Congressional education report: 5 years and $700k to recommend "equity"

A lengthy effort to examine the state of education in American schools released their final report today. Apparently, we need equity in our schools.

I don't think the rant that's about to follow was exactly what US Congressman Mike Honda's (D-CA) office had in mind when they sent me the press release this morning about the education report he spearheaded. His communications director actually had the gall to be upbeat about it. Sorry, folks...no kudos coming from this blogger today.

First, a bit of background. Congressman Honda represents the California Congressional District that encompasses Silicon Valley. He spent 30 years as an educator and before I launch into the vitriol, I applaud his ongoing focus on education, civil rights, STEM, and the development of a 21st century economy. Good stuff, all of it. However, this report, meant to be inspiring and galvanizing, leaves me feeling even more jaded and pessimistic about the future of education in this country.

To be clear, the actual text of the report isn't available yet. It's being presented to Secretary of Education Duncan later today. However, the materials coming out of Congressman's Honda's office, including the forward to the report, do nothing to suggest that our government has any ability to affect real change in our educational system. Five years ago, Congressman Honda introduced legislation to form the Citizens' Commission on Educational Equity "to convene a commission to examine and propose solutions to the inequalities and present in the public education system". Oooh, good idea...let's form a commission to propose some solutions.

Apparently the vast array of really thoughtful, workable solutions flowing out of educators, businesses, analysts, and policymakers for the previous 30 years (and in earnest, focusing on 21st century learning for the previous 10) weren't good enough. One would have thought a few interns could have done a meta analysis of the existing body of work on this topic, but, gosh, a "Commission" just sounds so official. Yeah, we should definitely have another one of those. Not that it mattered since the legislation failed anyway.

Of course, it wasn't until the end of 2009 that Congressman Honda was able to form an advisory committee to "discuss the formation, direction, and charge of the commission that was to be formed". Because an advisory committee thinking about how a commission should work will definitely fix the mess that is public education in the US. In a brilliant example of how things get done in Congress, Congressman Honda managed to get funds appropriated for the Commission when he served on the (shocker!) House Appropriations Committee. Again, this isn't a criticism of Congressman Honda specifically. It's just one more indication of a broken system in Washington that certainly doesn't have the means or wherewithal to fix a broken educational system.

Ultimately, the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education funded the Commission to the tune of $200,000 in FY2011 and $500,000 in FY2012. Relatively speaking, this is loose change that can be found in the seat cushions of the House and Senate. When you're trillions of dollars in debt, less than three-quarters of million dollars isn't worth batting an eyelash, right? Mitt Romney paid well over twice that in taxes in 2011.

Then again, that meta analysis I mentioned earlier would have been free and probably would have come to the same conclusions. Before we get to the conclusions, though, let's see what $700,000 bought us, shall we? According to Congressman Honda's office, for the low, low price of $700k, we got

  • "Six town hall meetings across the nation to hear from students, parents, teachers, and local community members on their experience with the public education system"
  • "Six [Commission] meetings to hear expert testimonies and engage in discussion and deliberation around the issues"

Wow. Twelve whole meetings. And they talked to actual people in six of them! And experts in six more! Actual experts!

But wait, it gets better. 

Continued from page 1

But wait, it gets better. Here's a few bites from Congressman Honda's forward to the document:

  • "...This is a declaration of an urgent national mission: to provide equity and excellence in education in American public schools once and for all."
  • "We present a big and bold new vision on the federal role in education by recommending transformations in school funding structures, implementation of vibrant early education programs, and a commitment to a stronger investment for teacher preparation and retention in the field."
  • "This game-changing report embraces the urgent truth in education reform: that parity is not equity."

And here's what a few stakeholders had to say about the report:

  • "This report offers a cautionary note about the consequences of our anemic and regressive support for education." -NAACP
  • “Through much debate and deliberation, this report presents a blueprint for how to guarantee that each child has a fair shot at the American Dream.” - Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University
  • "[This report] notes that we cannot achieve educational excellence for all our children without addressing the educational, physical and social and emotional needs of our most vulnerable children. America must do what we do in our best schools in all our schools, for all our students. - American Federation for Teachers

Really? It took two years, an act of Congress, and a panel of experts to agree that we should, really for sure, provide equitable educational opportunities for all of our students? That schools should follow best practices? That we need to make sure kids feel safe and have enough to eat so they can learn? My 10-year old could have told them that for a hell of a lot less than $700,000. This is not rocket science.

The problem will be implementation. Sure, this document is being heralded as a blueprint. But blueprints aren't worth the paper on which they're printed if we don't build anything from them. Does anyone actually believe that real reform, the right funding, and better policies that promote wonderful teaching in urban, rural, and suburban schools will come out of this document? Where is the legislation that implements these recommended reforms or that addresses this "cautionary note"?

And not to pick on the NAACP, but if all we get is a "cautionary note" out of this report, then, again, we should have looked at the vast body of literature, grassroots efforts at reform, begging parents, screaming teachers, and disillusioned students for our "note of caution." Give me a break - We're a long way past caution. We should be in full-on crisis mode with policy makers taking immediate, unified action. But we aren't and they won't. Congress can barely agree that we should pay our bills, let alone bring education in this country to the levels seen in other countries around the world. We're too mired in bureaucracy and political game playing to do more than create an advisory committee to form a commission to write a report.

I think this process suggests just what's going to come of the Commission's report. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But I bet the report will be nicely bound in Arne Duncan's office. Super. I wonder how many other reports are lining the shelves of his office while dropout rates skyrocket, teens enter college (if they're lucky)  woefully unprepared for the coursework , and the rest enter the workforce with no reasonable vocational training to compete in a global marketplace for even skilled labor jobs.

Keep your report and give us some workable legislation or step aside and get out of the education business entirely. Because "Ed Reform" hasn't accomplished much more than turn our students into solid test-takers. You'll have to forgive me if I don't have much faith in this latest "blueprint" for actually creating the equity and opportunities it identifies.

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