Research evidence and the debate on education: Reform vs. Change by Tim D'Emilio [ received August 20,2006]
Beneath the radar of most deliberations on education is a basic
debate about what we can expect from schools.
There is an entire set of policies and research that operate with the
assumption that the effects of poverty and racism, manifested in the
“achievement gap.” can and will be amended by a top-to-bottom restructuring of
the education system, now underway with No Child Left Behind, and varieties of
reform that focus on student assets. A
different branch of research focuses on evidence that the very best of
schooling can overcome the effects of poverty only up to a point, that
reformers focus on schools because they refuse to tackle society. After a sympathetic review of both arguments,
the author recommends one of the positions and, on that basis, advocates for
support for the teachers in
As the confrontation on the
On the one hand, some research is producing evidence that, given the right organization of school resources, kids from any background “can beat the odds” and close the achievement gap. On the other hand, other evidence is reinforcing old findings that a single institution of society will not significantly budge the achievement gap because schooling has not fundamentally changed the destructive social factors that create the gap, such as racism and class. To continue to claim it can change society’s ills simply makes excuses for its failings, and deflects and delays efforts for making broadly required changes.
The reformist position on closing the achievement gap is well
represented in Eric Cooper’s paper on the promise of research-based school
reform, presented at the Aspen Institute Summer Conference. “Poverty is not destiny,” he proclaims with
supporting data. His organization
“trains teachers to ‘believe in the capacity that every single child in
The title of Diana Jean Schemo’s article in the NY Times summarizes the opposing view: “It takes more than schools to close the achievement gap.” When Schemo read a recently released federal Education Department report that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students at public schools on national tests of math and reading,5 she posed the question, “What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer” to closing the achievement gap? Schemo then lists a “…growing body of research suggesting that, while schools can make a difference for individual students, the fabric of children’s lives outside of school can either nurture, or choke, what progress poor children do make academically.” After reviewing the impact of various environmental factors on learning, especially housing, she summarizes the findings with a quote by Richard Rothstein, ”… reforms aimed at education alone are doomed to come up short, unless they are tied to changes in economic and social policies to lessen the gaps children face outside the classroom.” 6
Reformers counter that behind Schemo’s social critique is a subtle disparagement of children’s learning capacity; their premise implies that schools are doing what they can with what they’ve got for students. In fact, many teachers and administrators treat students as deficits and blame parents for lacking middle-class values. In contrast, reformers like Cooper’s NAU group propose an approach to teaching that recognizes the talents which children bring to school and provides teaching methods that build on that potential, and on a students’ emerging confidence in their abilities, toward mastery of the curriculum. The social critics answer Cooper in this way: As desirable as the student-centered approach is, it is not new, it has never been embraced by the power-brokers, and is not likely to be adopted under the circumstances because it conflicts with the agenda, laid out in Nation At Risk, which defined the role of schools and ushered in our current top-down, standards-based, test-calculated approach to education.
The crystallization of the Nation At Risk agenda is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, presently under review for re-authorization. Congress’ examination of its merits includes a search for evidence that the law is succeeding in reducing the achievement gap. At one level, the legislators dither with nuances and compromises on granting waivers for meeting testing deadlines and $100 million for private school vouchers. At another level, advocacy groups are testifying that the grounds for reauthorization are questionable. States have “…handed in incomplete data, weak strategies for fixing inequities across schools, and goals so vague that they couldn't be measured.” In addition, “by the end of the 2005-06 school year, states were supposed to make sure that every core class was taught by a highly qualified teacher. No state made the deadline.”7 At an entirely different level, teachers and parents are experiencing the achievement gap, not as an abstract statistic, but in the form of push-out rates that are rising at much earlier ages, increases in school crime and dilapidated facilities. Their view of education is one of a human right, not as someone’s agenda to be compromised or tweaked at the edges. They see the gap as concrete evidence of a promise that keeps getting delayed, and they wonder if something more fundamental has to be changed before we loose another generation of kids.
