Pedro Noguera: The Time for a New Direction in Education Is Now

Takepart.comNovember 15, 2012

Now that the election is over, its time to begin focusing on what must be done to shift the direction of education policy.

There is ample evidence that the direction we have been taking isn't working: the international comparisons that show continued decline in the academic performance of American students, the persistence of high dropout rates particularly in urban areas, and the large number of struggling and mediocre schools across the country—especially in communities with high levels of poverty. 

Perhaps even more telling is the deep alienation we see among so many students who complain of being bored to death by passive learning and the relentless emphasis on test preparation.  All of these are indications that a new strategy and new set of policies are needed. 

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) focused our attention on achievement patterns and disparities but got policymakers and schools too fixated on standardized tests. Almost twelve years later not only is NCLB leaving millions of children behind, it does little to provide guidance to schools on what should be done to address their learning needs. Race to the Top with its prescriptions for evaluating teachers by student test scores, is making the situation even worse as districts are compelled to implement deeply flawed monitoring systems in exchange for federal dollars. 

It need not be this way. The re-election of President Barak Obama provides an opportunity to begin formulating new ideas and policies that can take us in a new and better direction.

For the last ten years, education reform has been dominated by a narrow reform agenda. It is an agenda that uses assessment as a weapon rather than a tool for improving earning; an agenda that treats teachers as replaceable, low-skilled workers rather than as professionals; an agenda that regards parents as consumers rather than partners in the educational process; an agenda that has led to a narrowing of the curriculum while ignoring the need for art, music, nutrition, physical education and all of the things that support healthy child development. 

We need policies guided by new a vision. 

Here are three ideas that can be embraced now to begin shifting the direction of education:

1) We need to create a comprehensive support systems around schools in low-income communities to address issues like safety, health, nutrition, and counseling. This should include the expansion of pre-school and after school programs, and extended learning opportunities during the summer. We will not be able to rely exclusively on federal funds to support such an initiative so local communities must be encouraged to develop public-private partnerships to develop and sustain these systems of support for children and schools.

2) We need a new approach to assessment that focuses on concrete evidence of academic performance—writing, reading, mathematical problem solving—and moves away from using standardized tests to measure and rank students, teachers, and schools. A number of schools in New York State utilize performance-based assessments and longitudinal studies have found that these students are more likely to enroll in college and less likely to take remedial courses in college than their peers who are subjected to traditional standardized tests.

3) States and school districts must undertake careful evaluations of struggling schools to determine why they are failing to meet the needs of the students they serve before prescribing what should be changed. We must pay greater attention to enrollment patterns (i.e. have we concentrated too many "high needs" students in a school?) and devise a strategy to build the capacity of schools to meet the needs of the students they serve. 

This is not an exhaustive list but it could serve as the basis for a healthy debate on the direction for change. We have no time to lose. Education is implicated in too many of the problems confronting our nation. It can also serve as a precious resource that helps us in devising solutions and creating a more just, equitable, and prosperous nation.

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Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. He is the author of City Kids, City Teachers, with Bill Ayers and Greg Michie, and The Trouble With Black Boys…and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education. Dr. Noguera also appears as a regular commentator on educational issues on CNN an NPR.