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Educators, policy makers: Schools alone not enough to close achievement gap

Policy makers have been taking too narrow a view of education, and one outcome is a persistent achievement gap correlated with socioeconomic status, according to “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” a statement released today by the Economic Policy Institute online and in full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post. Taking aim at those who argue that schools must take full responsibility for closing the achievement gap, the statement’s 60-plus signatories, representing a wide range of education ideologies, call for more attention to be paid to learning that takes place outside of the formal school day and to the development of children’s non-academic skills and characteristics.

Motivated by the debate over the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act, EPI, a left-leaning think tank, hopes to widen the policy debate beyond test scores. School improvement efforts — the cornerstone of NCLB — should be one component of the broader approach, the statement says, but where conventional wisdom says schools alone should be able to close the achievement gap, the report’s authors say real progress will require significant investment in early childhood and pre-school education; health services; and after-school and summer programs.

The notion of schools as full-service institutions is not unique or original, although in an era of test-driven accountability, the idea of schools as a place where children are cared for, not just taught, seems to have been lost. What’s unique is the statement’s repeated reference to evidence; it uses the vocabulary of data-driven, contemporary educators, not the rhetoric of social justice, to advance its position.

Unfortunately, the statement does not address how districts or states might pay for some of the commonsensical improvements it suggests. With an election looming, the timing may be right to challenge conventional educational thought, but offering only recommendations that require major cash infusions in lean times strikes me as quixotic.

Still, the reputations of the signatories make the statement worth thinking about. The co-chairs of the Broader, Bolder committee, recruited by EPI, are Helen Ladd, a professor at Duke University; Pedro Noguera, of New York University and an active participant in the city’s schools; and Tom Payzant, a former longtime superintendent of the Boston Public Schools who is now at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Other signers are researchers, educators, economists, and politicians.

Notably absent from the list of signatories is Joel Klein. Other urban superintendents, including Arne Duncan of Chicago and Rudy Crew of Miami (also a former NYC chancellor) signed on — why didn’t Klein? One reason might be his continued insistence that schools and those who work in them should be held fully responsible for failing to educate all children; conceding the impact of poverty complicates many of his reforms. Still, his absence is disheartening because New York, unlike most municipalities, could actually take action on the EPI’s recommendations: Mayoral control would allow Mayor Bloomberg to pressure city agencies to coordinate and integrate their activities and initiatives.

EPI is looking for more signatories — you can add your name to the report online.

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