A broader and bolder vision for strengthening public education in the age of Trump: Pedro Noguera

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Pedro Noguera, Distinguished Professor of Education at UCLA. Dr. Noguera is widely known for his efforts to understand and improve urban schools in the United States. His research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts. He is the author of eleven books and over 200 articles and monographs and regularly appears as a commentator on CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and other national news outlets. Prior to joining the faculty at UCLA, Dr. Noguera served as a tenured professor and holder of endowed chairs at New York University (2003 – 2015) Harvard University (2000 – 2003) and the University of California, Berkeley (1990 – 2000). In 2014 he was elected to the National Academy of Education.


John Rogers: Let me start with a quote from President Trump’s inaugural address a couple days ago: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flushed with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” You and I and many others have critiqued urban schools in the past. Is what Trump is saying here different from these critiques?

Pedro Noguera: To be fair, there’s truth in some of what is said here, especially that there are public school systems with lots of money. An article published earlier today in the Washington Postput the figure the Obama administration spent on school improvements at close to seven billion dollars, and there’s no evidence to show it had an impact. I think that it’s fair to raise questions about what we’re doing in public education, especially in urban areas. There is evidence that many kids aren’t getting the kind of education they need, that the schools aren’t doing their job. The question is, do the schools deserve the blame for that situation? I would say that part of the responsibility does in fact lie with the schools, which need to be more responsive, to meet the needs of the community, to be more efficient in how they use public funds, and to be better organized as institutions in addressing the academic needs of the children.

President Trump is right in saying that there are many cities with a lot of very poor people, and obviously those people are going to have kids who end up in schools. Those schools are often overwhelmed by the non-academic needs of the kids, such as housing, nutrition, healthcare, and so forth. Anyone who works within schools knows that you can’t ignore those needs, and you can’t blame schools for that part of it. You can’t say that schools by themselves can address all those social needs. What President Trump doesn’t do in that statement is discuss the responsibility to address the situation, which is much more complex than how he presents it. Many cities across the country are now gentrified, which opens up opportunities, but it also creates new kinds of problems.

I think the real challenge for the administration is not to simply name a problem, but to make clear how it will be approached. What I fear—and it’s implied in his statement, and you see it more directly evident in his nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—is a sense of arguing that the system is so flawed that it needs to be dismantled altogether.

What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up. That is a huge dilemma, and it’s similar to the dilemma they’re facing with healthcare—you might say there’s a lot wrong with the Affordable Care Act, but dismantling it without a replacement is irresponsible. I would say the same thing’s true about public schools. There’s a lot that needs to be changed, and the truth is the last administration did very little to figure out how to approach it. I think in part this is because we don’t have the patience, we don’t recognize the complexity of the issues and the fact that they can’t be addressed by schools alone. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the way we’ve approached it from a policy standpoint, but my fear is that what Trump is getting ready to do will make the situation worse.

On January 19th, young people growing up in low income, working class communities in urban America faced lots of challenges. What, if anything, changed on January 20th with the new Trump administration? What challenges that already existed have now become more acute?

Well, I think it’s too early to say. We don’t know yet what a Trump presidency is going to mean in terms of how they respond to law enforcement, for example. If the threats to undocumented immigrants become a reality, and we see kids being denied access to schools or families denied access to services, or people being rounded up, then we’re going to see a situation that becomes even more extreme and more stressful for some of our most vulnerable kids. We don’t yet know what it means in terms of law enforcement generally. Are we going to see more of the stop and frisk tactics that we saw in New York now being practiced in other cities, or more zero tolerance approaches? A lot of this is speculation. Local governments have a big role to play in this, and we don’t know what cities will actually do with respect to how they respond to directives coming from the Trump administration. I think there’s good reason to be concerned. At the same time, it’s too early to tell.

I’m struck by the fact that in naming the potential threats of new, more punitive forms of immigration enforcement or policing, that you’re pointing to potential new challenges for coordinating the work of schools with other public services—community policing, healthcare, social services, or housing. And that seems like a problem for what you and others describe as the Broader and Bolder Approach to educational reform, which suggests it’s important to nest school improvement within broader community development efforts. Why is this approach important? Is it still a viable vision in the era of Trump?

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Educationthat I and others have been an advocate for basically says that rather than focusing now on achievement, we need to build support systems in schools and beyond them to address the needs of children and families. There are many models of this already in the country. The problem is, for the most part they are fairly isolated models located at individual schools, the most well known of which is the Harlem Children’s Zone. But you have the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations that have been doing this kind of work for many years now and demonstrating that such approaches have an impact.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily have an academic impact, but it does have a social impact, and that’s not to be taken lightly. I would never say it’s a silver bullet or that if we just follow this approach, everything will be fixed. There are only a couple cities that I can think of—Portland, Oregon being one of them—that have really embraced it as a citywide strategy. We’re going to need more of that.

