NYU Professor: Education reform should be development-based, not academic

Published: November 4th, 2013

Category: News


Pedro Noguera, a sociology professor from NYU, discusses segregation in schools during the 8th annual Distinguished Weyrauch Lecture in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom on Oct. 21. (Photo by Elise Giordano)

By Jenna Box (4JM)

There’s no question that the American education system is an object of controversy. It is an institution that affects every child, but it’s not always effective at ensuring the well-being or equal opportunities for every child.

New York University sociology professor Pedro Noguera assessed these issues before a nearly full Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom at the 8th Annual Weyrauch Lecture titled “Education, Racial Inequality and the Future of American Democracy,” on Oct. 21.

Education is the only right that all children regardless of status have, Noguera said. In most schools, with that right comes a building that shelters them, adults who tend to them, a nurse on staff and perhaps a lunch or breakfast provided to them.

“Education has become the real basis of the social safety net for poor children in America — public education, that is,” Noguera said. “No other institution is charged with the mandate to care for their needs.”

With that in mind, the education system cannot be dismantled completely, as some might argue, he said, because there would be no other institution to replace it. Most American reforms have focused on academic achievement — with standardized tests, school letter grade systems, and more. The problem is, these solutions don’t get to the bottom of the real problem. Schools are not only a place for learning, but a place for child development, Noguera said. Without ensuring the development of the child, the school system can’t ensure academic achievement.

Poverty is one factor that plagues struggling schools. A hungry child won’t be able to focus on a standardized test, and therefore will perform poorly. Invariably, the schools with the poorest children are the schools that are struggling.

“We would like to believe they’re struggling because of lazy educators, incompetent superintendents, and corrupt public officials — but the simple fact is that many of those schools, they were set up to fail,” he said. “They’re overwhelmed by the needs of children, which are not simply academic.”

“What’s surprising is that we keep pretending schools can solve this by themselves,” Noguera continued.

What needs to occur, Noguera noted, is other systems of support for children so schools don’t have to do it alone. In most other countries, he said, these support systems are in place. In even as close as Canada, the U.S. is consistently outperformed in education. That’s because Canada is following a “very, very different model,” Noguera said. “Their society invests more in children.”

“When we really start to unpack this achievement gap that we’ve been claiming to be so concerned about … those disparities in achievement that correspond so consistently with race and with socioeconomic status are really nothing more than an educational manifestation of inequality — that’s what they are,” he said.

Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU and a sociologist. His research is centered on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic situations, and by demographic trends in local, regional and worldwide contexts. More than 150 of his research articles, monographs and research reports have been published — covering topics from urban school reform, conditions that promote student achievement, the role of education in community development, youth violence to race and ethnic relations in American society. Noguera appears as a regular commentator on educational issues on CNN, MSNBC, NPR and other national news outlets.

Noguera was sponsored by the Center on Children and Families and was the eighth guest speaker for the annual Distinguished Weyrauch Lecture at UF Law. The Weyrauch Distinguished Lecture in Family Law was made possible through an endowment supported by Frank G. Finkbeiner (JD 72) and T.W. Ackert (JD 72).