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How Poor And Disadvantaged Students Will Fare Under The New Education Law

Eric Westervelt of the NPR Ed team is guest-hosting for the next few weeks on Here & Now, the midday news program from NPR and WBUR.

Now that President Obama has signed the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, a big question for many educators is: Will the changes help the populations most in need of better schools: students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students?

I spoke with Pedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation, about how the new legislation will affect underserved students.

Do you think the Every Student Succeeds Act can narrow the gap between students?

Unfortunately not, and that's because the gaps that we see in education are really a manifestation of broader patterns of inequality that children experience and that are present in our society: gaps in access to health care, gaps in access to good housing. And so those disparities aren't erased by just focusing on what happens in schools, and unfortunately ESSA perpetuates the notion that we can address inequality and academic outcome simply by focusing on schools.

You advocate a more holistic approach, but isn't that a lot to ask of schools?

Absolutely, and that's why it shouldn't just be up to the schools. Schools can't do it alone. It's interesting when you look at the history of the act that when the Johnson administration enacted [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, of which ESSA is the latest version], it was really about addressing the effects of poverty. It's interesting because Lyndon B. Johnson was himself at one time a teacher in south Texas, and he saw the effects of poverty up close. And so the origins of the act were to try to compensate for poverty. And in fact, we made our greatest gains as a nation in closing gaps in academic achievement during the 1970s, when we were focused on school integration and addressing poverty on a broader scale in the country. And I would say that unless we see similar efforts, it's unlikely that we're going to see these disparities disappear.

Lyndon B. Johnson's education legislation was part of his War on Poverty, then?

Absolutely, and I think it's important that we continue to see it as such, that poverty is the academic issue that holds many children behind.

Even the slogan "Leave No Child Behind" came from the Children's Defense Fund, but when Marian Wright Edelman came up with that slogan, it didn't mean test the kids as frequently as possible.

How do you get various organizations involved in taking part in this holistic approach?

It takes leaders who are able to work across these silos, work across education, health — recognize [that] the needs of children can't be compartmentalized. It's easier to do it in many ways at a local level than it is at the state level because you are closer to the issues and to the problems.

Tulsa, Okla., is a city that I like to point to because every child is in quality early childhood education, every school is a full-service school and their best high school is fully integrated — 50 percent African-American, 50 percent white. So if you can do that in Tulsa, I think we can do that in many other cities throughout America today.

What policies work best to change the current state of inner-city schools?

It's a complex picture out there. There are some new charter schools that are doing a great job, there are still some public schools that are succeeding, but overall the situation is fairly bleak wherever poverty is concentrated. And so what we've got to do is invest more into schools: that is, do what we did once before.

How do you get middle- and upper-class parents to buy into the idea that equity is good for everyone?

That's, I think, a very important point that we've got to get at, that it's in our national interest to ensure that all children receive a good education. We can't afford to have large numbers of people who are under-educated, who are languishing in poverty and who are stuck in low-wage jobs because they lack the skills and they lack the education. Education is the best pathway to a more equitable society, and it's in our interest as a country to look at this in a more collective manner.

We have far too many people going into retirement who are going to depend on Social Security, and they need to have young people who are well-employed and well-educated to support them. And so even if you don't have children, it's important to recognize that you have a stake in making sure that the children of the next generation are well-educated.

You're skeptical that ESSA with help rebalance the inequality.

I am skeptical. Now of course, it depends on the next president, it depends on who the next secretary [of education] is, and what kind of attention they place on teaching and learning. We've been focused on assessment as if you can test kids into better performance. Of course we need to know how well children are doing, but the real emphasis should be on the teaching and learning. The analogy I would make is if you wanted to lose weight, would you focus on getting a good scale or would you focus on diet and exercise? The diet and exercise, the equivalent in school is teaching and learning. We haven't really focused on how to create high-quality learning opportunities for kids so that they're more motivated, more engaged, more willing to read on their own time, more inclined to pursue science and math as careers. That's what we should be focused on, not on how to test kids into improvement.

You can listen here to the full interview on Here & Now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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