An Emerging New Narrative For Education

Jeff Bryant

The big news about education policy in the presidential race is that there is no news.

As Laura Moser writes for Slate, “None of the candidates are talking about education. Like, at all.”

At Salon, parent and public school activist Bertis Downs argues that even the few times Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have mentioned education, their “words don’t seem to resonate with many of the largely untapped public education parents and teachers who are in search of a candidate.”

(I’d submit the one candidate who has made education prominent in his campaign is Jeb Bush. But his weak showing in the Iowa caucus and bottom-feeder status in polls might be enough evidence to convince other candidates to see Bush as less of a role model and more of a warning sign.)

To understand why education is a no-show in the race so far, Moser points to a column by conservative education pooh-bah Frederick Hess in Education Week. Hess surmises education isn’t in the debate because voters are more concerned about other issues – terrorism and their depleted pocketbooks – and because current candidates don’t see education polity as a way to burnish their “personae.”

Moser argues that education is AWOL because the “subtlety” of issues – such as school choice, charters, and Common Core – don’t always align cleanly with political ideologies and make for poor “sound bite” material.

It’s true that nuance doesn’t fare well in political campaigns. Voters want the simple stories told to them over and over again: about the child of humble means who rose to success, about the greatness of a country based on freedom and equality, and about sinister forces who are “rigging the system” or who threaten the “American way of life.”

But the simple story about education no longer works – at least the one we’ve been hearing for the past 20 years.

An Old Story

For decades, politicians have told the easy story that our public schools were “broken,” that they lacked “accountability,” and that the way to “fix” them was to impose mandatory outcomes – higher test scores and graduation rates – that would be evidence of better “results.” Now we know that story was flawed.

Today, we have reams and reams of test data and record-high high school graduation rates, but the rage over education policy burns hotter than it has in over 50 years, and more school districts are on the brink of total calamity every day.

Republicans want to tell a new story about schools as consumer products that will improve when “customers” have more “choice” imposed by the private sector and big business. It’s not a terribly new story. It’s also, frankly, an abdication of leadership, suggesting that these folks really have no idea how to provide for better schools so they’ll make parents fight it out for themselves, despite the obvious dearth of high quality choices already in the system.

Democrats, on the other hand, don’t really seem to have a story to tell about public education. But fortunately, a new narrative is emerging from sources outside the usual think tanks and policy shops.

The Emerging New Narrative

This new narrative is familiar to parents and educators and anyone who can reflect on their own education journey: that every child has the innate ability to learn, that access to education opportunity is an inalienable right, and that it is incumbent on government to provide education opportunities as a common good, free and accessible to all.

This may not sound like a new story – indeed, it’s as old as America itself – but it’s a radical departure from the current policy that constricts educational opportunity by imposing financial austerity, expanding private ownership of the system, and using narrow-minded measures of what constitutes “results.”

Where can you see this emerging new narrative?

Opposite Of What’s Told In Mainstream Media

Any good narrative about public education has to identify what’s wrong with the status quo.

A new analysis from parent and educator led organization, the Network for Public Education tells that part of the story all too well in its report card on the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In its analysis, NPE awarded the nation as a whole a grade of D. Thirty-seven states, in addition to the District of Columbia, scored an overall grade of D or F, and 13 received a C. No state got an A or B.

Why so negative?

In presenting the report card in an event at the National Press Club, education historian and NPE co-founder Diane Ravitch explained NPE’s analysis tells a story “quite the opposite of what is in the mainstream media.”

NPE Executive Director and former New York school principal Carol Burris said NPE’s analysis started with an understanding of the research-based evidence of what works in education rather than blindly accepting the conventional wisdom.

“The current policy framework that pushes for more testing and privatization has failed,” Ravitch stated. “It’s insanity … Let’s try some common sense for a change.”

So Far In the Wrong Direction

In NPE’s view, that “common sense” means less reliance on ineffective measures such as high-stakes standardized testing, more restriction on privatization from charter schools and vouchers, increased funding of public schools and support the teaching profession, and wiser investments in proven programs.

Burris explained during Q&A, “You can’t close the achievement gap [another popular measure] until you do something about opportunity gaps.” As anecdotal evidence of this, she cited her own experiences as a school principal and recent news stories from schools in Flint, Michigan, Philadelphia, and other cities where student learning was impeded by basic health and safety measures that could have been addressed if there were more funding for school nurses and other staff.

The report card was particularly critical of the overuse of testing while states under-invest in more proven measures such as teacher salaries, small class sizes, and early childhood education. For the grading category of “Spends Taxpayer Resources Wisely,” NPE gave just one state, Montana, a B and no states As.

“We’ve gone so far in the wrong direction,” Burris lamented. “The overuse of testing is producing noise rather than good information.”

NPE is not alone in its calls for a big change in education policy.

Community Schools

Prominent public school advocate, the Schott Foundation for Public Education also sees the need for a new narrative for struggling schools.

A recent statement on its website calls for “surrounding our public schools with the supports capable of addressing a host of interconnected issues” both insie and outside of schools, including poverty, racial and economic inequity, punitive student discipline, and disengaged communities. [Disclosure: Schott is a current partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

Schott’s idea is to “promote a community school model of public education. A community school is one that provides wraparound supports – like healthcare, mentoring, and job training – for all students. It’s a school that opens its doors to serve the community in which it resides and partners with local organizations to integrate a full spectrum of services. More than just an idea, it’s a model that we see working in towns and cities across the United States like Oakland, Cincinnati, and Hartford.”

Whole Child Accountability

Another prominent public education advocate, ASCD, recently published its new narrative for the nation’s schools in its “Legislative Agenda” for 2016. ASCD also urges policy makers to “align educational programs and create a coherent system to support and develop the whole learner, from early childhood to graduation.” [Disclosure: ASCD is a former client of the author’s.]

ASCD’s remedies for struggling schools are to create a foundation of systemic support – very similar to what Schott is calling for and what the NPE report card finds so lacking in most states. ASCD calls for a new vision of accountability that is based on multiple measures that take into account the whole child and goes beyond test scores “embrace a broader, more comprehensive definition of student success.”

These bold, new statements may sound good, but are there any schools actually acting on these ideas to rewrite the policy story for education?

It’s Happening In California

In California, a consortium of school districts calling themselves California’s CORE districts are in process of implementing a School Quality Improvement Index that takes into account more than just standardized tests and simplistic ranking or grading of schools. As a blog post in Education Week explains, this new Index is used to gather data beyond tests scores, identify strengths and weaknesses in school programs, and provide a report card that includes both academic and social-emotional domains.

The blogger, a university education professor, explains how the assessment system integrates measures of academic growth along with other important factors affecting learning, including absenteeism, suspension rates, social and emotional skills, school culture, and English language fluency.

With this more “fine-grained” information, educators, parents, and communities can take more targeted action to ensure students have sufficient opportunities to learn.

Of course, policy ideas like those being put to use in California may be too deep into the weeds for the purpose of political campaigning. But the new narrative for public education – that a policy based on providing students with opportunities to learn rather than testing and punishing schools – is not hard to tell or difficult to sell.

True, this story is “outside the bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C.,” as Ravitch admitted. Given the current state of affairs, that’s probably a really good thing.

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