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'The Dumbest Thing' in Education Thinking

Obama, Education, Snooki, Civil Rights and Bryan Bass

It's a little hard to make sense of what happened this week in the world of education, but, let's give it a fast try:

*President Obama gave a speech to the Urban League convention in which he joked about the Jersey Shore's Snooki and also said the following: "Now, over the past 18 months ... I think the single most important thing we've done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top."

Yes, that's what he said: His terribly misguided $4.35 billion competitive grant program is, apparently, more important than health care reform, the economic recovery program, improving the student loan program, increasing Pell Grant payouts, and, well, anything else he has accomplished since becoming president.

Does he read this stuff carefully before he says it?

*The administration did its best to mute the power of a scathing critique of Obama's education policies issued by a coalition of civil rights organizations, who also offered presciptive ways out of the mess.

According to several sources involved in the drama, the "Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn" was actually ready to be released about a month ago, but the administration has been holding meetings with civil rights leaders in an effort to ease the criticism.

A decision was made to finally release it on Monday, the same week as the Urban League convention, and a press conference was scheduled for leaders of the groups to discuss it publicly. The groups were: Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Schott Foundation for Public Education, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Coalition for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

But pressure from the administration -- including, apparently, a threat that Obama would not speak, as scheduled, to the convention -- prompted the cancellation of the press conference and a hastily scheduled meeting between the civil rights leaders and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday.

That became news in our education world, along with a few statements released by some of the civil rights groups that talked about working cooperatively with Duncan.

What was missed in the coverage is that none of the civil rights leaders walked away from the powerful framework, except, that is, Rev. Al Sharpton, who was expected to sign onto the framework, but then didn't at the last minute. He did sign onto a statement released on Tuesday that talked about "broad areas of agreement" between the administration and the civil rights leaders (which I confess escape me). This is, just to be clear, the same Rev. Al Sharpton who traveled the country last year with Duncan and Newt Gingrich as a friendly team to talk about education reform.

*Duncan announced in his own major speech at the Urban League convention, on Wednesday, that he had heard the civil rights leaders and was creating a commission to look into the issue of equity of resources in public schools. The critics got a commission.

*Communities for Excellent Public Schools, a new coalition of a few dozen community groups, released its own report, "Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration's School Turnaround Policies," criticizing the administration's restrictive turnaround strategies for failing schools under the federal School Improvement Grants program.

It said they were educationally and structurally "flawed" and it offered a different way of helping troubled schools that involves including community members and taking health, demographics and other issues into account.

What a concept.

A theme for real education reform ran through both reports -- that fixing schools also requires dealing with health and social and other issues -- rather than standardized test scores which permeate key education policies of Obama and Duncan.

Hmm. This was supposed to be a quick news review. Sorry, but stay with me. Here's what I really want you to read.

The following story is part of the community group's report. It is a case study of a school that was forced to undergo restructuring under the administration's education rules, with their emphasis on standardized test scores to determine teacher and school progress. It reveals, think, how misguided Obama's school transformation policy,


In June, 2010, Bryan Bass, the principal of Brooklyn Center High School in suburban Minneapolis, was fired.

Brooklyn Center is one of 34 schools on Minnesota's list of "persistently lowest achieving" schools. The state education commissioner says that the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program will give the state the opportunity to "really dig deep and try to solve the educational issues" in their failing schools.

For Brooklyn Center, like all schools targeted under the SIG program, receiving federal funding for reform efforts required firing the current principal.

Brooklyn Center High School enrolls about 800 students, three-quarters of whom are low-income and children of color. Roughly 14% of the students have learning disabilities, and about 20% are English Language Learners. The school offers a strong arts magnet program, and an International Baccalaureate program, making it a popular open-enrollment school. Though 82% of students who enroll, graduate, the school has some of the lowest assessment scores in the state.

Bryan Bass has been principal at Brooklyn Center for four years. Under his leadership, the number of suspensions each month fell from 45 to about 10. The number of graduates who went on to college doubled from 35% to 70%. Student mobility dropped from 33% to 26%.

Bass and Superintendent Keith Lester also worked tirelessly on meeting another need of the school community. One wing of the school was recently turned into a one-stop medical and social service center. The center is equipped to care for any student or school-age resident in the area.

With or without health insurance, students have access to dental, vision, mental health and medical services right in the building. The need for wrap-around supports for students immediately became apparent: In the first year, 70% of students who were tested were found to have untreated vision problems. By building a network of existing providers and agencies, identified needs were met. Children who needed glasses were given them. The clinic offers a therapist to help students work through emotional issues.

A social service agency has an office in the clinic that helps students' families find health insurance.

"Overnight - overnight, it absolutely decreased the amount of behavioral issues," principal Bass told a local reporter about the new school-based center. "By eliminating barriers, you start to really understand what's in the way of students getting to learn."

The future of Brooklyn Center High School's health and social services center is not guaranteed under the federal grant program. One thing was guaranteed, though. The school's energetic principal had to go, as a condition for participation in the SIG program.

Superintendent Lester is frustrated with the rigidity of the federal grants program: "I think that's the dumbest thing I've seen coming out of education in my years in education," he said.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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