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Reclaiming Community
Apr 2013

In a time of growing inequality and increased stratification of educational opportunities, Education Sector is leading an effort to restart and revitalize a national discussion on educational equity.  We are reaching out to experts in the field to better understand the issues and assess possible solutions in a sophisticated, research-based policy framework.

One of the nation’s most thoughtful observers of the politics of American education is Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is chair of the newly formed Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College.

Jeff is an accomplished scholar, the author or co-author of 10 books, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education (Princeton 1999) and Building Civic Capacity: the Politics of Reforming Urban Schools (Kansas 2001). Each of these books was named best urban politics book of the year by the American Political Science Association. His latest book is The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing Politics of School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2013).

Throughout his career Jeff has tackled the tough and controversial issues in education reform. At the heart of his work is a commitment to ensuring genuine equality of opportunity. He looks for the causes and consequences of failing to meet the educational needs of all children. Using the analytic lens of political science, Jeff is able to see underneath the day-to-day churn, identify the essential issues, and assess which policies are most likely to be effective.  

Several weeks ago Jeff and I had a chance to talk about educational equity in his office at Teachers College. We covered a range of issues including mayoral control, the new portfolio model, the end of educational exceptionalism and how to think about educational equity in today’s economic and political environment.

Education Sector: In recent years research has indicated that class has replaced race as the most powerful variable in explaining differences in educational outcomes. Is this true? If so, how do you account for the shift, and where do we see this new divide most clearly?

Jeff Henig: The way people talk about education and equality is very much focused on test score outcomes and achievement—high school graduation, college attendance. Looking at those indicators, there has been a shift in recent years in which the racial gap has narrowed somewhat. But the gap between wealthier and lower-income students has been very stubborn, and by some measures has widened.

ES: Talk to us a little about the class differences you see.

JH: The education system in the U.S. is very decentralized and fragmented. We’ve got roughly 15,000 school districts, and much of the funding still goes to schools based on the relative wealth of these districts. Prompted by the courts, many state legislatures have tried to crimp that difference in spending, but it’s still very real. Peer effects are also important. Going to a school where other parents have more advantaged backgrounds is important to the lower-income kids, too, in terms of getting signals about what’s possible and about how you do things like apply to college. 

ES: How do you evaluate the social costs of this inequity?

JH: Economists would look at this in terms of what we lose if we have a workforce that can’t perform to potential. But more important is the cost in a range of issues related to a sense of community and shared fate. Increasingly, as people have pulled into more homogenous living arrangements—gated communities in the suburbs, enclaves in gentrifying areas in cities where people rich and poor may be closely juxtaposed—the cultural gap leads to a reticence and an anxiety that affects how people move through communities and through their lives.

ES: What kinds of policies do not work in your opinion?

JH: I think a lot of the school reformers have gained appreciation for the fact that it wasn’t as simple as they thought. Reflecting back 15 to 20 years, many idealistic and admirable people were under the impression that the reason kids weren’t succeeding was because teachers have low expectations. If you went in there and cared about kids and spent a little time with them, talked to them about college, we’d see dramatic gains. What they found, almost without exception, was that it was hard—the deficiencies kids brought to school were deeper than they expected. There is starting to be a much more mature discussion of some of these issues than [there was] 10 years ago.

ES: You’ve done quite a bit of research on mayoral control. Has it had any measurable effects in improving urban schools?

JH: The most compelling argument for mayoral control is that mayors are in a position to bring to bear the resources of multiple agencies. To the extent that the education challenge requires more than just pulling levers in schools but also attention to social services, mayors are in a position to deliver on that, whereas school boards and superintendents can’t. In that and other respects, mayoral control has been somewhat of a disappointment. I understand the part of the mayoral control movement that says, “Hey, elected school boards have had their shot and failed, things are not going well, and we’ve gotta change something.” But the irony is that while mayors are potentially the ones best able to envision and carry out a multi-sector approach, some of the mayors in the forefront have been among the most focused on the schools-can-do-it [attitude.]  The story of mayoral control is the same as with a lot of others—they can look very different from place to place. So the findings about empirical outcomes are very often muddy.

ES: Can you describe what you mean by the new portfolio model for urban reform?

JH: People think this is another privatization model, another market model. And that’s partly because of the language; just like a stock portfolio, a district or a city would have a portfolio of schools. And as with stocks, you’d want a diversity of offerings. And just like a stock portfolio, it would be actively managed. Every year you’d look and you’d say, “This sector isn’t performing,” so you get rid of some schools and bring in some new providers. In the portfolio model the consumer is the district. In theory, districts can be as informed as providers, and they can bargain on equal terms. But because districts are also political bodies, they are politically constrained. So a district that is making decisions about which schools to close and which schools to open could be acting in the public interest, but it could also be doling out patronage—rewarding providers that are supportive and punishing providers and neighborhoods that aren’t part of its core constituency. My argument with the Portfolio Management Model and the whole contracting approach is that it can only be good if there’s also good politics and good government.

