July 26, 2010

"Opportunity to learn" revived?

As Ed Week's Michele McNeil is reporting, a coalition of civil rights groups has issued a white paper today through a (new?) organization, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Last night, Diane Ravitch was tweeting her reading of the paper as a gentle but firm rebuke of the Obama administration's approach to accountability. To some extent, I think she's right: the 17-page report briefly referred to the inappropriateness of judging schools and teachers primarily by test scores, but that was a brief reference.

For the longer and more committed passage criticizing policy prejudices towards school closures, I read the argument differently, because of the other arguments in the paper in favor of more money for early childhood education, wraparound care programs, and NCLB's public-school choice provisions and against budget cuts. And then there's the name that's a throwback to early-90s arguments in favor of opportunity to learn standards. To me, that all looks like a straightforward community-civil-rights approach more than an argument against high-stakes testing. In that context, the argument against school closure is an argument against withdrawing resources from a community institution that may be one of the few public facilities in a poor neighborhood.

That also fits with how the coalition's paper addresses Race to the Top: don't withhold resources or programs from poor children. Instead, combine formula grants with conditions. Notably, the paper states that a limited competition is acceptable, suggesting that the constituent organizations would not directly oppose Race to the Top as long as its structure does not permanently replace formula grants in ESEA. I know what others are going to say in response: we have plenty of conditions on federal funding, but the federal government almost never penalizes states for falling down on the job.

To a great extent, the politics of and posturing around education reform are all depressing to me: education reform policies are dwarfed by the state of the country's economy right now. In fact, that's a crucial part of the argument of the Broader, Bolder Approach. So you should maybe focus your efforts on the national economy right now? Or if not the national economy, maybe focusing on states, where the real action is going to happen over the next few years?

I think the coalition is moving about 15 months too late, if the key movers intended to shape federal policy. It's very likely that there won't be more RTTT, there won't be ESEA reauthorization, and there won't be a heck of a lot of things that should be happening from the perspectives of a variety of people on different sides of this debate. I wish I had been been wrong a month ago, but it looks more and more that I was right in predicting that David Obey's gambit last month was a stupid gamble instead. I was wrong in guessing that Obey would be frustrating George Miller, but I think I'm right on the general picture. To be clear, it's far from the biggest SNAFU of the Congressional session: that's the too-small size of the stimulus in early 2009 and the failure of the White House to nominate (or recess-appoint) enough Fed governors. But I'm still depressed, and puzzled by the strategic choices.

(One final puzzle is the group's website. The contact information is for the Schott Foundation in Massachusetts, which is consistent with the few blog entries (written by Michael Holzman) and the press-kit stuff. But there are no staff members or individuals listed on the website, just organizations. The whois entry for otlcampaign.org shows that the domain name has existed since sometime in 2009, but it's registered through a proxy, and the Internet Archive has no history of the website (blocked at the site). This is all perfectly legal, but it's odd.)  

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Posted in Education policy on July 26, 2010 3:15 PM | Submit