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Will The New Federal Education Law Move The Needle On Equity?

The U.S. Senate is expected to approve an overhaul to America’s most important federal education law tomorrow. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an update to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, which is often criticized for requiring too much testing.

The new legislation has bipartisan support in the House and is expected to be on the president’s desk by the end of the week. But will these changes help the populations that need it most – students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students?

Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt spoke with Pedro Noguera, professor of education at UCLA and director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation, about how much of an impact the new legislation will have on underserved students.

Interview Highlights: Pedro Noguera

Do you think the Every Student Succeeds Act can narrow the gap between students?

“Unfortunately not, and that’s because the gaps that we see in education are really a manifestation of broader patterns of inequality that children experience and that are present in our society – so gaps in access to health care, gaps in access to good housing. And so those disparities aren’t erased by just focusing on what happens in schools, and unfortunately ESSA perpetuates the notion that we can address inequality and academic outcome simply by focusing on schools.”

You advocate a more holistic approach, but isn’t that a lot to ask of schools?

“The gaps that we see in education are really a manifestation of broader patterns of inequality that children experience and that are present in our society.”

“Absolutely, and that’s why it shouldn’t just be up to the schools. Schools can’t do it alone. It’s interesting when you look at the history of the act that when the Johnson administration enacted [the Higher Education Act of 1965], it was really about addressing the effects of poverty. It’s interesting because Lyndon B. Johnson was himself at one time a teacher in south Texas and he saw the effects of poverty up close. And so the origins of the act were to try to compensate for poverty. And in fact, we made our greatest gains as a nation in closing gaps in academic achievement during the 1970s when we were focused on school integration and addressing poverty on a broader scale in the country. And I would say that unless we see similar efforts, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see these disparities disappear.”

Lyndon B. Johnson’s act was an anti-poverty act, in part

“Absolutely, and I think it’s important that we continue to see it as such, that poverty is the academic issue that holds many children behind. And even the slogan ‘Leave No Child Behind’ came from the Children’s Defense Fund, but when Marian Wright Edelman came up with that slogan, it didn’t mean test the kids as frequently as possible.”

How do you get various organizations involved in taking part in this holistic approach?

“Overall, the situation is fairly bleak wherever poverty is concentrated.”

“It takes leaders who are able to work across these silos, work across education, health – recognize the needs of children can’t be compartmentalized. It’s easier to do it in many ways at a local level than it is at the state level because you are closer to the issues and to the problems. But there are many local communities that are going to need additional resources because they simply aren’t there. But there are examples, again, of communities that are getting it right – Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a city that I like to point to because every child is in quality early childhood education, every school is a full-service school and their best high school is fully integrated – 50 percent African-American, 50 percent white. So if you can do that in Tulsa, I think we can do that in many other cities throughout America today.”

What policies work best to change the current state of inner-city schools?

“It’s a complex picture out there. There are some new charter schools that are doing a great job, there are still some public schools that are succeeding, but overall the situation is fairly bleak wherever poverty is concentrated. And so what we’ve got to do is invest more into schools, that is do what we did once before. I could point to a school like DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx, which at one time served 6,000 kids, sent many of those kids to college, offered a broad array of electives. Today, that school serves more homeless children than any school in New York City, more recently, incarcerated youth, and its population’s declining. No one who has an option will send their child to that school. Under these circumstances, that school can’t succeed, and the alternative is to invest resources that will attract a diverse population of students, but you can only do that with a high quality education.”

How do you get middle and upper class parents to buy into the idea that equity is good for everyone?

“Education is the best pathway to a more equitable society, and it’s in our interest as a country to look at this in a more collective manner.”

“That’s, I think, a very important point that we’ve got to get it, that it’s in our national interest to ensure that all children receive a good education. We can’t afford to have large numbers of people who are under-educated, who are languishing in poverty and who are stuck in low-wage jobs because they lack the skills and they lack the education. Education is the best pathway to a more equitable society, and it’s in our interest as a country to look at this in a more collective manner. We have far too many people going into retirement who are going to depend on social security, and they need to have young people who are well-employed and well-educated to support them. And so even if you don’t have children, it’s important to recognize that you have a stake in making sure that the children of the next generation are well-educated.”

What does research show is the best way to serve needy students?

“The most important intervention is early intervention. Quality early childhood education makes a huge difference, but you can’t stop there. You can’t put kids in high-quality preschool and then put them in lousy kindergartens. You have to sustain quality over time. But certainly, if we were able, for example, to simply say that we’re going to make sure all children are reading at proficiency by the third grade. That would have huge ramifications, because kids who are reading at proficiency by third grade are much less likely to drop out of school, much more likely to go to college, and it’s a lot easier to teach a child to read in the third grade than the ninth or tenth grade. So it’s really focusing on the early years, but then reinforcing what we do there with high-quality learning opportunities throughout their education.”

You’re skeptical that the rewrite of the ESSA with help rebalance the inequality.

“I am skeptical. Now of course, it depends on the next president, it depends on who the next secretary [of education] is and what kind of attention they place on teaching and learning. We’ve been focused on assessment as if you can test kids into better performance. Of course we need to know how well children are doing, but the real emphasis should be on the teaching and learning. The analogy I would make is if you wanted to lose weight, would you focus on getting a good scale or would you focus on diet and exercise? The diet and exercise, the equivalent in school is teaching and learning. We haven’t really focused on how to create high quality learning opportunities for kids so that they’re more motivated, more engaged, more willing to read on their own time, more inclined to pursue science and math as careers. That’s what we should be focused on, not on how to test kids into improvement.”


  • Pedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation. He tweets @PedroANoguera.


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