It’s been more than 10 years since I visited the small city of Perry, Iowa, to do a story on how its public schools were adapting to a large influx of Hispanic students. There had been friction in this little railroad town over the new immigrants, but the schools were a refuge for all.
I remember how impressed I was by the dedication of the superintendent, the principals, and the ESL teachers: They were truly committed to giving the newcomers from places like Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala the very best education they could provide.
I wrote a pretty glowing story — and rightly so. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to some of these foreign-born students in a few years, especially those who had come to Iowa as middle or high schoolers with limited English skills. How many of them would graduate and go on to college or decent-paying jobs?
I thought about those students Monday as I listened to a reporters’ conference calls with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on his vow to reinvigorate the Office of Civil Rights so that it doesn’t simply report on minority students’ access to high-level courses, but on the outcome of those experiences as well. When asked for an example of OCR’s new policy, Duncan mentioned ESL courses and the need to go beyond simply looking at whether districts have them but also at what happens to the students who take these courses. OCR will also look into equity issues concerning disability and gender.
According to The New York Times, OCR compliance reviewers will be investigating about 32 school districts nationwide, including “a major investigation” of a large urban district that it will apparently identify soon.
Is this a good thing? I don’t know, but I would guess that the devils will be in a myriad of details. What, exactly, will OCR be investigating? Will it find school districts that are willfully neglecting the needs of minorities, or ones that are doing all they can with the limited resources they’re given? Or both? And will the Feds’ response be collaborative or punitive? Should it be collaborative or punitive?
We’ll know more in the coming weeks. But regardless of how OCR chooses to approach these issues, it will be facing some of the most fundamental and important questions in education reform: how to close the achievement gap and provide a quality education for all.
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor