initiatives and to ensure security.
  • Create safe environments during the school day and supportive nonprofit safe havens after school.

Most of these principles are based on the Turning Points report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. A major evaluation of the Turning Points principles in middle schools for students ten to fifteen years old found substantial enhancements in their achievement and adjustment. Especially in the case of high-risk students, the enhancements occurred only at the point where the principles were seriously and substantially implemented:11

[Our] findings to date strongly support the view that high-quality schooling, well implemented, can make profound contributions to the achievement, mental health, and socio/behavioral functioning of students who are often left behind and for whom there is often a sense that school cannot make a difference in their lives. These data also argue for resources to be used effectively in schools with high concentrations of at-risk students, and, in some instances, for resources to be increased significantly in order to create the necessary conditions for all children to be successful.

Of course, each individual school in each locality must adjust the implementation of these principles to address local needs and conditions. But the point is that there is a base of knowledge that allows replication. To facilitate and technically assist replication, we recommend a national nonprofit Safe Passage Corporation that targets federal funds and matching grants to schools and nonprofit organizations in high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods.

However, there is minimal recognition by a majority in Congress and by the Administration that core principles already exist for public school reform, based on scientific evaluations and studies. There is little acknowledgment of the content of what works, of what needs to happen inside inner city schools. There is scant recognition that we have learned how to replicate success and how to encourage local variations based on local needs. The chances appear slim for a national nonprofit Safe Passage Corporation that can channel public funds to localities, co-target private resources and technically assist the replication process.

Instead of a national policy based on content and core principles of what works inside schools, most proposals out of Washington pass the buck to the states, through education block grants. Yet only thirty-three percent of Americans in a recent poll by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change saw state government officials as helpful. (See "Devolution" Reform: Federally Funded, Locally Run.)

Question "Standards and Accountability"

Many education debates in Washington currently are over "standards and accountability," and less over the content of interventions that work. For example, the Administration proposes to hold schools with poor children accountable, using an annual test. Pupils at schools with two years of inadequate test-score gains can transfer to another public school. After a third year of little progress, they can use public money at private schools.12

The kind of accountability testing proposed by the Administration has been in effect for much of the 1990s in Texas. As a result of the testing and other reforms, there were impressive gains on standardized tests. But a growing number of researchers have concluded that the reforms have done little to reduce the high school drop out rate (often fifty percent in poor minority neighborhoods and thirty percent for whites) in Texas cities like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso and Austin.13

In our view, both major political parties are using "standards and accountability" as magic bullets. Thoughtful standards and tests, based on extensive local community input, surely are needed. But we need better tests -- many are under critical examination.14 Test instruments cannot be accepted unless they are confirmed as valid and reliable -- and many are not. Even when validated, annual tests should be used as just one barometer of performance -- because they only measure a small part of student learning. It is not surprising to see some evidence of a growing middle class backlash against turning schools into test-prep factories, at the expense of the core curricula and other reforms we have found essential to what works.15 In the inner city, tests, standards and accountability mean little unless teachers are replicating in-school principles of success that work and unless schools are reducing the fifty percent inner city high school drop out rates.

Not only are children being subjected to tests that may not help in the effort to enhance their learning, many are being written off as essentially unable to learn. A recent report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that African American children are almost three times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded, forcing them into special education classes, where teachers are in short supply and progress is slow. The report provides some of the most compelling evidence to date that poor training of teachers and racial bias may have led some schools to write children off too soon. The misidentification of students of color with special needs is viewed by many as a failure to socialize children into the learning environment. The solution, say many experts, consists in better training of more quality teachers -- who can deliver education with a better understanding of the background of the children they teach.16

Redress Disparities in Public School Financing

There is no plan by a majority in Congress or by the Administration to remedy the tremendous disparities in school financing. We believe that one size fits all standards won't work in a world of savage inequality. Jonathan Kozol:17

[T]he children in poor rural schools in Mississippi and Ohio will continue to get education funded at less than $4,000 yearly and children in the South Bronx will get less than $7,000, while children in the richest suburbs will continue to receive up to $18,000 yearly. But they'll be told they must be held to the same standards and they'll all be judged, of course, by their performance on the same exams.

Money, as the rich and powerful repeatedly remind us, may not be "the only way" to upgrade education, but it seems to be the way that they have chosen for their own kids, and if it is good for is not clear why it is not of equal worth to the children of poor people....

