April 05, 2010

Iannuzzi: Obama's missing his chance to close the gap in education

Author: Richard C. Iannuzzi, President
Source: NYSUT Media Relations

The following letter to the editor by NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi appeared in the Times Union Sunday, April 4, 2010.

Obama's missing his chance to close the gap in education


First published: Sunday, April 4, 2010

iannuzziWhen President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965, he said it bridged the gap "between helplessness and hope." It was a crowning achievement of his administration and a valuable weapon in the nation's war on poverty.

"I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty," Johnson said at the bill signing ceremony.

How disappointed LBJ would be to see what has happened to ESEA, a law he said meant "more to the future of America" than any he would ever sign as president.

First, under George W. Bush, it was renamed "No Child Left Behind" and quickly devolved into an under-funded mandate with an over-reliance on student testing, labels and punishment. Now, it's President Barack Obama's turn. And, if his blueprint is any indication, he's missed a chance to get back to providing an equal educational opportunity for every child.

The President's plan, in fact, represents a fundamental and devastating shift away from the mission of ensuring educational equity for all students. It proposes measures such as transferring federal resources to charter operators and awarding funds through competitive grants rather than a needs-based system. Compounding the problem is the administration's intent on continuing the worst elements of No Child Left Behind Act - including its focus on poorly designed, one-size-fits-all testing and the punitive strategies of improving low-performing schools through unproven, even radical, models.

Case in point is the drastic step taken by the school board in Central Falls, R.I., which fired the high school's entire teaching staff.

The reactions of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama were misguided and hurtful. Duncan's use of the word "applaud" and the President's reference to the board's action as demonstrating "a sense of accountability" certainly helped to escalate the dialogue - or diatribe. Extreme reaction and colorful rhetoric may provide moments of exhilaration, but they're unlikely to be productive.

More importantly, their reactions failed to acknowledge the obstacles that Central Falls High School teachers face every day, as they failed to acknowledge the measurable progress that's been taking place there.

A state report issued last year didn't recommend mass firings, but rather to "take the time to celebrate as a learning community the accomplishments, successes and positive changes that have taken place over the past few years."

Ignoring the facts may be a page from the extremist playbook, but it doesn't do anything to help children. The Central Falls High School mass firing was not part of a comprehensive, research-based plan that addressed the needs of underachieving students. It was a response to the dangling of federal dollars in front of resource-starved states and school districts.

The Department of Education has used the promise of funding as leverage in an attempt to be much more prescriptive about interventions for low-performing schools. Unfortunately, many localities and states, including New York, are willing to align programs with federal thinking - and dollars - rather than proven research.

Without a doubt, a dropout rate near 30 percent - and 50 percent for children of color - is unacceptable. And while not nearly enough attention is being paid to how poverty, inequitable funding and the influence of family and community affect how children learn, we must, indeed, also pay greater attention to teacher quality. We must be willing to examine and recommend needed reforms in teacher selection, preparation and retention. And, when all else fails, we must support a fair system of due process for those who do not belong in the profession.

But, in doing so, we need to demand that proven methods in achieving a quality education for every child are applied. The most obvious way to identify those methods is to empower practitioners - that is, professional educators - with a real voice in defining excellence.

Unfortunately, the Obama blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers, yet provides them with zero percent of the authority needed to transform persistently low-performing schools.

In a recent radio address, Obama praised America's teachers. Yet, his actions belie his words.

With ESEA's reauthorization, the Obama administration has a real opportunity to achieve the mission of providing a quality education for all; to recommit itself to LBJ's vision of bridging that gap between helplessness and hope.

Let us not squander that opportunity again.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of New York State United Teachers.


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