I actually think that despite the Trump administration, that can happen. If local governments decide they’re going to work together to support schools and build this social safety net for children, there’s nothing stopping them—or rather, we’ll see if there’s anything stopping them. The Obama administration gave federal support for early childhood education. Will that continue? We don’t know. We don’t know what role the federal government will play. It may not be the partner that we need, but I think it would be a mistake if we use that as an excuse to do nothing. I think there’s still a lot that can be done, especially in big cities like Los Angeles, because there are many types of other resources here. There are private resources, as well as churches and non-profits that can also be part of a partnership.

What’s missing in many communities, and I think this is especially true in Los Angeles, is local leadership to do this kind of work. Certain organizations are doing the work at the level of individual schools, but not bigger than that. All you have to do is think about the poorest communities where incomes are low and homelessness is high: that’s where we should be targeting these efforts. That can continue to happen, even in a Trump era. We just have to recognize that we may not get the level of federal support that’s needed, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other resources that could be tapped.

How does that multi-sector, bottom up leadership emerge in a way that is respectful of the communities that are being served and that builds on the energy of the communities themselves?

When we were doing this work in Newark, New Jersey a few years back, we described it as a top down and bottom up approach happening simultaneously. The top down part is where you bring civic leaders together to forge agreements about how they’ll coordinate their services—so you’re talking about city government, county government, again the non-profit sector, foundations, hospitals, universities, and so on. You need all those entities working together to build this system of support for schools. We started doing that in Newark, and we did have high levels of local support from foundations and others.

At the same time, those efforts have to be combined with a bottom up effort that includes parent organizing and community organizing. What we know is that it can’t simply provide services—the services have to be responsive to the needs of the people, and people have to tell you what they need. They have to tell you how the services should be organized and delivered to have the biggest impact. If you don’t do that, you’re going to end up wasting a lot of money. You need both kinds of efforts happening simultaneously. Providing support to schools from the outside and building the support system around schools allows them to focus much more directly on the academic needs of kids. That takes a fairly high level of civic leadership, but it also takes a lot of grassroots organizing to pull off. Hopefully, we’ll see that happening in many communities. It’s harder in a place like Los Angeles because of its size, but there’s no reason it can’t happen here, too.

Can that sort of mobilization from below and above support broader political efforts to reinvest in cities and schools?

Sure, it can. In fact, the hope is that sort of reinvestment would occur simultaneously. That again requires great leadership that we don’t see a lot of. We certainly didn’t see it in New York under Mike Bloomberg. I’m not sure if we’ll see it under Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles. But take for example the Lucas Foundation, which just announced they’re going to build a multi-billion dollar museum in downtown Los Angeles. That’s an opportunity to do some creative new things with schools. A museum could be tied to some new schools where the learning that occurs through the museum also influences the development of curriculum, the way we train teachers, and the way we provide supports to children. If you don’t have people at the table thinking about these opportunities, they get lost, and they don’t happen.

What we’ve seen happen over the years is schools existing in a silo: they don’t exist in relation to other institutions. Here we are in Los Angeles, which is one of the major cultural centers of the country, because it’s home to Hollywood. How do the schools here benefit from their strategic location to Hollywood or to other institutions in Los Angeles? Who’s thinking about those connections at that level? If you don’t have that happening, there are opportunities that are lost.

There’s a way in which we think that we can have a great city without great schools. That is a huge problem, and it contributes to the situation we have now. I would say very much it’s a bipartisan problem. I think it’s due to a lack of political leadership, and I see that in many cities across the country.

It seems like one of the challenges of engaging elites in Los Angeles—whether they’re in Hollywood or in the finance sector—is that they have almost no connection to the public schools. Not only do their children not go to public schools, many of them don’t know other adults who send children to the public schools. In light of that, how can bridges be built? Or rather, can bridges be built, such that those elites feel a deeper sense of connection to the public schools, and as you say, feel like the extent to which Los Angeles is a great city is dependent upon its schools being great as well?

Those kinds of partnerships have existed here in the past. When Roy Romer was superintendent of LA Unified, there were initiatives that got private sector investments into schools. Now, we have to look at those and say, what happened? Why weren’t they sustained? What came of it? I was in a meeting recently and listened to Eli Broad, who’s given a lot of money to charter schools here. Broad himself comes from a working class background; he’s from Brooklyn and was raised in Detroit. He professes not to be anti-union, although some people might question that based on his actions. He’s ready to invest in a STEM school, he says, for downtown Los Angeles.