Some states, like Minnesota, have made progress on tax sharing plans that allow for more equality of educational and other services.18 Replication of these state-level successes should be encouraged through federal government incentives. But, in the long run, federal revenues should be used to bridge the gaps between rich and poor districts. Current and future federal funds should be targeted directly to localities, not through block grants to the states. The greatest successes are at the local level. As we will see (under Devolution), polls by the Pew Center for Civic Change have found few citizens believe state government plays a significant role in solving local programs.19

Neither a majority in Congress nor the Administration appear to share these financing priorities. For example, the share of the budget surplus devoted to the $1.6 trillion long-run tax reduction package is forty times greater than the amount devoted by the federal government to education. A majority in Congress and the Administration are silent on making any increase in funding the Title I programs that aid poor and disadvantaged students.20

Oppose Vouchers

Some in Congress and the Administration also proposes private school vouchers. However, there is little long term evidence that private vouchers work. For example, in Sweden, a voucher program begun in 1992 increased ethnic and economic segregation. In Chile, a Stanford University study found a voucher program begun in 1980 also resulted in economic segregation, as did a study in New Zealand. As these assessments suggest, unregulated private choice in America is likely to cream the most advantaged and motivated students -- leaving behind the least motivated and exacerbating class and race inequality.21

Advocates of private vouchers like to say that the issue is choice. That is not so. There are plenty of scientifically proven inner-city public school successes for a school system to choose from -- like safe havens, the Comer School Development Plan, full service community schools and the Quantum Opportunities Program we have highlighted. These successes, and others like them, provide the basis for the public school choice policy proposed by Richard D. Kahlenberg. We can begin with reduced class size, increased teacher training, and raised standards, as most evaluations suggest are necessary. But, to speed up reform, we also can close failing public schools and allow students the choice of better public schools that are replicating existing models of success.22

The real issue with private vouchers is accountability to the American taxpayer. Private schools that receive public funds are not accountable to the taxpayer in the way that public schools are accountable. Nor are there guarantees that private schools with public funds will promote democracy, equality and racial tolerance. For example, in Milwaukee, an African-American student who criticized her voucher school as racist was expelled. She sued on the grounds of free speech, but lost. The federal judge who wrote the opinion asserted that "restrictions on constitutional rights that would be protected at a public high school...need not be honored at a private school."23

Federal courts in Ohio and Florida recently ruled school voucher programs unconstitutional. The public understands the issues of race, democracy and inequality raised by vouchers. Voucher initiatives in Michigan and California were rejected by roughly seventy percent of voters in the 2000 election. Nationally, exit polls found that, by a seventy-eight to fifteen percent margin, voters preferred public school reform plans over private school vouchers plans.24

