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Sunday, May 17, 2015

No Inequality Left Behind

From U.S. News and World Report

By Andrew J. Rotherham
May 8, 2015

The Senate's bipartisan education reform plan would undermine the goal of educational equality. 


For the past several years, economic inequality grabbed headlines, sparked protests and spurred Americans to ask hard questions about the structure of opportunity in our society.

In the wake of Baltimore, North Charleston, Ferguson, Cleveland and other episodes, the conversation and attention of protesters is giving way to an even more immediate concern about disparate treatment of Americans by law enforcement based on their race. That, too, is another kind of structural inequality.

Here in the education sector, people are quick to identify with the protesters and the issues they raise, yet there is an inescapable and uncomfortable dissonance: Attacking inequality is at the forefront of our national conversation, but in American education we are actually becoming more accepting of it as a fact of life.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the ongoing saga of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, or NCLB. Congress has tried to overhaul NCLB since 2007, when it was first scheduled to do so. Disagreement about how to improve the law resulted in failure that year and over several subsequent tries. Now an overhaul bill is again moving through Congress buttressed by bipartisan agreement that Washington should scale back its efforts to force states to hold schools accountable for performance.

That bill walks away from requiring states to do much of anything to receive federal education dollars – especially from NCLB’s emphasis on accountability for improving results for low-income and minority students. It doesn't attack key problems that drive educational inequality, such as federal rules for allocating funds that inadvertently send more money to better resourced schools and less to poor ones or expand support for low-income students through pre-kindergarten education or more school choice.

Yes, the bill preserves annual testing as civil rights groups and business coalitions demanded. But one might ask, why bother? Absent real accountability, testing truly does become “testing for testing’s sake” – something education leaders constantly say they’re against (even as many work feverishly to render accountability schemes toothless). Controversial? It unanimously passed the Senate education committee last month.

Obviously the NCLB law – now a teenager! – is in desperate need of some fixes. No one envisioned it lasting this long without changes to its rules or programs. But given what we know about how instrumental education is to economic mobility, it seems an odd time to walk away from federal efforts to level the playing field. It’s especially odd at a time when on a host of other issues from consumer and financial protection to civil rights and law enforcement we are looking to Washington to act.

An honest conservative position is the straightforward argument that Washington does more harm than good when it gets too involved in education. The benefits of these various efforts are outweighed by their costs, that argument goes. What follows, of course, should be an acknowledgement about the inevitable price of more educational inequality – some states and communities will do amazing things, while others will stagnate or worse. It’s reasonable, however, to argue that this is the least bad option for policymakers.

Instead, we get happy talk about how much better things will invariably be if we just let the states take the lead. (Please pay no attention to the slew of former state leaders arguing the loudest that a strong federal role is important.) In the end, little attention is given to the costs and inherent reality that this approach amounts to a national acknowledgement that widespread educational inequality is unavoidable in the U.S.

[READ: Inequality Starts Early]

From the left, we get an eerily similar argument, with the romanticism directed at schools and teachers rather than state leaders. Constituency politics explain a lot, though not all, of this ethos. So forget teacher evaluation or accountability for schools, just leave schools and teachers alone and they’ll do amazing things, we are told.

We tried this for much of the second half of the 20th century and it led to widespread inequities and even more pervasive mediocrity, with poor and minority students who need the most being the most likely to get the least.

All this explains how an understandable NCLB-fatigue, weariness with seemingly intractable Congressional gridlock on education, and a growing sense that any bill looks better than nothing leaves Washington poised for a landmark rollback of the federal role in education. It looks like a great political deal, as long as no one mentions the inconvenient facts that federal policy has traditionally expanded equity in American schools for a wide variety of underserved students while the evidence shows that consequential accountability and even choice, however politically incorrect in education circles, can drive positive change.

In practice, for a young person in a city like Baltimore, this compromise means the goal of equality of opportunity is moving further away, thanks, perversely enough, to bipartisanship. We need better policies, yet we’re getting abandonment.

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Andrew Rotherham is a cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation and improve educational outcomes for high-need students.

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