With Congress poised to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, organizations from a broad range of perspectives are claiming the civil rights mantle in promoting their visions for the new bill. This is thus a good time to ask: What does a Civil Rights approach to education look like?
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joins the NAACP, the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, and other national civil rights groups in asserting that using test scores to hold schools accountable is critical to ensuring that poor students and students of color have the same educational opportunities as their white, middle class peers. Other civil rights leaders - including former NAACP National Director of Education John Jackson, UCLA professor Pedro Noguera, and Advancement Project co-Director Judith Brown Dianis - however, counter that, while accountability must be part of any meaningful education reform, the current definition - a system of rewards and penalties for teachers based increases in their students' standardized test scores - is a misuse of the term. Measuring progress by test scores without consideration for important outcomes such as student health, school climate, and parent engagement paints an overly narrow picture of school success or failure. Perhaps more importantly, holding teachers and schools responsible for students' progress while ignoring the many systemic issues that lead to disparate school experiences based on race and class damages student and teacher morale and misses the opportunity to address underlying factors driving achievement gaps.
While accountability is important, however, it does not get to the heart of what a civil rights orientation means, and doesn't merit the central place it has taken in ESEA discussions. These conversations would produce better results if they began by asking what a civil rights approach to education policy looks like in practice. Maybe the best place to start is in a set of schools that have taken that approach.
Community schools, though loosely defined, are generally characterized by their focus on addressing external barriers to learning, aligning outside supports with what goes on in classrooms, and engaging parents and the community as a whole in the effort. Full-service community schools achieve this by developing and leveraging partnerships with local non-profits, businesses, and other community institutions. These partners bring a variety of services - academic enrichment, health care and health-education, after-school and summer programming, services for families, and others - into the school to build a system of wrap-around supports for students and their families.
There are now over 5,000 community schools across the country, and many more schools that employ similar strategies but do not hold the "community school" title. Cincinnati implemented a district-wide Community Learning Centers initiative based on the community schools strategy in 2002, and has since risen from Ohio's lowest-rated urban district to its highest, seeing continuous improvement across a range of metrics from reduced race-based test score gaps to higher graduation rates - exactly the type of progress the civil rights movement seeks to attain.
Congress should not be in the business of defining what a community school is or telling a school whether or how to become one. Every school is different, and community schools' success are due in no small part to their ability to decide how they coordinate and implement services based on the realities on the ground. Indeed, the strong desire to reauthorize an ESEA very different from No Child Left Behind reflects the problems created when non-educators try to dictate what happens in classrooms. But Congress can use ESEA to help create the conditions that support schools seeking to adopt this strategy.
Fortunately, some suggested changes to ESEA do just that. A universal Pre-K amendment introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) reflects extensive research showing that racial and socioeconomic gaps in school readiness form long before children start school and acknowledges the importance of those early years on a child's development. There is also widespread support among Democrats for a more progressive system of school funding. Given that most states fail to help schools serving higher-needs students, such a system should incentivize progressive state funding as well. California offers a model: as part of its recent school reform efforts, poor students receive an additional 20% in state funding, which increases to 50% if they attend high poverty schools, and local funding is guided by the principle of equity. Several members have also urged pulling back from the harsh accountability measures of No Child Left Behind that disproportionately penalized teachers and schools serving low-income and minority students.
Expanding federal measures of school success beyond academic achievement to include metrics such as health, safety, discipline, attendance, and family engagement; incentivizing community partnerships; and expanding dedicated funding for early childhood, out-of-school, and summer programs would further these efforts to address longstanding educational inequities.
With community schools as a model, Congress should use the reauthorization of ESEA to radically shift direction and bring federal education policy back to its civil rights roots.
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