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Creating A Constituency for Change
in the Direction of American Education

"A bottom-up campaign for change"

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

There are clear signs that change is needed in the direction of American education policy. Many people are unenthusiastic about the Obama administration’s embrace of market oriented strategies for reform public schools, and many teachers have become increasingly alienated by the hostility expressed by Secretary Arne Duncan and others media toward unions. After two years it has become clear that the policies pursued by this Administration more closely resemble those of the Bush and will not lead to the changes that are so urgently needed.

The vast number of parents and children throughout the country who rely on public schools constitute a natural constituency within the base of the Democratic Party. So too are the four million teachers and administrators who draw their livelihoods from working in public education. Both groups are generally more racially and socio-economically diverse than the rest of the population, and they tend to be more likely to understand and support the need to direct public dollars not only to education, but to health and social welfare generally. In most cases, they are also less likely to embrace the intolerance and fiscal conservatism of the Tea Party and the GOP rightwing.

Rather than waiting to see if the administration will adopt a new direction in the wake of its drubbing in the mid term elections, it is time for those who recognize the importance of public education to initiate a campaign for its defense and improvement on our own. This can be done by organizing parents, teacher unions, school board members, and others around a reform agenda that asserts the importance of protecting public education while simultaneously calling for its renewal.

The main items that should be included in such a bottom-up campaign for change are already well known. For over two years, a group of educators, policy advocates and scholars have called for a new policy direction through the adoption of a new set of policies under the campaign called -- a broader and bolder approach to reform ( The campaign calls for universal child access to healthcare and early childhood education, and for extending learning opportunities for students in the summer. Similarly, several civil rights organizations and advocacy groups have called for the administration to reduce inequities in funding between schools and to embrace an “opportunity to learn agenda”; one that places greater emphasis on helping schools to create conditions that are conducive to learning and healthy child development. Others such as the Forum for Education and Democracy have called for a shift in the focus of schools away from the heavy emphasis on test preparation, toward the expansion of learning opportunities that foster self-motivation and higher order thinking.

Ironically, it may be easier to gain traction on some aspects of a new policy agenda under a Republican House leadership than it was when Democrats held the majority. On education policy Republicans are presently divided into three camps: those who support NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and want to see it retained, those who regard NCLB as an overreach of federal authority and want to see it repealed, and those on the far right who would like to see the US Department of Education abolished. With such significant differences among House Republicans pulling together enough votes to launch a new wave of reform or to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act appears unlikely. It will also be more difficult for the administration to be granted permission to use stimulus funds to continue pursuing its narrow agenda.

In the vacuum created by divided government it will be easier to advocate for a change in the policy agenda if those who support public education are organized to assert a clear alternative and savvy enough to avoid the pitfalls of polarizing issues that often divide us. Parents and educators must find a way to assert their mutual interest in supporting a well-rounded and balanced education that includes academic rigor in science and math, but also has room for art, music and physical education. Most people want an education that cultivates the natural curiosity of children and nourishes their desire to learn.

Parents and educators must be organized to hold politicians accountable for fair school funding, adequate school facilities, and reasonable class sizes. Most importantly, they must avoid allowing complex and controversial issues like support for charter schools, linking teacher pay to student test scores or the protection of teacher tenure to be framed as either/or propositions. Reasonable compromises on these issues have been made by unions and school districts in a number of cities (e.g. Baltimore, New Haven, Denver and Newark), and there is no reason to believe that a balanced, broad-based reform agenda could not be asserted at a national level.

A campaign for support and change in public education can be successful but it will take work to bring it from the margins to the center of political discourse. Powerful corporate interests have supported the Administration’s policies, and they have been behind efforts to privatize schools in cities like New Orleans, New York and Washington D.C. Still, there is good reason to believe that they can be successfully opposed.

The defeat of Washington DC Mayor Adrian Feinty, who’s re-election was in many ways a referendum on the performance of his controversial chancellor, Michelle Rhee, provides a useful lesson. Rhee was an outspoken advocate of the narrow reforms supported by the Administration, and even if some of what she tried to accomplish made sense (i.e. reducing the number of highly paid administrators, holding principals accountable for school performance, etc.), their defeat at the polls shows that those who rely upon public schools can insist that change be made with rather than to them.

Forcing a change in this flawed but indispensable institution and in the direction national policy will be difficult and complicated but it can be done if the broad, popular base that understands the importance of public education is organized. The need for such an effort is already clear. What is not clear is whether those who have the most at stake can muster the will to make it happen.

Pedro Noguera is Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is the author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys: Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." He is also a co-editor of In Motion Magazine.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 2, 2011.

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