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Our Sputnik Moment ….

The State of the Union address last week left little doubt that  President Obama sees the reauthorization of ESEA as fertile ground for “bipartisan cooperation”.  Few educators would dispute his spirited call for the involvement of parents and the community in their children’s education, nor would we disagree with the need to encourage our young people to consider becoming a teacher. “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation,” he said, “if you want to make a difference in the life of a child, become a teacher. Your country needs you.” Great stuff – I’ve said it myself many times over the last forty years and I believe it. But why do I feel less than satisfied when I hear this administration proffer the same advice. I guess it is that as well-intentioned as this president may be regarding education, he has failed to deliver a fresh new vision for education in America.

The mere fact that he believes that “Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation” should give us all pause. Further that the president thinks, as he said last week, “[that] Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for kids.

What does that mean? Does it mean that the historic law that began in 1965 with the intent of leveling the playing field for America’s  disadvantaged youth will morph into yet more competitive grants, which will further slice and dice the winners and losers and put equity concerns even lower on the agenda in favor of market-based reforms?

Amy Stuart Wells, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College Columbia, who has considerable expertise in equity issues, offered a refreshing view on the contribution of bipartisanism piece published by Education Week.

She makes a strong case that bipartisanism may very well be bad for public education, particularly if it simply repackages the same reform approach and philosophy that has failed to move us forward in the last two decades. Here is a sampling of her analysis:

While it is a difficult moment to not support greater agreement across our political parties, the reality is that this increasing bipartisanism in education reform is not working for our students. In fact, the most agreed-upon solutions—testing, privatization, deregulation, stringent accountability systems, and placement of blame on unions for all that is wrong—are doing more harm than good. Achievement overall has not improved, and the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged has widened. Parents across the country are fed up with the stress and boredom their children feel in schools that are driven by tests and competition. Internationally, countries with better safety nets to support children’s well-being are leaving us in the dust.

During the civil rights era, the Democratic Party stood for supporting strong public schools and expanding access to those schools for students who had been denied educational opportunities. Not coincidentally, the black-white achievement gap closed more rapidly during this era than at any time since.

Over the past 30 years, such policies have lost favor in an effort to create a more competitive, market-driven system. While these policies of yesteryear need to be revamped, revised, and adapted to the present moment, it’s time for the Democrats in Congress and President Obama to regain their moral footing and embrace the goals of a more equal society. The state of our union suggests we would all benefit from a bit of civil, partisan squabbling by progressive Democrats driven by a vision of a more just, caring, and equal public education system.

I agree with Professor Wells. (You can read the piece here)

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