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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Should children have to compete for their education?

From the Washington Times Answer Sheet

By Mary Fertakis

Should children have to compete for their education? Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to put that question to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan following his speech to more than 800 school board members from around the country at the National School Boards Association’s Federal Relations Network Conference in Washington, D.C.

It’s a question that has weighed on me as I’ve watched cash-strapped states repeatedly driven into a “race” to compete for federal education funds. Evidently, it’s a question that resonates with a lot of my colleagues, as the room erupted in spontaneous applause while Secretary Duncan pondered his response (“No, they shouldn’t have to compete for their education, but …”).

What frustrates so many school board members is that this “competition” mindset is fundamentally unfair because it rests on the premise that everyone is starting from the same place. The reality is very different.

I serve on the Tukwila School Board in Washington state, which was recently identified in a New York Times article as the “most diverse school district in the United States.” My district and community is now “home” to an international body of students who speak 65 languages and come from every part of the globe that has experienced political, military, and religious upheaval. For some of our high schoolers, this is their first time in a school setting. One of our elementary schools consists of 25 percent refugee students. Additionally, 60 percent of our students are first generation in the United States and do not speak English at home. The district-wide free and reduced lunch rate is 70 percent.

What happens when you place these students at the starting line of an academic “race” with their peers who were born in the United States, are native English speakers, had the benefit of a high-quality pre-school, have attended the same school their entire lives, regularly participate in summer enrichment programs (camps, travel, etc.), have a personal computer at home, and never have to worry about the basics (food, clothing, shelter)?

They aren’t starting at the same place. In fact, move these students back 10 meters for every support factor they lack, and then fire the starting gun. Not a very fair competition, is it Mr. Secretary? And it has nothing to do with their intelligence or inherent abilities.

What happens when schools and districts are placed at the starting line of a funding “race”?

If you’re a small, mid-size or rural district (which is still the majority of the United States), you aren’t likely to have a professional grant writer on your staff, or have the funds to contract with one who knows the ins and outs of writing and winning federal grants. You aren’t likely to have the resources to develop relationships with key decision-makers, nor the geographic access to them. You aren’t likely to have a network of non-profits or a public schools foundation to provide matching funds for any proposal you do submit.

These districts aren’t starting from the same place as a large, urban or wealthy, suburban district. Move them back 20 meters for every system advantage they lack. There goes that starting gun …. we know who wins this race. And the travesty of this one is that it has nothing to do with actual needs.

Combine the students with limited support factors and schools or districts with limited system advantages and they can’t even get inside the stadium to compete. Under current law, they’re likely to be labeled as “failing.” The students who arrive at our doors aren’t “hired” or chosen by us—we serve all of them. They don’t fill an opening for a specific “job description”—we help prepare them to be successful at jobs in other organizations (including ones that criticize us).

The nature of competition is that there are designated winners and losers. As a nation, we all lose if we aren’t supporting an education system where the overwhelming majority of our students graduate with a skill set that will allow them to yes, compete, successfully in their post-secondary fields of choice. Competition is appropriate for many settings, but not for determining which students, schools or districts will be adding to their pre-existing advantages to increase the resource gap that is already a handicap for many.

Around the country, school board members are doing their best to keep funding cuts as far away from the classroom as possible while exercising leadership to improve learning for all students (and their reward for making gains is often a “failing” label under the punitive No Child Left Behind Act).

School board members balk at a philosophy of competing for dollars because we know the inequities listed above are real. There is something inherently wrong about injecting a corporate brand of competition into the realm of education. It flies in the face of the premise that an excellent education is not only the great equalizer, but also lifts everyone who possesses it so that all benefit.

Secretary Duncan, it’s time to put aside this competition mentality and the “quid-pro-quo” approach to fixing the flaws in No Child Left Behind. In my view, our students would be much better served by focusing resources on those students who can barely see the starting line, rather than starting a “race” that they have very little hope of finishing.

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