The engine to build our nation

July 12 2013

​Bob Braun, a former longtime columnist for The Star-Ledger, is following Rush Holt’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He will be sharing his thoughts and his stories from the campaign trail from time to time.

Let’s talk about public education the way Rush Holt talks about public education.  Not as a business opportunity for school management firms and testing companies. Not as targets for politicians who blame school employees for failure caused by continued segregation, intractable economic problems, and lack of government support. Holt sees public education both as an engine to build a nation and a way to reshape the lives of all our children.

``As a teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the power of education to transform lives,” says Holt, the only scientist in Congress.  “As a lawmaker, I understand the potential for education to provide the foundation for lasting economic growth.’’

Holt recognizes America has some of the best public schools in the world, many in New Jersey. He  also knows that schools that serve the poorest often lag behind schools in more affluent areas.

``We need to find a way to make sure all our children are making progress—and we have to do that without subjecting our children to excessive testing that narrows what schools teach and stifles the creativity of our best teachers,’’ he says.

“We need accountability systems that help teachers learn how to improve student success—not endless testing that simply assesses what students know in a few subjects without showing educators how they can work together to improve outcomes. We shouldn’t be using high-stakes testing to punish teachers.’’

Holt, who is running for U.S. Senate in the Aug. 13 primary, introduced legislation that would provide grants to schools that collect longitudinal data that would be used to improve student learning. The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), is called the  The Measuring and Evaluating Trends for Reliability, Integrity, and Continued Success (METRICS) Act.

``At the school level, teachers would be able to work collaboratively to help all the students in their school, using up-to-date and comprehensive data that would provide insights into the students’ problems and potential,’’ says Holt, who said he saw a system like it in action in  the Union City schools.

Holt has called for an expansion of curricular offerings for public school children, increasing emphasis on using science instruction to provide children with problem-solving and critical thinking skills.  He has supported increased funding for art and language instruction. Holt backed efforts to put 400,000 more teachers in the classroom to reduce class size.

``Public education is about more than testing,’’ says Holt. “It is about giving our children the skills they need both to lead fulfilling lives and to contribute to the economic growth of our country.’’

``We must make the necessary investments in education – from pre-kindergarten through college and beyond – and we must sustain these investments for the long haul,” said Holt, who has called for universal, free pre-schools.

Federal involvement in local schools began with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The legislation’s best known provision was Title 1, an effort to help the most disadvantaged students.

Recently, the federal government has been doing more than investing in public education. It is setting policies, requiring national standards, insisting on testing and teacher evaluation programs. It is pushing for the expansion of charter schools and other efforts to privatize schools. It is becoming a full partner with state and local education agencies in the operation of the public schools—a development that carries challenges as well as opportunities.

``In many ways, public education is under attack,’’ Holt says.  At a recent campaign stop, he told voters: ``I believe in great public schools--in neighborhood public schools. There are some who believe vouchers are a way of providing school choice. Well, in a sense they are. But they are much more a way of taking resources out of public schools.’’

One of the candidates in the Democratic primary, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, has been a champion of private school vouchers for his entire public career. Rush has always opposed vouchers. In his campaign website, he says unequivocally: “We must also staunchly oppose those who would take money out of our public schools in the form of vouchers.”

Holt also expressed concern about the growing number of private, profit-making management companies deriving income from public money awarded to charter schools.  While he supports public charter schools, he doesn’t want the children in them exploited for corporate profits. He believes charters can serve as laboratories for experiment and  innovation but were not designed to replace traditional, neighborhood public schools.

``Because they are experiments, we have to be willing to shut them down when they do not show promise,” says Holt. “We have to make sure they face the same sort of accountability as traditional public schools.’’

High stakes testing also has spawned a plague of cheating scandals because school jobs and funding often have become reliant on good test scores. A recent study by the Government Accounting Office found instances of cheating in 40 states and warned:

``Student results on statewide assessment tests required under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)…are used to measure students’ proficiency in core subjects, hold schools accountable for student achievement, and make key decisions, such as determining which low-performing schools should receive targeted interventions in order to improve student achievement. Therefore, it is critical that these results be valid and reliable.

``However, in recent years, instances of cheating by educators on state assessments have surfaced, undermining the integrity of the test results. For example, 82 educators in 30 Atlanta schools confessed to improperly raising scores on state tests administered in the 2008-09 school year. According to a district attorney press release, there were 35 indictments resulting from this investigation.’’

As a Senator, Rush says he will carefully review all programs impacting the public schools, including Race to the Top, a national competition for federal funds that awards money based on compliance with federal standards.

``The Race to the Top should be an engine of innovation,’’ he says, ``but we must always be  sure scarce educational resources go to the children who need it most.  No  reform program should be used to punish the children we need our help the most.’’