This parent/teacher perspective is being played out
south of the border. After having their
own debate, teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca are in their second month
leading a popular movement for broad social, educational and governmental
change, including the removal of currently elected representatives. A teacher educator from the U.S. reports that
the Oaxacan teachers are confronting state and federal armed forces who are
determined to break
the teachers' strike with beatings, kidnapping and the murder of a member of
one of the supporting groups. The
governor requested the federal troops when some state police refused to
continue battling their neighbors.
Although one of the demands is a raise in teacher salaries, that issue
is one part of a larger program for improving the general lives of
Evidence abounds for the two
basic positions about
First, the administrators of NCLB understand that the only way for the law to succeed is to establish a top-to-bottom alignment of state standards with testing, curriculum, textbooks and classroom instruction, across all subject areas, from Pre-K to Grade 12, involving parental responsibilities for home reinforcement of classroom lessons and their direct participation in school planning. This tightly coordinated, horizontal and vertical system, combined with getting kids to perform academics as early as possible in pre-school, and the active involvement of local businesses in school policy, is acknowledgement of the influence of the environment in learning. By implication, this fully aligned system is only one step away from extending that same logic to include a decent-paying job within the family, systematic health care and good housing, also, as essential conditions for learning.
Secondly, there is a metaphor in medicine that applies to our discussion on education. For the many years and billions spent on cancer research, the scientists at NIH will tell you that their research is principally aimed at managing the illness, not necessarily curing it. To cure it, the policy makers and funding sources would have to acknowledge the fact that cancer is, by and large, an environmental problem before it becomes an individual’s disease. In education as well as medicine, if we don’t address the environment, we’re not addressing causes. Intended or not, doesn’t a focus on reforming school end up managing the achievement gap, not ending it?
The point is that those of us who want to see the best of the reform agenda really succeed for kids, with “system-wide, promising results, beginning with – and building – student belief, hope, determination and confidence,” 8 should recognize that its success will require alignment of structures both within and outside the education system. The Oaxacan teachers and their program’s supporters understand this. They are not alone. As of mid-August, “a network of activist teachers in LA is now planning a press conference in support of the teachers in front of the Mexican consulate. The LA group is also planning more demonstrations, and they have attempted to conduct live telephone interviews on public radio with Oaxacan teacher leaders. Both national teachers unions (AFT and NEA) passed resolutions in support of the Oaxacan teachers and promised some resources.” 9
we eventually find out that NCLB has fallen short, and Cooper’s student-focused
approach never got fully disseminated due to budget restraints, we will face
the same question the Oaxaca teacher and parents faced: Do we give up on our kids or insist on a
whole solution for every one of them?
When we decide for our kids, we’ll need to know how to go about it
effectively. In our own interest, then,
we need to get involved with the fate of
 Eric Cooper, president, National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, “A New Way Forward for Urban Schools [to close the achievement gap]” The Aspen Ideas Festival, Summer 2006 (by Angie Cannon -- reporter's draft to capture NUA's participation at the Aspen's Family and Economics track);[article no longer posted, but check out Urban Alliance site: http://www.nuatc.org ]
 Education Week, “The Information Edge; Using Data to Accelerate Achievement.” Vol. 25, No. 35, May 4, 2006.
 “Teaching Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality” and “A Snapshot of Achievement.” http://www2.edtrust.org/edtrust/
 Note “Federal Statistics Commissioner Questions NCES
Involvement in Private vs. Public School Study” in Education Week,
Aug. 10, updated Aug. 14, 2006, in http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/08/10/01nces_web.h26.html?levelId=1000. “Mark S. Schneider, the commissioner of the
 “It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap” By Diana Jean Schemo, NY Times, On Education, August 9, 2006
 “Poor minority kids may lack better teachers.” The Associated Press, 8.11.2006
 Op Cit: Cooper, 2006.
 Open correspondence to the AZBLE Forum list serve, 8/13/06.