ES: You recently wrote about the end of “educational exceptionalism.” How does the growth of general interest politics affect issues related to educational equality?

JH: People in public life often talk about “American exceptionalism,” by which they mean that the U.S. is somehow different from the rest of the world, that it’s better than everyone else—and that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m looking at how education has been handled differently from other domestic policy issues. Most intensely at the local level, school boards are often elected at a separate time from general elections, often with [their own] revenue streams. The argument I make is that the the special status of education is fading; more and more decisions are being absorbed into general-purpose politics. That means mayoral control, but it also means city councils are more involved in education, as are governors and state legislatures. It means presidents are now expected to have education agendas, but it also means Congress and to some extent courts. These institutions are not populated by specialists in education. So they may not care as much about some of the intricacies of instruction, testing, and curriculum. And they’re also beholden to interest groups and segments of the community for whom schools might not be the highest priority.

ES: Is educational exceptionalism a good thing?

JH: The end of educational exceptionalism—the migration of education back into general-purpose government and politics—carries some really substantial risks. That’s because these bigger arenas are less instinctively responsive to the core arguments that have been effective in the education world. Teachers are less valued in these broader arenas. Education advocates have to compete for attention and resources. I also think that there are some positive things. There are greater windows of opportunity to the extent that addressing the problems of educational equity requires more than schools alone.

ES: Do you think that this will hurt teachers—their autonomy, their reputations, and their power?

JH: There’s tremendous turmoil within the teaching force, and from some of the survey data I’ve seen, unprecedented levels of stress and lack of job satisfaction. Some of that is reacting to the real impact of reforms, to a new high-stakes testing environment, and to the Common Core Standards. But another part of it is the sense of being the scapegoat—rhetoric that implies teachers are part of the problem more than they’re part of the solution. There are ways out of that stalemate: early on, testing and measurement and outcome performance were heavily tied up with holding teachers accountable. But some value-added research is providing powerful evidence that teachers matter, that good teachers generate good long-term outcomes for students.

ES: How effective has the Obama administration been in reducing education inequalities? Can you give an example, pro or con?

JH: The administration has kept education high on the agenda, generating resources for education that could easily have disappeared [because of] tight budgets. Race to the Top is an example of an infusion of money to help get us out of the economic recession. I think this has been a good thing from the standpoint of drawing in new talent, energy, and thinking. I wouldn’t have put quite as much emphasis on charter schools or on quantitative evaluations of teacher effectiveness; I think those things are important, but I don’t think we know how to do it well enough now to turn it into the powerful mechanism that was intended.

ES: If you were secretary of education, what is the one thing you would do to reduce educational inequalities?

JH: One of the things I would do is build state databases that can track students over time, and expand those databases to incorporate other elements of need: don’t just tell us that this student is in the third grade, not just who their teacher was, and whether they gained a year’s worth of knowledge, but also whether that student’s family is receiving food stamps. Developing these kinds of databases—at the state level, but with federal incentives—makes it possible to answer those questions about the combinations of problems and services that matter.

ES: You seem to be arguing that the way to reduce educational inequalities is to look at education in a much larger context than simply looking at schools as silos where academic activity takes place.

JH: That’s right. I’d add that it doesn’t mean that you first have to solve all these other things before you attend to having better schools. It means approaching those things together.

ES: Does equity need to be redefined for the 21st century?

JH: I do believe that economic inequality has been growing tremendously. We’ve been making progress to solve racial issues, but race is still really, really important in how policies play out in communities. Failure to take [race] into account has led to a lot of naïve reformers running into communities and then being surprised when they’re not welcomed. Building sustainable efforts takes time. There is a powerful element in the reform community that is based on the talent of teachers. That’s important, but it’s also threatening in some communities. Sometimes you get buy-in for a policy when you work with folks who are recognized and trusted in a community, even if they wouldn’t score the highest on whatever measures of expertise you [use].

ES: Do you think the Harlem Children’s Zone is an example of that?

JH: Looking at communities holistically, not just schools as autonomous zones, is an alternative model, and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative represents an alternative model. But it’s important that they deliver the goods. I suspect that there are a lot of good reform things happening in urban communities that are suffering from the narrow focus on test scores and that are generating real benefits that we’re not measuring well.

ES: If you had to write your own headline for this interview, what would it be?

JH: A long time ago, what became my second book, Public Policy and Federalism, was sort of an overview of a range of issues—education, social welfare, housing—and one of the reviewers said that this was either the first book of the '90s or the last book of the '60s. And as I listen to myself, I worry that would be the headline—is this the last gasp of the '60s or are we talking about where we’re going to in the next decade? And I like to believe we are moving into the future.



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