Congratulations are in order for the District of Columbia in securing a place among the finalists for the “Race to the Top” grant competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The fact that D.C. made it into the final group along with 18 states is significant. With a long history of struggles over school reform, coupled with the more recent highly aggressive plans and steps taken by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the news of D.C.’s inclusion among the finalists may well signal a turning point for a school system that has long held a secure spot at the bottom of any educational list.
At the same time, more vocal critics are emerging with warnings that the Obama Administration’s plans for school reform, including the Race to the Top competition, may well have the effect of causing further harm to the children who need school reform the most: low income urban students in under-performing schools.
In her blog on the Washington Post website, education reporter Valerie Strauss today provided a good summary of the issues. A distinguished group of civil rights organizations issued a paper on Monday that spells out the major problems with the Race to the Top and the Obama Administration’s approach to school reform. The gist of the report is that by providing massive funding to states on a competitive basis according to the rules established by the U.S. Department of Education, the administration is creating an unequal system of funding that will have a disproportionately harmful effect on African American and Hispanic children in low income neighborhoods. Other critics have pointed out that the program emphasizes high stakes standardized testing at the expense of genuinely innovative and effective teaching.
Some political forecasts say that Obama’s Blueprint for Reform, including the revision of No Child Left Behind, the education law originally passed in the Bush administration, is also stalled in Congress, and that the Obama plan for changes to this law will stagnate.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan clearly disagrees with the critics and has forcefully promoted the Administration’s plans to improve public schools. In speeches and interviews this week, Secretary Duncan has pointed out that significant changes have already occured in the finalist jurisdictions since they had to take certain actions in order to apply for the Race to the Top grants. President Obama will speak to the Urban League convention this week about the status of his plans for educational reform.
So much has been said and written on the topic of school reform that we might wonder why we’re not there yet, after all these years. Theories abound, fingers are pointed, roundtables and town halls occur, and Johnny still ain’t readin’ and writin’ too good.
Here’s all I know as a consumer of the results of K-12 education: too many students enter college with large gaps in their educational backgrounds. From basic reading skills to competent writing to simple arithmetic — let alone a robust framework in history and geography and literature and science and social studies — too many students do not have the sound foundation of knowledge and skills necessary to move to the next level. These gaps cause the students to fail in college, absent a great deal of remediation, and then the colleges are called to task for having poor graduation rates when, in fact, the students may not have been ready to leave high shool.
To fix this problem, colleges are devoting massive amounts of resources to the educational lessons that students should have learned previously. At a time when higher education is under the gun to control costs, the idea that we have to pay again for what the taxpayers already thought they paid for in K-12 education is maddening.
I must point out that the preparatory gaps are not just a D.C. problem, or an urban school problem, or a low income student problem, or a problem among students with certain demographics. The preparatory gaps cut across race, social class, urban/suburban and even some public/private lines.
To begin to address some of this preparatory gap, this year a number of school districts — D.C. included — have adopted the Common Core Standards developed by governors and educators. The leading higher education associations endorsed and welcomed these standards. The goals of this effort are worthy; whether adoption of the standards will result in more students entering college with better preparation remains to be seen.
Some people ask me why Trinity or any college accepts students who may not be quite ready for the collegiate curriculum. My answer is very clear: if we don’t educate the students who come to us, who will? We have a profound obligation to educate every student who comes to us to ensure that she can develop into the intellectual person lurking within her very being. We should not turn her away, rather, we must find a way to unlock her potential.
As a university founded with a special commitment to women, we know that unlocking the intellectual potential of women has a profound impact on the long-term success of their children and families. Women continue to be the primary teachers of the young, and the more educated the mother, the higher the child’s ultimate level of educational attainment.
Trinity was also founded by a group of Catholic religious women, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who still have this radical idea about the transformation of individuals through education as a spiritual matter, not simply the secular intellectual side. More than 200 years ago, the commitment of St. Julie Billiart, the founder of the SNDs, to the Gospel imperative of social justice led her to establish schools for poor girls orphaned by the French Revolution. That justice imperative galvanized Trinity’s founders a century ago to create a college for women who, at that time, had no access to higher education in the nation’s capital. Trinity continues that original idea to be a place of access for women (and now including men in our professional and graduate programs) who might not otherwise have been able to go to college.
There’s no “race to the top” money for universities like Trinity who spend considerable time and resources on closing the gap that should never have occurred in the first place. We serve our students well as a matter of mission while also insisting that our partners at the K-12 level really must do their part to improve collegiate preparation.
So, who wins the Race To The Top, and should we care? To the extent that this or any federal program makes it possible for more students to learn at higher levels, and, hence to enroll in college with a greater chance of more immediate success, then the students win. This competition should not be about Delaware or California or Arizona or Pennsylvania or the District of Columbia. This competition should be about leveling the playing fields so that every student in the race has an equal chance to make it to the top.
Secretary Duncan has said, frequently and rightly, that improving educational opportunities for all children is THE civil rights issue of our time. I agree wholeheartedly. If he truly believes that statement, however, then he needs to make sure that in the race to the top, millions of children are not left behind because the process of incentivization only rewards those who know how to run the race.