We can’t count on private philanthropy to fix our schools. But this is where I think if the superintendent and the mayor had a strategic vision that described how they imagine supporting schools and laid out their vision of opportunities for new schools, we might be able to attract some private investment into that. I don’t see that kind of strategic vision in Los Angeles right now.

Part of the challenge of constructing this strategic vision, which I completely agree is essential, is that Eli Broad and his allies have put forward an agenda that requires others to invest lots of time and energy in defensive efforts. Even as Broad suggests he is neutral towards unions, he surreptitiously put a million dollars into an anti-union measure in 2012 (and got his hand slapped for it.) So, there are serious challenges to forging the type of coalition you’re suggesting, given the political dynamics at play.

There’s no question of the challenges, whether it’s Broad or any other philanthropist, if they define the district as inept and resistant to change, and argue that they can’t work with it. Therefore, they’re going to work outside of it, and that’s why they support charters. Truth be told, there is evidence that it’s not exactly the most well run or best-organized system. On the one hand, there needs to be a defense against clear attacks on public education, but that’s not a strategy. The best way to defend it is to say, “This is what we need to do instead,” and then to put forward the alternative plan. I would say that’s as important coming from the superintendent as it is coming from the union.

The fact is that the current situation’s not viable. We are losing kids from the public schools. The public system is in financial deficit, and that’s a structural deficit. It’ll be played out over several years. The system as we know it is not going to survive. The question is, if we really think that public schools are essential to the future of Los Angeles, then how must they change to be viable? The union and the superintendent and the school board have responsibility to put forward a plan, and they haven’t. It’s not good enough to simply say that you don’t like the plan coming from the private sector. They must offer an alternative plan.

You were suggesting before—and I think this is exactly right—that it seems really important to have the mayor and perhaps county supervisors engaged as well, so you have various sectors of political power coming together to articulate this plan in a way that seems comprehensive. What’s keeping that from happening now? What’s keeping those players from getting engaged, and what’s keeping the three players you were suggesting before—the superintendent, the board, and the union—from putting forward this plan?

Here, again, is speculation on my part. I’ve been asking questions about why Mayor Garcetti so silent on the question of education? People have told me that he saw Villaraigosa get burned trying to overreach and take control of the schools without even a plan of what he would do with the schools once he got some control. Although I think the partnership has improved somewhat, it’s not been this slam dunk initiative that Villaraigosa thought he could initiate.

I think because of that, we don’t see the mayor providing a vision. You don’t see the board doing so either. I think they’re divided. There’s no coherent strategy there. I think they hoped that maybe the superintendent would put forward one and she hasn’t. She’s put forward a plan, but it doesn’t provide a strategy. It says things like “We want 100% of the kids to graduate.” They have no plan of how to get there. How do you stop losing kids? How do you make schools that are struggling better? That’s not in her plan.

I see a lack of leadership in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I see that in many other cities across the country. It’s clear it takes more than just money to fix the schools; money is part of the solution, but you need a strategy. I don’t see a strategy in Los Angeles or in many of our urban centers today.

Earlier you were talking about Newark and the importance of a bottom up, top down approach. Does that offer a way to think about how to forge common cause and shared leadership?

I think it could. Again, I have to speak honestly. That’s what we were trying to do in Newark, but we didn’t succeed. We worked there for four years. The elements that I just described, we had the teachers’ union ready to work on it with us. We passed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that would bring about a high level of cooperation with the teachers’ union and the district to move teachers, to do some of the things that give the district more flexibility. We got, again, a lot of support from local business, from foundations, from non-profits, and we did a lot of parent organizing.

We had all the elements in place except for support from Cory Booker, who was mayor at the time and was simply uninterested in public schools. He only thought about charter schools. In the conversations I had with him, I said, “You know the vast majority of your kids are in public schools, and less than 10% are in charters.” But he didn’t see that. He thought that he could work around that system, and that it was basically hopeless. He offered no leadership, and no vision.

Again, even in Newark, we didn’t have the kind of high-level political support. We did have the governor’s support, who at the time was John Corzine, but then as we know he lost the election, and was replaced by Chris Christie, and Chris Christie wasn’t interested in that at all. Neither was the new superintendent, Cami Anderson.

What I’ve learned from doing this work is that politics is a major obstacle to getting the right constellation of forces together to work on these issues. You have competing political agendas, and you have the political instability of the term limits and of the electoral cycle. Again, it just adds layers of complexity, but I don’t think we should see that as making it impossible to take this on.