Notes and Sources

  1. Gary Orfield, "Segregated Housing and School Desegregation," in Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown vs. Board of Education (New York: New Press, 1996).
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  3. Michael A. Fletcher, "Progress on Dropout Rate Stalls, "Washington Post, March 3, 2001, p. A1.
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  5. Edward Zigler, "The Wrong Read on Head Start, Washington Post, December 23, 2000, p. A13.
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  7. Lisbeth B. Schorr, "Helping Kids When It Counts," Washington Post, April 30, 1997; Committee for Economic Development, Children in Need; Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged (New York: Committee for Economic Development, 1987); Josh Wilgoren, "National Study Examines Why Pupils Excel," New York Times, July 26, 2000, p. A14; Edward Zigler, "The Wrong Read on Head Start, Washington Post, December 23, 2000, p. A13.
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  9. Ibid.
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  11. Edward Zigler, "The Wrong Read on Head Start," Washington Post, December 23, 2000, p. A13.
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  13. Steven P. Shelov, editor, Caring for Your Baby and Your Child: Birth to Age Five (New York: Bantam Books, 1994, p. 348).
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  15. Jacques Steinberg, "Bush's Plan to Push Reading in Head Start Stirs Debate," New York Times, February 10, 2001, p. A1.
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  17. Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, Youth Investment and Police Mentoring (Washington, DC: Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, 2001); Carnegie Corporation, A Matter of Time (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1992); and Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility: A Thirty Year Update of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Washington, DC: Milton S. Eisenhower, 1999). The Eisenhower Foundation publications are posted in their entireties under Publications.
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  19. James P. Comer, Waiting for a Miracle (New York: Dutton, 1997); Joy G. Dryfoos, Safe Passage: Making It Through Adolescence in a Risky Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Robert D. Felner, et al. The Impact of School Reform for the Middle Years. Phi Delta Kappa, March 1997, pp. 528--550; and Andrew Hahn, Quantum Opportunities Program: A Brief on the QOP Pilot Program (Waltham, Mass.: Center for Human Resources, Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University, September 1995).
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  21. Robert D. Felner, et. al., "The Impact of School Reform for the Middle Years," Phi Delta Kappan, March 1997, pp. 528-550.
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  23. Richard Rothstein, "The Flawed Logic of Annual Tests to Assess Schools," New York Times, January 24, 2001, p. A18; David Stout, "Bush to Launch Federal Education Plan," New York Times, January 23, 2001.
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  25. Michael A. Fletcher, "Progress on Dropout Rate Stalls," Washington Post, March 3, 2001, p. A1; Bob Chase "Test Tosterone," Washington Post, Advertisement, March 11, 2001, p. B5.
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  27. For example, in the case of the Texas system of accountability, results from the state-designed standardized test have not, for the most part, been confirmed by other measures. A recent Rand Corporation study has come to, at best, mixed conclusions on the Texas experience. Rand compared performance on the state-designed standardized test by Texas school children to performance on a national exam. By this benchmark, only the math scores of white fourth graders showed meaningful improvement. The common explanation for these discrepancies has been that emphasis on the state-designed test "forces teachers to teach test-preparation materials in lieu of a full subject curriculum." In other words, instead of receiving an education, students are drilled on how to pass a single multiple-choice exam. Texas schools now shunt many kids into special ed (where they are exempted from the state test), hold them back in the ninth grade (to avoid a critical tenth-grade assessment), or even quietly encourage the worse test-takers to stay home on the state test day (there is no makeup date). See Stephen Metcalf, "Teaching Test Taking?" Nation, January 29, 2001, p. 16.
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  29. Stephen Metcalf, "Teaching Test Taking?" Nation, January 29, 2001, p. 16; Paul Zieleauer, "The Courts Try To Get City Schools Their Fair Share," New York Times, January 14, 2001, p. WK3; Michael A. Fletcher, "Education Has Center Stage Under Bush," Washington Post, February 2, 2000, p. A21; and Lizette Alvarez, "In A Twist of Fate, Lieberman's School Bill Could Help Bush," New York Times, January 23, 2001, p. A14.
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  31. Jay Mathews, "Study Finds Racial Bias in Special Ed, "Washington Post, March 3, 2001, p. A1.
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  33. Jonathan Kozol, "Saving Public Education," Nation, February 17, 1997.
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  35. Bruce Katz and Joel Rogers, "Metropolitan Power: The Next Urban Agenda," in Robert L. Borosage and Roger Hickey, editors, The Next Agenda (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2001).
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  37. Leon Botstein, "What Local Control?" New York Times, September 19, 2000, p. A3; David S. Broder, "Panel Starts Clock on Education Bill," Washington Post, February 15, 2001, p. A15; Richard Morin, "Nonprofits, Faith-Based Groups Near Top of Poll on Solving Social Woes," Washington Post, February 1, 2000, p. A19.
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  39. Bob Chase, "Test Tosterone," Washington Post, Advertisement, March 11, 2001, p. B5; Paul Wellstone and Jonathan Kozol, "What Tests Can't Fix," New York Times, March 13, 2001, p. A25.
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  41. Richard D. Kahlenberg, "The People's Choice for Schools," Washington Post, December 15, 2000, p. A41; Diane Jean Schemo, "Focus on Tax Break as Support Wains on Schools Vouchers," New York Times, February 1, 2001.
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  43. Richard D. Kahlenberg, "The People's Choice for Schools," Washington Post, December 15, 2000, p. A41; Diane Jean Schemo, "Focus on Tax Break as Support Wains on Schools Vouchers," New York Times, February 1, 2001.
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  45. Barbara Miner, "Target: Public Education," Nation, November 30, 1998, p. 4.
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  47. Richard D. Kahlenberg, "The People's Choice for Schools," Washington Post, December 15, 2000, p. A41; Diane Jean Schemo, "Focus on Tax Break as Support Wains on Schools Vouchers," New York Times, February 1, 2001; Barbara Miner, "Target: Public Education," Nation, November 30, 1998, p. 4; and Jodi Wilgoren, "School Vouchers are Ruled Unconstitutional in Florida," New York Times, March 15, 2000, p. A20.
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