Inspired by history: We need a new movement, stronger voices in education

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a small gathering of policy leaders, academics, and activists to reflect on the landmark Kerner Commission Report of 50 years ago. The Commission was borne after the protests in Detroit, Newark and more than 100 other American cities during the summer of 1967 — and the group concluded that our nation had to make “massive and sustained” investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice.

A new report has taken stock of the progress gained and lost since the publishing of the Kerner Report. While some improvements toward a more equitable society have been realized, including in our schools, progress has stalled and begun to backslide. The poverty rate among Americans remains the same as in 1968, and the percentage of our citizens living in extreme poverty has actually increased since the 1970s.

When the Kerner Commission released its report, 200,000 people were in prison — and now about 1.4 million are incarcerated, largely because of “zero-tolerance” drug (and other) policies that ended up targeting African-Americans and Latinos. School integration was beginning to work, and by the 1980s, the achievement gap began to close. Since then, our public schools have been re-segregating, and the achievement gap has widened yet again.

The Learning Policy Institute, led by Linda Darling-Hammond, co-sponsored the event, and then hosted a second event (the next day) focused solely on education. Linda pointed out in a special policy brief prepared for the 50th year commemoration of the Kerner Report:

While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty — hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low-income communities.

Most education policies of late have focused on accountability, the performance management of teachers, and school choice. These policies have, no doubt, made visible much-needed data on which students are improving or not. But few policies have been enacted to help educators learn together and from one another in much the way we’re asking students to do just that, through project-based learning and the like. Many school districts, especially those serving low-income students and those of color, struggle mightily not just to recruit and retain effective educators, but also to create the conditions for them to teach effectively.

Graphic shared in Learning Policy Institute’s policy brief.

As Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, pointed out at the education convening: “Debates about choice are legitimate, but it is a side issue…. As a society we need to make sure that those who have the greatest challenges have the greatest resources.”

In a panel conversation, Neera and Linda pointed out that in 30 states, a teacher who heads a family of four qualifies for family assistance. (See the Center for American Progress’ brief here on teachers and the need for them to moonlight.)

A number of related themes ran throughout the two days of reflections of the Kerner Report. Several stood out for me:

  • Evidence of effective government programs — including those in education — are well-documented, but funding cuts have either diminished their effectiveness or shut them down.
  • Effective programs — and efforts by organizations dedicated to “one nation, indivisible” — are often siloed from one another.
  • Many policies in place today — related to education and the economy, housing, health care — are based on ideology, not evidence.
  • The facts are important — but they rarely win the policy debates.

I asked the education panel if now was not time to capitalize on the growing connectedness of teachers — who already are using the Web and support networks such as CTQ, Teach Plus, and many others. And I asked how we might think about a mobilization strategy not just for teachers, but also students and their parents, to push for the kinds of investments and support for teachers and students that most of us know they need. Polling data consistently shows that parents have high levels of trust in teachers and give their local public schools high marks.

The recent horrors of the Florida school shooting also reveal the power of well-educated students who find and use their voices “who were well trained for this moment.” (Check out this must-read article.) My question seemed to stick with others in the room.

Kent McGuire closed the convening with a wonderful story of his own personal history with the Kerner Report (and how he was educated by the progressive education policies enacted in the 1960s). With his wry wit, Kent made us all smile when he said, “We have to grapple with the fact that it’s not always about the facts.”

CTQ’s 20 years of work cultivating teacher leaders and helping hundreds of them find their voices tells me we’re ready for a new national movement to improve education, based less on flash and more on the determined work happening in classrooms.

As he spoke, I thought about our success, often siloed, to support teachers in telling their stories of impact. And then I smiled even more broadly when Kent pointed out that we need to focus on a collective strategy “to find new and more imaginative ways to bring the facts to a wider view.”

CTQ’s 20 years of work cultivating teacher leaders and helping hundreds of them find their voices tells me we’re ready for a new national movement to improve education, based less on flash and more on the determined work happening in classrooms. It’s clear to me that schools need more investment for specific purposes — especially finding great talent to teach and lead schools and to help those educators learn and work together for students in new ways, and in supporting today’s students both academically and with the emotional and family support many of them need.

Let’s work together to create and tell a new national story about education and learning — the story of incredible accomplishment and innovation, and the need to make children and our schools the foremost national priority.

  • Zaigham Khan

    While some enhancements toward a additional equitable society are realized, as well as in our faculties, progress has stalled and begun to lapse. The impoverishment rate among Americans remains an equivalent as in 1968, and therefore the share of our voters living in extreme impoverishment looking for a job.