Changing the Debate on Education Policy

By Lori Bezahler, President, Edward W. Hazen Foundation

Over the past 15 years, education policy has gone from a bureaucratic backwater to a topic debated on the front pages of every city’s major newspaper. Where once we had presidential candidates proposing the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, today anyone vying for public office in New York—or indeed across the country—must have a position on the hot education issues and proclaim themselves the next education mayor, governor or president. The transformation of education philanthropy has followed a similar trajectory with the recognition that effective programs and direct services are important, even critical, but long-term, sustained change requires public policies conducive to the schools we want for our children, our communities and our country. As a result, those of us doing work in the field must build our understanding of how policy change is driven, what the key levers of change might be and the current direction of those leading the change in order to be effective grantmakers.

Philanthropy New York’s Annual Meeting gave the membership and our colleagues in the nonprofit field the opportunity to hear directly from the top education policymakers at the city, state and federal levels. Sharing the stage were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr., and New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a discussion moderated by WNYC Education Correspondent Beth Fertig and preceded by a smaller session with Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU. While the speakers held different views on some specific policy interventions, there was a shared emphasis on creating great schools for all children. One point of agreement across all four speakers was the need for equity in school finance and the importance of a public—parents in particular—creating demand and pushing for excellent schools.

The panel touched on a number of topics in the news these days, specifically teacher evaluation and creating a shared set of educational standards, known as the Common Core. It would have been interesting to hear an interchange between the education officials and Prof. Noguera on these topics. In the earlier session, the professor posited that standards and accountability do not in and of themselves create change, but that attention must be paid to developing the capacity in schools and districts to deliver high-quality instruction. Interestingly, Commissioner King gave examples of ways in which he hopes that New York State can deliver on that need, but I would like to have heard how Chancellor Walcott might have responded to Prof. Noguera’s assertion that, in New York City at least, the district has largely relinquished the supportive capacity-building role and instead has chosen to close schools and replace them with new schools run by entities other than the district, rather than undertaking the demanding work of school improvement.

When speaking about teacher evaluation, Secretary Duncan emphasized the importance of multiple measures to ascertain whether a teacher was moving students forward. This aligned with Prof. Noguera’s call for performance-based assessments that give a more accurate picture of teaching and learning than the coarse tool of a standardized test. However, as enacted by New York City and other districts and states, test results seem to be used as the sole measure of a teacher’s impact on student learning; in fact, many states put test-based teacher evaluation systems in place in order to be competitive for Federal Race to the Top grants. So, since all four of the speakers strongly argued for placing the best teachers in the toughest schools with the highest needs students, I am left to wonder how Duncan, King and Walcott would convince a teacher to go into such a school when you can pretty much guarantee that the test results—and therefore the evaluation that would determine their job security and compensation—would be lower than in a school in a better-resourced neighborhood.

Public education is recognized in philanthropy as one of the most pressing concerns of a democratic society and a healthy economy, as the standing-room-only crowd at Philanthropy New York’s Annual Meeting indicates. While the meeting focused on the concrete demands of developing effective schools and school systems, the larger questions of what we expect from public education, the values that drive our collective commitment to educating all of our children to the highest standards, and the purposes of education in a democracy were left unasked. I would have liked to know what they, as public officials, consider the public good of education. As difficult and often contentious the current debate about public education is, if we can come to some common understanding of our collective goals for public education, perhaps we will find the basis for agreement on the policies that would support them.




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