Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 19, 2013

National commission: 'School inequality threatens U.S. prosperity'

Panel co-chaired by Stanford professor backs sweeping reforms to education funding, teacher training

by Chris Kenrick

"Not every kid's going to be as lucky as I was," says Mariano-Florentino "Tino" Cuellar, whose work ethic and smarts propelled him from a mediocre high school on California's border with Mexico to Harvard University, Yale University and an endowed professorship at Stanford Law School.

Cuellar's dismay at outcomes for today's kids like himself, stuck in underfunded and poorly performing public schools, led him to co-chair a national commission that's calling for sweeping reforms to the nation's system of financing education and recruiting teachers.

"Our leaders decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair but socially and economically dangerous," Cueller and co-chair Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, wrote in their foreword to the final report of the Equity and Excellence Commission.

America's education system "fails our nation and too many of our children" by not distributing opportunity equitably.

The 27-member commission reported its conclusions to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in February.

Many traditional American assumptions about schooling remain "rooted in outmoded timetables, methods and schedules" that fall short in comparison to best practices in other industrialized nations, the report states.

The percentage of American schoolchildren living in poverty — 22 percent — is twice the average of other advanced industrial nations and nearly four times that of Finland, often cited as a leader in public education, it notes. Nearly half of American schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, another proxy for low income.

And the achievement gap dividing children from high- and low-income families grew dramatically — by 30 to 40 percent — between children born in the late 1980s and those born in 2001, according to the report.

"No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children," the report states.

Low-income students, English-language learners and students of color together form a majority of America's young people and are the fastest-growing population in the nation.

In an interview with the Weekly, Cuellar said people should take seriously "that their kids' future depends on the well-being of other kids who are going to other school districts that are not as prosperous."

Without major reform the U.S. will "pay a price in smaller GDP, less vigorous democracy, a more polarized country and a country less able to advance its interests abroad," he said.

The report calls for major redesign of school finance systems to provide the "additional programs, staff and services needed to address the extra academic, social and health needs of students in communities with concentrated poverty."

It calls for universal access to high-quality preschool and federal incentives to "limit the concentration of poor students in particular schools."

The report does not prescribe specific remedies, such as more federal funding or busing. Rather it calls on all levels of government to work together to devise solutions. That's where Cuellar thinks his expertise in "institutional accountability and how organizations work to implement complicated laws" could be useful.

The report also calls for significant changes to teacher recruitment and training.

"Although the world's best-performing school systems recruit their new teachers from the top ranks of their high school and college students, only about 30 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top third of their college class," the report states.

Despite some improvement since the 1980s, "the caliber of student who goes into teaching remains highly variable across the districts," it states.

Cuellar cited two developments he called promising: California Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to channel more resources to low-income and English-learning students through the Local Control Funding Formula and school-finance reform initiatives in Colorado.

But reform will be "a long-term journey," he said.

He said his school, Calexico High School, had "incredible teachers who worked very hard, but despite their best efforts the courses were not as varied or academically demanding as the school 15 or 20 miles away.

"No matter how much the students or teachers tried, if there wasn't a commitment to curricular equity — that even in Calexico you should be able to take AP physics — some kids won't have the opportunities," he said.

He said he beat the odds by taking classes at a community college and having "extraordinary teachers who let me know they'd work with me to do extra work."

He earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale and a doctorate in political science from Stanford.

Cuellar, an expert on administrative law and governance, public organizations and transnational security, worked as special assistant to President Barack Obama for justice and regulatory policy in the Domestic Policy Council and chaired Obama's transition team on immigration.

In July he will become director of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek also were among the 27 members of the Equity and Excellence Commission.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Bella, a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2013 at 11:53 am

I'm from back east. I've been at the same urban school for 21 years. Currently, I am teaching 1st grade - I chose to move from 4th - PSSA test scores are more important than the big picture of teaching children. This article is speaking to the issues we discuss every day in the teacher's room (when we can get there and aren't using the time to service our students) Please, please keep writing these articles. I'm a regular ed teacher in a self-contained classroom. I have 28 students - 14 have either ADD, ADHD, ODD, or some other form of medical need that hinders their learning, 6 have at least one incarcerated parent, 3 are in families that are homeless and 2 have IEPs for an academic impairment (traditionally known as having mental retardation). I'd welcome anyone to challenge our university degrees, our academic honors, our on-going professional development, our commitment and/or the love we have for our students. However, we are drowning without life support - we need saved. There is not one person alive who can save 28 students and sadly "saving just one" isn't enough anymore. Please keep writing - help us to help the children. Thank you from Pittsburgh, PA!!! (P.S. Our two current kindergarten classes have 34 and 36 students. Not only do they have the same issues as our first graders, we are now seeing an alarmingly high incidence of students that have seizure disorders. It's a tragedy what these children face!)


Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2013 at 8:30 pm

This is not rocket science. All know that sustaining a prisoner is by far more expensive than providing adequate education, not to mention the harm done. Goes back to the very local achievement gap. Very low % of "underachieving", economical disadvantaged. If the affluent, educated Palo Alto can not make it, who can? Turns out that other districts do a better job. And still - there are many who choose to ignore the systemic issues manifested by a district that accepts and keep in the dark a letter from the math department teachers where "slackers" are discussed. for example.


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