By Dr. Andre M. Perry
Call it a twist of fate that I left the Gulf Coast just in time to intercept Hurricane Sandy as it barreled through the East. I returned to my alma mater Allegheny College to give a speech titled, The High Stakes of National Education Policy. One student asked me, “Which Presidential candidate offers the best set of educational policies?” In the context of Hurricane Sandy I replied, “The candidate who sees people stuck on rooftops more as citizens than as test-takers.”
Too many people are essentially held mercilessly by their social statuses to face an eminent threat. Katrina provided the quintessential example, and Sandy punctuated the point. Flooding and power outages are not the worst of the calamities involved with natural disasters. An inability to leave natural and man-made disasters is. The incapacity to participate in one’s own recovery may be worse.
The focus of our recoveries should not merely focus on the immediate damage the storms caused. Failures in our public policy infrastructure have been insidiously more damaging. Federal education policy has missed the basics.
American educationists describe a “basic education” as the learning and knowledge required to participate in a democracy. Primary and secondary completion is assumed to give residents the ability to make his or her own way in a community, state and country. Successful completion of high school is supposed to give residents the ability to live wholly in a community. But, education scholars have known for 25 years that at least two years of college has essentially become basic.
Job readiness is what most people see as the benchmark for meeting the basic standard. Slowly but surely, citizenship has been removed as a goal of education. When was the last time pundits flashed voting rates as indicators of educational progress? The most important expectation of Civics class has been reduced to mastering a set of items on a standardized test.
To that effect, “gap closing” has become a national goal. Since Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind legislation, federal education policy has not driven an agenda that makes full participation in a democracy as the chief goal. Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation program sought to raise the bar and find new ways to close the gap. Both Presidential candidates with some deviations seem satisfied with this approach.
There is nothing wrong with using achievement gap data as measures of whether or not we’re meeting national goals. However, closing the gap should not be the goal. There are simply too many nefarious ways to reach a numerical benchmark. If one suggested that we close the black-white achievement gap by not educating white people, that person would be thrown out the conversation (maybe out the country). However, districts suspend and expel predominantly black students at alarming rates in the name of school culture and gap closing. We summarily fire teachers in the name of gap closing. In other words, leaders and policy will violate basic principles of citizenship in order to close the gap.
We should look to the lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to determine how federal education policy should reward progress and address educational malpractice. Failures of state and district educational policy trapped people in New Orleans, NJ and NYC. In the case of New Orleans, failures in public policy kept people from returning home long after the threats of Katrina were over. In addition, failures in public policy kept people from participating in the rebuilding of their communities. Natural disasters reveal that we have second-class citizens in major cities and towns.
The impacts of recent natural disasters across the county provide a new lens for examining what ultimately matters in education policy. Do people have the capacity to get out of harm’s way and can they return thereafter? Education is a major correlate and/or predictor of income, political influence, car and home ownership, health, housing and incarceration. One can’t be a productive member of society without an education. Education is a means towards those basic ends. All federal policy including education should seek to sure up citizenship.
Getting high marks on statewide exams isn’t basic. Having the capacity to evacuate and rebuild after a storm is. Vote for the candidate who sees you more as a citizen than as a test taker.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.