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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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On Education Reform: Equity

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Two months ago, education reform was at the center of discussion. The documentary Waiting for "Superman" was creating a stir. NBC hosted "Education Nation." A spirited debate was on -- perhaps not in the traditional media, but at least in many forums around the web, including here at Edutopia. Many were inspired by the discussions. Others were outraged at the one-sidedness of the discussion. Many of us saw that the teacher's voice was missing -- marginalized and often maligned. We saw that the rhetoric often missed the underlying issues.

A week or two after "Education Nation," I had the opportunity to travel to Cairo, Egypt. As I was preparing, I was struck by how little I really knew about Cairo and the Middle East. I was a bit worried, I did not want to be the stereotypical "ugly American" tourist. I didn't know the customs. I didn't know what to expect. I was traveling alone and didn't know the language. I was culturally illiterate. I quickly learned that I did not have much to fear. My taxi driver from the airport spoke English fluently. He also spoke Arabic, Spanish, some German and French and was learning Japanese. A few days later, I was able to hold a conversation, in English, with a group of children outside of an Egyptian school. They wanted to know where I was from (then knew that Chicago was in the center of the country)...and if I liked President Obama. Later, I was able to communicate with a 10 year old boy selling pastries -- about $0.04 each -- on a street corner next to a bustling open air market. No, it wasn't a surprise, that they knew English. However, it was a strong reminder that, in the rest of the world, it isn't impressive when someone can speak three or four languages. Are our students ready for this?

I was in Cairo for a meeting of international science educators planning for a virtual science fair. They were not any more passionate than many of the science teachers I know in the United States, instead what struck me was their ability to act on their passion. They had the authority to make curriculum changes and the technical infrastructure (far from perfect) and support to collaborate with schools from Barcelona to Katmandu. As I listened to them about their schools and the differences in cultures, I was amazed at the opportunities that many of their students had . . . and dismayed by the shallow "reform" discussions taking place a half a world away. These teachers did have tensions related to standards and testing, but it was not central to our discussions, as it almost always is in the United States.

When I returned, I found that the discussion started by "Education Nation" was basically over. A few were still talking about it, but the urgency displayed a few short weeks earlier had, with the exception of a few op-eds, disappeared.

This past Sunday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman penned another op-ed about the need for reform and, once again, the need for getting better teachers.

If you need a slew of anecdotes and statistics about how "bad" our system is, go ahead and read the column. I don't think they need to be repeated here. If there is anyone left thinking that things do not need to change, they are simply not paying attention. Pick any metric and we are probably behind. I do not need to harp on the "woes" of our education system. However, I think we do need additional clarity on solutions.

Friedman includes this quote from Secretary Duncan:

"Other folks have passed us by, and we're paying a huge price for that economically," added Duncan in an interview. "Incremental change isn't going to get us where we need to go. We've got to be much more ambitious. We've got to be disruptive. You can't keep doing the same stuff and expect different results."

I agree that we need "disruptive" change, but it has to be incremental -- it will take time. The "high-performing" countries (Finland, South Korea, Singapore, etc) have been investing in coherent reforms for over 30 years. We can learn from them in order to accelerate reform here, but, slogans aside, we can't Race to the Top in a few years. Duncan says, "You can't keep doing the same stuff and expect different results." Very true -- we have been focused on standards and standardized testing for two decades and "increased accountability" for nearly a decade. Let's think differently.

We need to focus on three key areas -- equity, teacher professional growth, and a curricular shift away from defining rigor as breadth instead of depth. I'll tackle equity now and the rest in future posts.

Focus on Equity

On YouTube, you can find many shocking videos that show the inequality between schools in poor communities and schools in more affluent communities. In one video, a student in an affluent school states, "Here is my school's observatory," while a student from a poor school explains, "Our teachers buy all of their own school supplies." In Oprah's Trading Schools episode a suburban student is showing off her school to a group of students from an inner-city Chicago school and is surprised by their reaction to the school's health facilities. She asks, "Do you guys not have a cardio room?"

Perhaps the legacy of NBC's "Education Nation" is their new reality show, "School Pride." The commercial begins with images of a bug infested, dilapidated building with the text, "this is not an abandoned building; this is not a correctional facility; this is a real school." In the episode, an army of designers and contractors renovates a poor school in Compton. The community celebrates during the reveal as administrators, teachers and students cry because they have a nice place to learn.

We have turned inequity into entertainment. We feel good because these poor kids have something nice . . . instead of being outraged that the inequality existed in the first place.

We can not begin to think about improving education until we fix inequalities in school funding.

In a discussion about state-level school funding, Bob Peterson, a 5th grade teacher in Milwaukee, WI wrote, "If the students in my fifth grade classroom on Milwaukee's north side were born two miles farther north, several thousand dollars more per student per year would be spent on their education. Thanks to recent budget cuts my students have no gym teacher, no music teacher, and no paraprofessionals. That's not the case with students in the schools two miles north."

In a Newsweek article, Linda Darling Hammond explains,

We have 22 percent of our kids in poverty -- the highest proportion of any industrialized country. Our schools have to make up for all of that, including the large achievement gap that kids have when they come to school from low-income families and haven't had preschool education.

. . . they [high performing countries] spend their money equally on schools, sometimes with additional money to the schools serving high-need students. We take kids who have the least access to educational opportunities at home and we typically give them the least access to educational opportunities at school as well. We have the most unequal spread of achievement of any industrialized country except for Germany.

In a recent study, Is School Funding Fair, researchers at the Education Law Center compared state funding of schools across all 50 states. They found that only 11 states provide significantly more (at least 10%) per-student funding to high poverty schools than to more affluent schools, while funding formulas in 25 states provide more money to more affluent schools than to those in high poverty areas.

The solution is easy, but politically very difficult. It requires changes to state school funding formulas. Proposals to do this have been unveiled in states like Rhode Island and Wisconsin. If we want education reform that serves all students, we need to begin by advocating for equity. We need to speak up and demand progressive state funding formulas. It isn't sexy, but without it, other reform efforts are destined to fail.

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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Brian Hendricks's picture
Brian Hendricks
Pre-Service Teacher nearing completion of student teaching

Equity in funding is all well and good, but in states like Illinois where for two years funding from the state has been basically non-existant, I don't have a great amount of faith in the state, Illinois or otherwise, to provide the funding necessary for equity.

Taking from the "rich" schools to benefit the "poor" schools would never pass public muster. Raising taxes to fund all the schools with equity, good luck with that!

As teachers we need to learn to teach with what resources we have. My student teaching experience has been at a school with 77% of the students identified as "low income," considerably lower than the district in which I live. I learned how to present materials in a way that works within the resources I had at my disposal. I'm not saying we shouldn't, as teachers, push for equity. We just need to find a way that states can afford and limits the number of objections.

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