Real Education Reform

Nat Hentoff

Years ago, while on the education beat, I was in the office of Tony Alvarado, then head of the New York City school system. The standardized test scores on reading had just come in, and they were collectively higher. But Alvarado looked glum. “When,” he asked me, “are we going to teach them how to think by themselves instead of just giving us just what the tests ask?”

President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, appears capable of answering this question. He caustically calls the No Child Left Behind Act “not education, since it is tied to bad tests with the wrong goal. The biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them” lest they lose federal funds. President Obama has put Duncan in charge of nearly $5 billion of “Race to the Top” stimulus funds that should refocus educators away from an obsession with nameless statistics and toward energizing the learning capacities of individual students.

What can and has to be done is distilled by Richard Rothstein, author of an essential book, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press). He’s now at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, and his October 2009 report, “The Prospects for No Child Left Behind,”exposes the quicksand of our dysfunctional education system.

By putting students on an assembly line of testing for tests, Rothstein writes, “schools have thrown out a balanced curriculum—eliminating the arts, science, history, social studies and foreign languages. . . . American education has yet developed no reliable ways to measure whether students are developing ‘intellectual prowess’ in sciences and history, languages and the arts.”

His finding ties in with my own longterm obsession as an education reporter: getting students to become active, critically thinking citizens. When I was interviewing Supreme Court Justice William Brennan for a profile for The New Yorker, he asked me: “How can we take the words of the Bill of Rights off the pages and into students’ lives?”

How many students know what’s in the Bill of Rights? One of the corollary damages of the No Child Left Behind Act is the absence of civics classes in many schools. David Souter, upon his retirement last May from the Supreme Court, noted gloomily that many Americans can’t name the three branches of government, and he urged a start on “the re-education of a substantial part of the public” to restore “the self-identity of the American people.”

A remarkably lucid beginning for that re-education is a book Secretary Duncan should provide to all middle and high schools and—from my experience in classrooms—even to some fifth- and sixth-grade students. This gateway to who we are is The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes (Bloomsbury USA). They quote Ronald Reagan, no one’s constitutional scholar but, as it turns out, an inadvertently accurate prophet of the radical revisions of the Constitution that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would commit—revisions now being continued by Obama and Eric Holder. Said Reagan: “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

For schools to stop being primarily testing factories will also require the continued growth of “community schools” where not only students but also their parents and others in a community can expand and deepen the very definition of “education.” A small but increasing number of such schools now exist. In Education Week (November 2, 2009), Michele McNeil illuminates the concept: “Community schools usually have extended hours before and after school, and during the weekends and summers; social services, including health care and parent education; activities to engage parents and the community; and a partnership with at least one other community organization, such as a university.”

In the 1950s, when I was researching my book Our Children Are Dying (Viking Press), about an elementary school in Harlem, I found that principal Elliot Shapiro not only got to know each child in the school (his office was always open), but parents called him “the principal of the neighborhood.” For example, when boilers broke down in local homes and kids told Shapiro about the cold, he would put pressure on public agencies to bring back the heat.

On a very small scale, that was a community school in action. Enthusiast Tony Blair emphasizes: “The school should become the center for the support and nurture of the future generation, and a hub for the whole community.” Blair is no longer the British prime minister, but as Education Week’s McNeil reports, “By next year, all of England’s 23,000 public schools will become ‘extended schools’ open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. throughout the year, a key education priority of Mr. Blair’s administration”. McNeil notes: “The schools in England offer day care, after-school activities, social services such as health care, and central spots for communities to gather.”

We learned about the Magna Carta and other foundations of our Bill of Rights from England, and now we can cite Britain’s experience with this revolutionary educational reform as a stimulus to Arne Duncan. Congress, state legislatures, and regional and city school systems can deepen and humanize not only classroom education but also gauge the needs of surrounding neighborhoods through community schools.

I found an exemplary American conception of community schools in the October 17 New York Times in a letter by Joanne Yatvin, a Portland, Oregon, public school teacher and administrator for more than forty years: “How about turning schools in poor neighborhoods into year-round community centers, with health and dental services, nutritious meals, up-to-date libraries and computer labs, after-hours tutoring and recreation for children, and job training, counseling, recreation and educational classes for adults?”

Back in April 1975, James A. Harris, then president of the National Education Association, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that 23 percent of the nation’s school children were failing to graduate (that’s about half the current percentage). “If 23 percent of anything else failed,” Harris added, “23 percent of the automobiles didn’t run, 23 percent of the buildings fell down, we’d look at the producer. The schools, here, are not blameless.”

The schools are not the only ones who are not blameless. But they do not always have to be insular as they are. Arne Duncan should appoint Richard Rothstein to be his adviser, as well as consult with Tony Blair.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).

Years ago, while on the education beat, I was in the office of Tony Alvarado, then head of the New York City school system. The standardized test scores on reading had just come in, and they were collectively higher. But Alvarado looked glum. “When,” he asked me, “are we going to teach them how to …

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