María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from a speech presented by Dr. Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, at a conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, entitled "High Poverty Schooling in America: Lessons in Second-Class Citizenship" in October. The event was held by the North Carolina Law Review; the University of North Carolina Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity; the UNC Center for Civil Rights; and the UNC School of Education.

Landmark civil rights cases like Brown vs. Board of Education and Mendez vs. Westminster opened new paths toward integration and equity. More than 50 years later, the promise of educational opportunity for all remains largely unfulfilled. In fact, research suggests it may be slipping further out of reach. The nation is more and more at home with segregation. And segregation is not only on the rise, but our country seems to be more at home with a system of haves and have nots.

So education is absolutely at a crossroads in America. But how are we to achieve results? How do we guarantee that all of our children succeed?

If the past is any prophet of the future, we cannot layer new accountability measures on old educational inequities and expect to get different results. It isn’t going to happen. Of course, there are exceptions. There are always highly successful high poverty schools that belie the trends. But results for all children are not about exceptions, they are about creating a regularity of success.

What are the most promising strategies to improving achievement in high poverty schools?

A Framework for Action

The Quality Schools Action Framework that IDRA has developed in our collaboration with schools and communities in Texas and other parts of the country offers a model for assessing school outcomes, identifying leverage points for improvement, and focusing and effecting change.

The model is based on three premises. The first is that if the problem is systemic – and it seems to me that it is – the solutions must address schools as systems.

The second is that if we are up to student success, then we have to develop a vision, and that vision for children has to seek outcomes for every child, no matter where they come from, no matter the color of their skin, no matter the side of town they come from, no matter the language they speak.

And the third premise of this framework is that schools are not poor because children in them are poor or black or brown. Schools are poor because we have poor policies, poor practices and inadequate investments.

We might then ask three questions: What do we need? How do we effect change? and What fundamentals and features must be in place?

What Do We Need?

The first and most important thing that we need is to keep the public in public education. Americans support public schools. We heard Senator Edwards speak today about a hunger to engage and to inspire. But there has always been a vocal minority that has fought the integration and the diversity that comes with public schools.

As public education was first conceived and began to take shape in our country, various groups raised questions. See if these questions still sound current: Why does everyone need to go to school? Why do they need an education? Wouldn’t ex-slaves and their children be more comfortable in their own schools? Why spend money on immigrants; they can’t even speak English? Well… OK… maybe spend a little bit of money, but only enough to keep them out of the streets. But surely, those children were not going to attend school with our children. And so it went.

After the Brown decision, in the Jim Crow south, White institutions dragged their feet, and private White academies became commonplace. Separate but equal would, in this way, stay in place.

Today, private schools funded by public sources are a reality in some states. We seem to be moving from dual schools to dual systems, one public and one private – with our public money diverted to privatizing through vouchers, private charters, home schools, virtual schools and tax credits.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires unprecedented parent reporting and mandates parent involvement (tied to Title I funds) but implementation of the law has been overwhelmingly focused on testing. While school data are increasingly available to parents, databases are often designed to help them "shop" for schools, rather than, as citizens, to invest in their neighborhood public schools. And that is part of the problem.

The question of course becomes, if we are to keep the public in public education, who is the public? The demographics in this country are changing in a way that the public has to engage and has to assure that we include diverse communities that surround neighborhood public schools. Much of our rhetoric is about doing unto high poverty schools and unto high poverty neighborhoods. The public in keeping the public in public education must include people of color and the poor and must acknowledge the power, the privileges and the prejudices that come with racism.

To keep the public in public education we need engaged citizens, we need accountable leadership, and we need enlightened public policy.

Let me give you one example. We have been working on an effort called Graduation Guaranteed/Graduación Garantizada that would give a minimum of high school education to all children. We call it "school holding power" rather than dropouts to emphasize the accountability of the school in keeping kids in school and graduating. Our school holding power portal includes dropout data that neighborhoods at the local level can use to know what is going on in their school and to call themselves into action around this, whether it be into action around policy, around investment or around the quality of their neighborhood public schools. Local communities in Texas together with schools can look at the rate at which their students disappear, the actual numbers of students, whether or not they pass minimum competency tests, the differences by ethnic group, the ACT/SAT rates, and the state of teaching quality.

So the public in public education can know not only about outcomes but also about what leads to those outcomes. The public becomes armed with actionable data that can lead to good results.

How do we effect change?

For the second question, we must build capacity and collaboration for the common good. We clearly need to collaborate across traditional sectors. Economic injustice and poverty kept African Americans and Latinos apart or competing for measly slices of the same pie. In the 1940s, Hispanic workers (some of whom had been brought to this country as part of the Bracero Program) and African American workers competed for many of the same low paying jobs. Tensions have escalated whenever African Americans have determined not to defend the rights of immigrant workers or when Latinos have decided not to support desegregation efforts because it might antagonize Whites.

Recently, wrapped in the fear of national security, our nation’s political leaders quickly returned to the march against the outsider, against the immigrant. Since September 11, 2001, we have seen the renewed push toward policy that would restrict the civil liberties of immigrants, a push to conflate immigration with terrorism.

Building common ground is a big task and an important one. IDRA’s framework calls at the local level to develop capacity in the community, in the school and with coalitions to work together on this very serious divide. The basis for this relationship cannot be a continued blaming of students because they are black or brown or poor, or of blaming of schools because they cannot meet accountability standards without the resources that are necessary.

What fundamentals must be in place to improve our public schools?

For the last question, we must invest in the changes that matter most. In Texas, with House Bill 1 that was passed last May, we estimate that the fiscal equity gap has grown by 30 percent. Texas’ top 50 wealthiest schools are 72 percent White. Texas’ poorest 50 schools are 94 percent Hispanic.

On the Action Framework then, while we look at the features that matter – and this is what research tells us matters – parent and community engagement, engagement of students, quality teaching and curriculum quality, it is essential that the foundations be in place as well: governance efficacy and funding equity.

True sustainable action that fundamentally changes the experiences of children in the classroom must address the root causes and the trends that first gave rise to inequity. These causes have taken root in schools and systems and not in children or families. But addressing root causes can be carried out in a very local, very real practical way in terms of policy, practices and investment at the community-school-neighborhood level.

The Quality Schools Action Framework speaks to the need and possibility of engaging citizens, leaders and policymakers around high quality data that call all of us as members of the community to act, to establish common ground, to strengthen education, and finally and most importantly and fundamentally, to align our values with our investments in the school system: fundamentals and features that we know are needed – from teaching quality, to engaged students, engaged parents and families, and a high quality, authentic curriculum so that students in every neighborhood and of every background can in fact have equal educational opportunities.

María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at comment@idra.org.

Quality Schools Action Framework

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Source: "A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success," IDRA Newsletter, November-December 2005.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]

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