Dr. Larry Cuban’s post from June 20, 2010, “On Changing One’s Mind about Schooling” includes some very challenging thoughts about education and education reform. Cuban argues we have three basic “tiers” of schools in the United States:

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Our current federal administration, continuing the educational policies of the past, forces restructuring upon schools which fail to meet AYP. Most, if not all of these schools, likely fall into Cuban’s defined “third tier” of schools.

My question is, what are we going to do for students and teachers in our third tier schools besides force reorganization? I think a concerted effort to address poverty in our nation is desperately needed. We need to increase, rather than reduce, funding for educational opportunities in our neediest schools and communities. I do not think our current climate of high stakes accountability serves the best interests of educators or students in our third tier schools. While we certainly need to provide more differentiated and customized educational opportunities for our students, instead of simply maintaining the status quo, we also need to INCREASE educational funding for schools and our teachers. In Oklahoma where I live, we rank 48th out of 50 states for teacher salaries. Last fall when I participated in the opening meeting of the Oklahoma Academy as they took up educational issues in our state, I was rather appalled by the moderator’s order to members of the audience: Everything is on the table to discuss for improving education EXCEPT increasing funding. How ridiculous.

I have not yet read the final document and recommendations of the 2009 Oklahoma Town Hall, “2009 – Getting Ready for Work: Education Systems and Future Workforce.” I would like to review those documents, even though our 2010 legislative session is over. I don’t know what the best paths forward are for our neediest, “third tier” schools, but I’m sure the teachers, parents and students in those schools have good suggestions. Perhaps we should ask them and listen. Perhaps social media has a constructive role to play in this regard, in giving voice to those who have historically been disenfranchised to speak out and make a difference on educational and social policies.

I’m tired of seeing teachers and schools “beat up” by politicians and the media for issues that are fundamentally more tied to poverty than they are to educational practices. Increasingly I’m thinking we need to stop making public education mandatory in our nation. We need to keep providing a FREE public education, but we need to stop forcing people to go to school. This coercion is an inheritance of our industrial era school system, in which students were to be prepared en-masse for factory work. When you are FORCED to go to school, sometimes it becomes difficult to determine if administrators are running a learning institution or a prison. The line of thinking which justifies forced school attendance includes the following assertions:

  1. It’s better to force kids to be in school than have them on the street.
  2. If we force kids to go to school, perhaps we can cause them to have more educational opportunities than they would have otherwise.

The statistics on earnings potentials for high school and college graduates are persuasive about the financial value of an education. At the root of this issue, however, is the question of MOTIVATION. Of course this is a family issue and not just a student issue. I know we need our parents and families to help motivate students. I think it’s a flawed social policy, however, to think that by forcing students to attend school and even putting parents in jail (and/or fining them) when students have excessive absences, we are going to constructively address poverty issues in our nation. This is flawed thinking.

Perhaps my own thinking on this is flawed, and I don’t have enough personal experiences or research results to back up my opinion. That’s certainly possible. I feel pretty confident our current political mandates for “third tier” schools aren’t the best pathways forward, however. I’d like to better understand how to help our “third tier” schools move forward, and see our politicians STOP acting (as Larry Cuban points out) that education ALONE can solve poverty’s problems.

We also need to stop pretending like all our schools are the same, and they all face the same challenges. They don’t. I think Cuban is right, we have three tiers of schools. It’s perhaps noble to imagine one day “all schools will be equal,” but they never have been and I’m willing to say they never will be. That should not deter us from improving our schools, however. Improvement at one level might begin, however, with an acknowledgement of the fundamental disparities between schools, and the need for different approaches which match contexts.

One size doesn’t fit all, and it never has. What we often offer only to “alternative” education students should be offered to ALL students. Different pathways to learn, different ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills. Differentiation is a fundamental hallmark of educational excellence.

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  • Tom Shreve

    I tend to agree. The solution is so involved, expensive, and politically hard, no one wants to talk about it – let alone attempt to solve it. Urban schools are set up to fail, and thus make great political tools for those who want to destroy public education and privatize schools. It is much easier to just blame the teachers.

  • http://www.schooltechconnect.com Tim Furman

    Thank you for writing this important post. We have an opportunity now, during the reauthorizing of ESEA, to get away from the punishment model and into a help model; unfortunately, unless we hear from more voices in leadership positions, we’re going to keep the punishment model.

  • Cliff Baker

    I’d say you’re right, radical as the idea of voluntary attendance seems, at first. Provided schools had the resources, how would they change if they had to attract “clients”? Lately, it seems as if we are closing programs that might draw in the non-academic student.

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