Whitworth Communications

For Immediate Release

February 14, 2001

Whitworth Professor Calls for Education Reform to Address Equity as Well as Accountability Standards

As Congress debates President George W. Bush's education reform package calling for higher standards and accountability in America's public schools, Whitworth Education Professor Gregory J. Fritzberg argues that more needs to be done to give disadvantaged students an equal opportunity to meet the new standards.

In an article published in the most recent issue of the national journal Teacher Education Quarterly, Fritzberg voices the concern of many education experts who argue that equity standards addressing students' opportunity to learn need to be as specific and measurable as the performance standards students are expected to meet.

"If we are going to indulge rhetoric that all kids can achieve high standards, then we need to take specific policy steps to ensure equality of opportunity," Fritzberg says. "When achievement gaps are clearly linked to differences in social class, as we know them to be, the ďall-children-can-meet-the-standards' rhetoric is called onto the carpet."

Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform proposal seeks to make schools more accountable for student performance generally, and poor and minority student performance in particular, through standardized testing in grades 3-8. It also calls for increased local control and flexibility by cutting strings attached to federal funds and greater empowerment of parents through more information about school performance and vouchers to relocate students from chronically low-performing schools.

Fritzberg gives Bush a passing grade for focusing some attention and resources on closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their wealthier counterparts. However, Fritzberg says, the Bush plan virtually ignores the social and economic disparities underlying the problem and focuses on school accountability.

"What concerns me most is all the talk about failing schools," Fritzberg says. "There certainly are poor schools out there, but the failing-school label is based on standardized test scores that are highly correlated to social class. Students who have concerns about food and shelter, or whose parents are unemployed and uneducated, don't thrive academically. Imposing new performance standards alone isn't going to change that."

In 1994, Congress debated education equity and opportunity-to-learn standards in President Clinton's Goals 2000 initiative, but such issues are largely absent from the discussion surrounding Bush's education reform proposal. In his Teacher Education Quarterly article, titled "From Rhetoric to Reality: Opportunity-to-Learn Standards and the Integrity of American Public School Reform," Fritzberg calls for renewed public dialogue on educational equity and outlines five recommendations to frame the debate:

  • Produce teachers who are multiculturally literate. The proportion of non-white students in America's schools is increasing dramatically and at a significantly higher rate than the proportion of non-white teachers. This cultural incongruity can hinder the academic performance of minority students, Fritzberg says, unless teachers better understand the ways in which cultural assumptions, values and communications styles affect their teaching.
  • Reassess ability-grouping and tracking practices. Educators should be very cautious about ability-grouping in the primary years, Fritzberg says, because students have had little time to display their native abilities apart from socio-economic influences. Where ability-grouping is practiced, he adds, students should be reassessed regularly to avoid the worst effects of rigid tracking.
  • Reduce K-3 class size as well as elementary- and secondary-school size. Research has consistently shown that elementary-school students in classes of fewer than 20 students perform better on standardized tests than students in larger classes. Studies also indicate that disadvantaged students benefit disproportionately from reduced class and school size.
  • Expand and improve federal compensatory education programs. Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Head Start, the core federal programs aimed at improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, have shown improved results in recent years and need to be expanded significantly in order to reach all eligible children, Fritzberg says.
  • Incorporate school reform into broader social reform. An authentically meritocratic educational system must address both inequities within the school system and deeper socio-economic inequalities that skew the educational race from the outset, Fritzberg writes.

"The federal role in education historically has been in the area of equal protection," Fritzberg says. "The bottom line is that the validity of Bush's education proposal is somewhat dependent on what he does with broader social reform. Focusing on performance standards and accountability suggests that all schools face the same challenges in serving the students that arrive at their doors. And that's simply not true."

Fritzberg was an elementary school teacher before completing a Ph.D. in educational foundations at the University of Washington and joining the Whitworth faculty in 1997. He is the author of "In the Shadow of Excellence: Recovering a Vision of Educational Opportunity for All" (Caddo Gap Press, 1999) and numerous education journal articles, including an analysis of the achievement gap in the June 2001 issue of The Urban Review.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private, liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The college enrolls 2,000 students in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.

Contacts:

Greg Fritzberg, Asst. Professor of Education, (509) 777-4255 or gfritzberg@whitworth.edu.

Greg Orwig, director of communications, (509) 777-4580 or gorwig@whitworth.edu.

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