Briefing: Education Reform

The current state of the education reform movement has been referred to as the Civil Rights movement of our time. This description is certainly justified. In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, recognizing that every child in the United States has the right to quality public education, regardless of personal background.

Newly integrated public schools provided exciting arenas of study for those interested in the movement’s real impact. In 1966, the Equality of Educational Opportunity Study – often referred to as the “Coleman Study” – sought to determine the degree to which all students were offered equal opportunities for educational success. The report famously concluded for the first time that student achievement is more influenced by a student and school's socioeconomic circumstances than by the school’s quality, laying the theoretical precedent for what would later become known as the achievement gap.

In 1983, the Department of Education released "A Nation at Risk",  a landmark report decrying the “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s public schools. While the Coleman report established the links between poverty and student achievement, A Nation at Risk turned the national conversation toward the need to address the inadequacies of American schools by citing America’s need to stay competitive within a rapidly changing world economy. No Child Left Behind has been seen as the legacy to A Nation At Risk. The 2002 legislation's ultimate aim was to have every student score at proficient levels in reading and math on standardized state exams by 2014. Its novel approach represented a more powerful role for the federal government in education, signaling that the issue of inadequate schools had reached a new level of national importance. Schools would be encouraged to improve by the government’s new set of high standards and system of salient incentives and disincentives. Critics of the law took issue with its heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing and what they saw as harsh penalties instead of strong supports for schools that failed to meet ambitious test score improvement targets.

Ten years later, education reform still fights to address the educational inequalities that leave millions of children – many of them racial minorities and most of them from low-income households – without access to quality educational opportunities. President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, an innovative competition among states for billions of dollars in federal education funds, exemplifies these groups’ agendas. The competition pushed states to make policy changes in areas like low-performing school turnarounds and teacher performance. Obama’s policies, however, have encountered opposition from critics who disagree with what they see as a penalization of schools that are underperforming. Overall, Obama and his allies are clashing with two historically loyal members of the Democratic base: teachers unions and civil rights groups. This year might feature a major political realignment in education.


Pro: Leah Metcalf and Con: Michelle Abell Jacobo


Pro: Samantha Lopez and Con: Irene Izaguirre-Lopez


Pro: Maddy Joseph and Con: Ashley Williams


Lee Ann Bell, Shamus Khan, Pedro Noguera, and Diane Ravitch