By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - A federal commission on Tuesday said the U.S. education system had "thoroughly stacked the odds" against impoverished students and warned that an aggressive reform agenda embraced by both Democrats and Republicans had not done enough to improve public schools.
The report from the Equity and Excellence Commission - a panel of 27 scholars, civil rights activists, union leaders and school officials - describes an American public education system in crisis.
The commission, which was dominated by more liberal members, called on the federal government to take a more active role in public education - traditionally considered a local matter - by pushing states to desegregate schools, equalize funding and demand better training for beginning teachers. The group also echoed President Barack Obama's recent call for universal preschool.
Poor and minority students "are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system" that saddles them with ill-prepared teachers, crumbling schools and low academic expectations, the report said.
"No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has ... so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children," the panel concluded.
But even as it sounded a call to action, the report noted that other commissions have raised equally urgent cries in decades past. Among them are a Nixon-era panel on school financing in 1972 and the Reagan administration's sweeping indictment of public schools, "A Nation at Risk."
None of those bold calls to action, the panel said, has led to durable improvements.
"In 1983, 'A Nation at Risk' famously spoke of the 'rising tide of mediocrity' that threatened our schools," the report said. "Nearly 30 years later, the tide has come in - and we're drowning."
STANDARDIZED TESTS CRITICIZED
The 52-page report offered tepid reviews, at best, for key elements of the bipartisan education reform agenda that has swept the United States since "A Nation at Risk." That agenda calls for opening more charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run; rating teachers in part by their students' performance on standardized tests; and making it easier for elite college graduates and mid-career professionals to take up teaching without traditional training.
The report argued instead for more rigorous teacher training and cautioned that too much emphasis on standardized test scores harms teacher morale and risks narrowing the curriculum to test preparation. Only a few paragraphs in the report looked at charter schools, with the panel urging more research on their performance.
In a sweeping dismissal of the reform agenda of the past 15 years - an agenda that has been championed by the Democratic Obama administration, as well as leading Republicans - the panel concluded that "reform efforts to date have been poorly targeted."
The reform agenda, "that polestar to which we've been directing our efforts, hasn't gotten us far enough, fast enough," said Christopher Edley, Jr., dean of the law school at University of California at Berkeley and co-chair of the commission.
That conclusion drew a sharp rebuke from some leading educational reformers who said the commission ignored the transformational power of top-quality charter schools and the impact of holding teachers and principals directly accountable for student achievement.
The panel's calls to action were largely about "tweaking the status quo," said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.
"These ideas have been around for 40 years," said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "If they haven't gotten traction yet, I don't think this report is going to put them over the top."
Petrilli suggested that the administration might be using the report to rebuild relationships with teachers unions, civil rights groups and other allies it has angered with its push for more charter schools and tougher teacher evaluations.
"They have angered the left on many issues," he said. "This is an obvious way to placate them."
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized that the panel was independent, although it was appointed by his staff at the direction of Congress.
"We asked them to tell us not what we wanted to hear - we asked them to tell us the truth," Duncan said.
He said he was still digesting the report but vowed that it would not gather dust. "We can, we must, we should and we will do better for children," especially in low-income and minority communities, Duncan said.
Among the report's boldest recommendations in that arena -using federal leverage to address inequalities in resources that lead to wealthy school districts spending two to three times more per student than poor districts.
"I am heartened that this commission recognizes the negative impact of high poverty and segregation on student performance," said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and outspoken critic of the education reform movement. "This is a big step forward."
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Bill Trott)