It’s about time for a new education debate

Published 9:54 am Monday, June 24, 2013

Column: Guest Column, by Isaiah J. Poole

You may have seen stories about the poor quality of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. You probably have also heard about how Michelle Rhee was brought from near-obscurity to take over the city’s schools, overnight becoming a national symbol of dramatic education “reform.”

Isaiah Poole

Isaiah Poole

What you may not have heard is that after years of high-stakes testing and mass teacher firings along with school closings and reorganizations by Rhee and her successor and protégé, Kaya Henderson, many D.C. public schools are no better. In some cases, they’re worse.

That should give us all pause as we jump to change local and national education policies based on catchphrases that mask decisions that will do lasting harm to our children.

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The Washington Post reported in June that test scores declined at 10 of the 18 schools that were reorganized under Rhee and Henderson between 2008 and 2010. Test scores are up in only six of those schools — two others have since closed. That’s a pretty poor record. As even Henderson conceded: “We have not always done reconstitution well.”

Track records like this one are fueling rising anger around the country over so-called reforms that offer lofty promises to justify the disruption of neighborhood schools, upended curriculums driven by standardized tests, widespread privatization, reduced budgets, and personnel policies that leave teachers feeling under siege, demoralized, and devalued.

The President Barack Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, intended to encourage a “common core” curriculum buttressed by testing and teacher “accountability” measures, is galvanizing opposition from both the right and the left.

“An Education Declaration to Rebuild America,” backed by a group of about 50 largely progressive education experts and academics, is the latest effort to bring some common sense to an often-fraught debate. It was released by the Education Opportunity Network, a new organization created through a partnership between the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and the Institute for America’s Future, where I work. It has garnered support from more than 20,000 citizen endorsers.

The so-called education reform agenda, the declaration says, “imposes top-down standards and punitive high-stakes testing while ignoring the supports students need to thrive and achieve.”

The alternative, the declaration suggests, would — among other things — declare that public education is and always should be a public good, with both adequate public support and public accountability.

A child’s access to a good public education shouldn’t be determined by which side of the tracks the child lives on or the parent’s ability to work the system. Teachers should be treated as valued professionals, not as disposable widgets in a soulless machine. And the profession should be designed to attract our best and brightest.

National responsibility should complement local control. And reform should be “supports-based” rather than “standards-based,” focused on providing “every student with the opportunities and resources needed to achieve high standards.”

One of the successfully reconstituted D.C. schools might offer a partial glimpse at what this education declaration has in mind.

According to the The Washington Post, Scott Cartland was brought in to be the principal of a “chaotic and broken” Wheatley Education Campus in a low-income section of the city in 2008. Among other things, he poured resources into mental health and social workers and connected troubled youth with a community health organization. Teachers worked more closely with parents. One result: Reading and math proficiency scores at the school doubled.

A series of protests and grassroots organizing drives in Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington state — just to name a few — amount to a demand for a new debate over education policy.

Consider the Education Declaration to Rebuild America a reset button that calls on our leaders to stop swinging the wrecking ball at public schools. It’s time to focus on what the children who attend public schools really need to succeed.


Isaiah J. Poole is the editor of, the website of the Campaign for America’s Future. He is a graduate of the Washington, D.C. public school system.