By Gary Stern
When I was listening Thursday evening to a top federal education official talk about school reform, I kept wondering about one subject “reformers” never touch: How did the schools get so bad?
Deborah Delisle, the U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education—or Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s top lieutenant—made an impassioned case for reinventing American education. She focused on the need to improve expectations and opportunities for all students and on the utmost importance of making sure all students are (here comes the reform mantra) college and career ready.
“We cannot let another generation of students get through school without being transformed,” Delisle told about 150 educators at the College of New Rochelle.
Her talk was right in line with what New York Education Commissioner John King and reform financier Bill Gates repeatedly say. Today’s reformers insist that schools must be tougher, more creative and far more committed to preparing students for the modern world. But they never say what went wrong before 2010. Why were past generations of students not transformed or prepared for college? Did states and school districts avoid high expectations? Were principals and teachers lazy or ignorant?
I can’t help thinking that one big reason that many people have not bought into the reform movement is that reformers only have half an argument. They offer a remedy for education but not a diagnosis of what’s been wrong until this point in time.
Delisle was certainly engaging. She got a big job, overseeing 100 programs that cover everything from mental health to school safety to Title I, the venerable federal initiative to help disadvantaged students. She was brought in by the Lower Hudson Council of Administrative Women in Education and the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, and both groups were thrilled to have the former schools chief of Ohio.
She made several arguments that few educators would disagree with: there has to be more equity and opportunity for students in needy communities; schools must be safe and have a positive, nurturing “climate;” and principals need to provide strong leadership while giving teachers opportunities to help.
Delisle said she refuses to accept that some kids are not college material or that there is a legitimate reason for minorities and students with disabilities to be expelled from school at higher rates than others.
Like most reformers, Delisle talked largely about the challenges facing big city school systems. She did take a swipe, though, at the “upper-middle class suburban districts” she dealt with in Ohio, which she said could be the hardest places to reform.
She said suburban districts tend to have a lot of “parking lot kids” who can hang out in the lot all day and still get good grades—even though they won’t be adequately prepared for college. I could imagine a lot of educators from the Lower Hudson Valley wincing at the characterization, which brings to mind Arne Duncan’s shot at “white suburban moms” who refuse to accept that their schools aren’t top notch.
But what about the many suburban districts that force students to leave the parking lot and then give them a really good education?
Delisle talked a lot about standards, but didn’t mention the Common Core until Nicholas Tampio, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University whose kids attend the Rye Neck schools, brought it up. He suggested that the standards are developmentally inappropriate in the early grades and wondered why there is no process to revise the Common Core.
Delisle emphasized that the Common Core is not a curriculum and therefore does not represent a “one size fits all” approach to reform.
“There are people who believe that kids can rise to the standards,” she said.
Of course, there are also educators and parents who have high expectations for kids but are not sold on the reform agenda.
PHOTO: Rob Morgan, College of New Rochelle