Choose Your Crisis

OriginalLifemagazines.com “CRISIS IN EDUCATION” was the headline on a 1958 Life magazine cover that Deborah Meier displayed to attendees at a May 4 panel discussion sponsored by the Forum for Education and Democracy.

Back in the ’50s, the “crisis” was the threat of the Soviet Union, with its supposedly superior education system. In 2010, the threats have evolved but the rhetoric hasn’t changed. “Apparently, we beat the Russians without improving our schools,” Meier remarked.

Meier was joined on the panel by Diane Ravitch, James P. Comer, and Douglas W. Anthony—a group whose combined careers in education span nearly a century. These distinguished educators have seen successive waves of reform, and you’d think that nothing would faze them. But all expressed astonishment and dismay at what’s going on today.

The current education reform agenda is shaped by economists, not by educators, Ravitch asserted.

Both Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s proposals for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) assume that we’ve reached consensus on what works: imposing incentives, punishments, and competition; judging teachers by test scores; and closing schools and firing entire staffs.

There’s no such consensus, the panelists said. What’s more, these strategies are supported by neither research nor experience.

What would a reauthorization of ESEA shaped by educators look like? The panel members’ recommendations include

  • Eliminate high-stakes testing and all sanctions in federal law.
  • Provide more support for teachers instead of emphasizing firing them.
  • Use federal funding to promote equity and collaboration, not competition.
  • Base accountability on multiple measures of child welfare and use it to help schools improve, not to punish them.

Do you agree? What changes in ESEA do you believe are most needed? And how can teachers, principals, students, and parents make their voices count in the national policy debate?

Submitted by Deborah Perkins-Gough, Senior Editor, Educational Leadership