Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Each and Every Child: Reflections on the Equity and Excellence Commission’s report (part 3)

In April, I wrote about the Equity and Excellence Commission’s report to Arne Duncan, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence.” The report is broken into five sections: equitable school finance; teachers, principals, and curricula; early childhood education; mitigating poverty’s effects; and accountability and governance. Here, I will focus on the final three sections.

While speaking at the Center on Budget and Tax Accountability’s conference, at which the Equity and Excellence’s report was presented, Pasi Sahlberg stressed the importance of focusing on early childhood education and intervention—a key strategy pursued by Finland in its attempt to improve educational outcomes. Research has demonstrated the importance of early childhood education and interventions, such as Head Start, for examples see here, here, and here. The Equity and Excellence report states: “If we know anything about learning, it is that the years from birth to age 5 are crucial in every child’s life” (pp. 28). Investing in early childhood interventions, especially for children from low-income backgrounds, has been shown to improve student achievement, reduce the need for special education interventions, and reduce the crime rate (pp. 28).  However, it is important to note that simply providing an early childhood intervention does not yield huge benefit (pp. 28-29). An obligation of policy makers concerned with improving social and academic outcomes, must be ensuring that early childhood interventions are high-quality and staffed with highly effective teachers with specialized training in early childhood teaching. Simply providing early childhood interventions without enforcing a certain standard of excellence is only a half-measure. The Equity and Excellence report calls for massive federal investment in “high-quality” early childhood programs; but most importantly, it calls for aligning funded programs with research-based interventions (pp. 28-29). Too many educational interventions are pursued because they are trendy or ideologically aligned with policy makers while lacking a consensus of the research community on the effectiveness of such programs. Early childhood education is an opportunity for policy makers to pursue massive investment and reform while making research-informed decisions about how to target their investments. 

There is no doubt that poverty has an impact on students, schools, and districts—but if you need convincing look here, here, and here. In the United States, 22% of students live in conditions of poverty and nearly half qualify for free or reduced price lunches (a measure typically used in educational research as a proxy for low-income). Poverty is an incredibly complex and pervasive issue, as such, there is no simple solution; however, this report suggests a multi-pronged which targets the symptoms of poverty rather than addressing the issue of poverty itself. The steps suggested by the commission attempt to mitigate the effects of poverty, such as: improving parent engagement and education, meeting community health needs, extending learning time, and targeting/supporting students “at-risk” (pp. 32) of dropping out. While these steps attempt to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve academic outcomes for students from low-income backgrounds, none of the steps aim to actually reduce poverty itself because none focus on the root causes of, or the mechanisms that perpetuate poverty.

The structure of educational governance in the United States was created to address the needs of the 19th century. The funding and educational operations are primarily states’ responsibility, falling under the powers “reserved to the States” under the Tenth Amendment. Through federal funding of programs such as the Education and Secondary Education Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government is able to exert some control of local education agencies. Through this funding the federal government is able to leverage some control over local educational agencies. This has resulted in an emphasis by the federal government on completing bureaucratic checklists rather meeting meaning goals (pp. 34). In order to seriously address concerns about equity and excellence, this report suggests several ways to rethink the current approaches to governance and accountability. First, the commission recommends aligning coordination between local, state, and federal governance structures to allow a more focused approach to addressing equity concerns. An example of this coordination can be seen in the development of the Common Core State Standards. Second, initiatives to improve diversity and equitable access to educational resources have largely been a focus of the federal government (e.g. desegregation or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act); in order to improve equitable outcomes the federal government should incentivize states and districts to pursue policies that improve diversity and equitable access to resources. Third, the commission recommends that states develop mechanisms to intervene on behalf of schools and districts are unable to provide the fiscal investments or academic outcomes necessary for student success. Finally, the commission recommends rethinking both what accountability is and how it is enforced - stressing the importance of fairness and transparency.

This report addresses five pressing concerns in educational policy and recommends approaches to improving equity and excellence for each and every student. I applaud the commission’s emphasis on utilizing research-aligned interventions and focus on improving outcomes for students from low-income backgrounds. I applaud the report for the steps it suggests for improving outcomes and its willingness to take on big issues like poverty and inequitable funding; however, I worry that this report does not go far enough and until we, as a nation are willing to address not just educational outcomes, but the systemic societal inequities that result in inequitable educational outcomes, we will be treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease.

What should the role of the federal government be in addressing issues of equity in education? Does this report go far enough, too far? I invite comments and a continuing dialogue on these important issues. 

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