I like to point out that when it comes to Los Angeles, there’s a lot of talk now about the Olympics again, and I find it ironic because Garcetti’s a big champion for the Olympics, which would not even take place while he’s mayor, whereas he’s silent on schools, which seems to me the wrong priorities. If you think about the 1984 Olympics, what made them a success was not the city, but naming Peter Ueberroth czar of the Olympics, which ended up working. That is, they had to actually create a higher entity and give it the authority to figure out how to move people across this city, how to rise beyond the limitations of local government.

Now, I’m not sure we want to create another czar’s position for the schools. But it gives at least some clue that we need some other entity than what we have now to get people to work together.

Let me pose that challenge in a different way: the Olympics represent a common vision that LA elites buy into for a variety of different reasons. Yet getting business and civic elites to see it as both possible and in their interests to lift up the whole of the school system, as opposed to particular classrooms or schools, seems like a fundamental challenge in Los Angeles.

It is, and again, it’s not just a Los Angeles challenge. I could easily make the case for why it’s in their interest to be as concerned, if not more so, about public schools as they are about the Rams or the Olympics. If you don’t have a good functioning public school system, you’re not going to be able to attract families to live here in Los Angeles. You’re not going to be able to attract employers because you don’t have the labor force that’s well educated for jobs. You can make the case for why it’s in the city’s interest to have better public schools, but what we’ve seen happen over the last thirty or forty years is the city’s futures and fortunes are disassociated from the schools. We’re much more interested in the football team or a new museum, and we act like we could continue to have schools that basically don’t function and only serve the poorest people because of that, and that’s okay.

Again, we can’t blame Trump for that. That’s been the situation in Los Angeles and New York and Washington DC, and elsewhere across the country. Basically, we need leadership. I’m not sure where the leadership will come from. I would like it to come from the mayor’s office, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen under this mayor. I wish it could come from the school boards, who are elected members. I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t know where the leadership will emerge from in Los Angeles.

Before we close, I’d like to bring up a quote from a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave when he received the John Dewey award in 1964. Reflecting on the Brown decision’s tenth anniversary, he said, “For most of the past decade, the field of education has been a battleground in the freedom struggle.” Dr. King goes on to say that it’s no coincidence that education is a battleground in the sense that it’s deeply bound up in the opportunity for advancement and critical power. Do you feel like education is still a battleground for freedom? Why or why not?

I think it is, but it’s certainly a different kind of battle than the one King was describing. Back in 1964, the major issues were desegregation and access and resources. Schools are formally desegregated, but hyper segregated. We no longer have the benefit of the law to help us address the hyper segregation in our schools. Access to quality education and educational opportunities continue to be an issue in some places. But whom are we fighting with? We’re not fighting Bull Connor. Now, we’re fighting Michelle King, a black woman. Michelle King ostensibly wants the same thing. The question is does she know how to deliver it. In this kind of a scenario, pressure alone does not address the problem. Protesting Michelle King does not help her figure out how to provide quality education. If she knew how to do it, she would.

I would say yes, the rights to an education are still very much in jeopardy, they have not been realized, and we need to be vigilant about it. But how we get there looks very different now. Protest alone is not going to do it. We’re going to have to be much more creative in how we approach it, and much more thoughtful. Yes, a lot of politicians used to say education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, but it’s a different kind of issue than it was. It’s not simply a question of protesting unfair policies. It’s a question of designing policies that really enable us to create better schools. We haven’t seen that happen in many places. We’re in, I think, a very unknown period of how to move forward.

It seems like what you were suggesting before is that it’s both about designing those policies, and creating a civic and political context in which the process of design and mobilization and collective leadership is ongoing.

Absolutely, because I don’t want to pretend that designing the policy is a technical matter. It’s not like we just need some people to get in a room and write up a good policy. You need the political will to create that policy, and the political will has to come from all those constituencies: parents, teachers, communities, and civic leaders coming together saying yes, this is what we need to create better schools. You need the work to get buy-in. You need the work to hear the voices of the people who are most dependent on those schools. It’s a political problem as much as it is a policy problem. I think that we should never lose sight of that.

Given all that, what gives you hope at this moment?

I think that people want to see improvement. They want to see better alternatives. They want to see movement. Now, wanting something and having it happen are two different things, but the fact that people want it, to me, is a reason for hope. The question is, how do we channel that desire constructively? How do we get people to talk to each other instead of just simply fighting with each other? That, to me, is a challenge, but it’s a challenge I think we need to embrace. I’m not naively optimistic that we’ll be able to solve it in a very simple or easy manner, but I can see at an abstract level how it’s possible. The other question is, what needs to happen to put all the ingredients in place to get some movement? I’m not sure about that answer, but I can imagine it happening. I’m eager to be one of the people working to try to make it happen, but I don’t know if we’ll succeed. We’ll see.

So let’s be sure to talk again in six months and see where we are.

Absolutely, John. We’ll see where we are.


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