Why Educational Excellence in the U.S. is on the Decline — and Why Your Vote Matters

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Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Pedro Noguera, author, distinguished professor of education at UCLA and the director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation, attributes this bold statement to multiple policy makers. But, says Noguera, politicians often don’t explain, or possibly even understand, exactly what is at stake when it comes to education reform.

Education, immigration and poverty, hot topics on the lips of all of the candidates during this election year, are inextricably tied. Noguera says policy matters, urging us to consider educational issues when we vote. “Immigration is changing America still, which is good — it’d be a bad sign if no one wanted to come here anymore,” he says. “So what kind of society are we going to become and what role will education play in creating a more just and equitable society?”

Noguera notes that traditionally we have looked to schools to solve many of our most complex and pressing challenges, like integrating immigrants and breaking down racial barriers. “Eisenhower understood that if you want to integrate the country, you have to start in the schools; that’s the key to creating a more equal society,” says Noguera. And though it would seem as if we learned these lessons long ago, in the past 30 years America’s schools have become more and more segregated and the gap between rich and poor has grown 40 percent larger. Whites in America today own 18 times as much as blacks; to give staggering perspective, during apartheid in South Africa in 1970, that rate was 15 times.

Changing our situation will take more than a good slogan, says Noguera, referencing “No Child Left Behind” (established in 2001 to develop basic skill assessments) and “Every Student Succeeds” (the 2015 iteration which retains most of the testing but reduces the federal government’s role in education). The Children’s Defense Fund’s long-term mission to “Leave No Child Behind” is a very different program from the one adopted by President George W. Bush based on its ideals. Program founder Marian Wright Edelman recognizes that reducing poverty is essential to improving education. Right now this country has the highest child poverty rates of any advanced industrialized nation.

Hungry kids don’t do so well in school,” Noguera says. “Schools serving the most impoverished children are always the schools that are failing.” His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends, and he shares that research shows there are children in Chicago with a higher incidence of trauma than veterans returning from the war in Afghanistan — yet unlike PTSD, their stress doesn’t end. These are not issues that schools can solve on their own.

Compared to other countries, we are falling further and further behind in math, science and reading. These gaps in achievement and opportunity are tied to other gaps, notes Noguera, specifically gaps in wealth. Very simply, poverty undermines progress. He says, “Today a high-achieving, low-affluence student is less likely to attend college than a low-achieving, high-affluence student. Money matters. Privilege matters.”

Noguera goes on to say, “We pretend that we can address this by raising standards and holding schools accountable,” and likens it to buying a fancy scale when you want to lose weight rather than paying attention to food choices and exercise. “In education we’ve been focusing on the scale … pretending that pressure, stress and humiliation will actually get schools to improve.”

According to Noguera, we aren’t asking the key question: Under what conditions are schools able to mitigate the effects of poverty and exert a positive impact on the communities and children they serve? We need a broader approach with a focus not just on academics but on early childhood programs, health services and even on the parents’ success.

He commends promising models like Hollenbeck Middle School in Los Angeles, where teachers are facilitators, engaging children by having them work together rather than what Noguera calls “the cemetery method” of “lining them up in rows and keeping ’em as still as possible.” Youth Speaks in Sacramento uses the spoken word to increase literacy, challenging children to create verbal narratives in response to assignments, such as telling how “I am not what you think I am.” Noguera heard students there speak to weighty topics like cancer and homelessness. At both schools and many others, Noguera notes, students have become motivated to learn.

“Once students get that they can use education to change their lives rather than just focusing on test scores, they commit more,” says Noguera. In response to the many concerns with our current trends and policies for addressing them, he lays out a plan for what he calls a “broader, more holistic approach to reform”:

  • Link education to community development
  • Expand and enrich learning opportunities
  • Create accessible early childhood education
  • Coordinate access to health care and other social services
  • Shift policy focus to capacity-building rather than accountability

Noguera reminds us we’re interconnected. There are entire industries that depend upon immigrant labor and minority populations are growing. Latino numbers are increasing most rapidly yet they have the lowest educational attainment rates. In our country, the workers of today support the elderly — that’s how the system works. Noguera says, “Old white people should be really concerned as they make up the bulk of current retirees; they will be dependent upon young brown and black people to provide for them.” Reducing poverty and strengthening our educational system is in every American’s best interest and is all of our responsibility. He urges us to keep this in mind when we cast our ballots this year.

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