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Noguera: School leaders must heed the need

Not to confuse school board service with political ambition, Pedro Noguera believes and wants others to understand that school leaders can't worry about what they do or say if they really want to help children.

Unlike most elected officials, who may rely too heavily on public whim and polls before making public comments or voting on critical policy issues, school board members face their constituents every day - constituents who know what their children need and demand that those needs are met.

"Public education is not the result of a federal mandate; it began because local communities decided they wanted it and were willing to fund it," he said. "Public schools were and are the great equalizer of opportunity."

But as a former local school board member and as a noted education professor, Noguera warned Saturday's General Session audience that public education has become embroiled in political conflicts that divide people and communities along issues of race, ethnic and cultural relations, poverty and wealth, school choice, security, and reform.

"A growing segment of society believes we aren't doing the job. And when school districts lie about or hide data by underreporting dropout or graduation rates we give them good reason to think that.

"While I do believe we should be providing evidence that every child is learning, I don't think that schools can be measured by a single test, and I know that humiliation doesn't help," he said, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act provisions for ranking and exposing schools that fail to meet standards.

The biggest problem with NCLB, he said, is that it places accountability on children. "That's unjustified. No other institution holds the consumer responsible for meeting standards."

One way to raise standards, Noguera said, is by encouraging the best and brightest students to become teachers. "We don't want to rely on people who think teaching is their second or third option. It should be their first choice (of careers)."

Compounding the problem of recruitment is the miserable and demanding conditions many new teachers face. "Unless we get serious about teaching and invest in people who are highly qualified in their subject areas, we won't be able to reach standards," he said.

For students, inequality problems emerge as early as preschool. "If we're serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to ensure that quality preschool is available to all children," he added.

Noguera suggested that public schools should practice "educational triage." "Instead, we label and assign the neediest kids to the weakest teachers in remote areas." As soon as children are labeled, the further behind they fall. "And the programs that are designed to help them actually wind up hurting them," he said.

"Unfortunately, the race and class of a student often determines how well they do, regardless of their talent. We don't help the situation when we perpetuate the idea that all children should be above average and all should be college-bound."

Noguera, who has written numerous research articles on urban school reform, said the classification system "sets us up for vouchers. If they can prove public education is a failure, they can push private options."

School leaders know the stakes are high in the 'game of blame,' as he called it, but many school districts - inner city and rural alike - don't know how to respond.

While he applauds the use of disaggregate data that NCLB requires, Noguera also suggested that school boards and administrators "push back" against the regulations that don't also provide the tools and resources needed to meet higher standards.

"As board members, you have to be the advocate for kids who have no voice. Because if you don't, you'll be held accountable."

Noguera also proposed that public school districts unite in a push for more resources to be distributed more equitably. "The North Shore communities have to speak out on behalf of East St. Louis. We have to stop spending the most on those who have the most, and the least on those who have the least."

In addition to advocating for all schools, Noguera said school board members should learn to ask good questions, rally support from the community, and sometimes, "know when to stay out of the way."

"You may successfully deal with budgets and personnel and still fail the kids. How you meet their needs will largely determine what kind of society we will live in.

Preceding Noguera's presentation was George McShan, 2004 president of the National School Boards Association.

Commenting on the scope of public education in America, McShan told the audience that they are among the more than 95,000 school board members in over 15,000 public school districts educating 47 million U.S. school children.

"This is an awesome responsibility, but I'm confident (that) you're up to the task and up to the fight," said the 17-year veteran of the Harlingen, Tex., Consolidated Independent School Board.

He also suggested that school leaders focus on a greater good when deliberating and discussing the challenges and needs of public education. "Just give me a little bit of that goodness," he said.

As he spoke of the need for more collaboration among school leaders and other public policy makers, McShan acknowledged that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is rife with many unintended consequences, created he said, "because we failed to call upon the practitioners - superintendents, administrators and teachers - who already knew what we should be doing."

That's why McShan said it's also important to help the public understand the needs of public schools. "Ask your community, 'what do you picture for your public schools and what do you want to improve in public education?'"

School leaders should promote public education as a vital part of community values, including freedom and liberty, safety, prosperity, equality, family. "When you do," he said, "the closer you look at public education, the better it really looks.

"So never compromise what's right for children, and together we can create a miracle."



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