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Honoring an education reform leader

Wheaton will award the 2010 Otis Social Justice Lecture to urban sociologist Pedro Noguero on Sept. 20.

Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist who studies the root causes of the racial and economic achievement gap in our public schools, will visit Wheaton College to receive the 2010 Otis Social Justice Award and deliver a lecture entitled "Creating the Schools We Need: What It Really Takes to Leave No Child Behind."

The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, September 20, in the Science Center's Hindle Auditorium.

Noguera, who is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, studies the ways in which the performance of urban schools and their students is influenced by negative social and economic factors. Mitigating the effects of such factors, he says, will involve moving beyond the current No Child Left Behind Act (2002), which focuses on school improvement measures and test-based accountability.

"Efforts to raise student achievement cannot ignore the unmet social needs of children, particularly those related to concentrated poverty-inadequate health, housing and nutrition," Noguera said in an interview with Education Next. "Poverty does not cause academic failure, but it is a factor that profoundly influences the character of schools and student performance."

Noguera has participated in collaborative research with several large urban school districts throughout the United States and has also conducted educational research abroad. He served formerly on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and on that of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Unfinished Business: Closing the Achievement Gap in Our Nation's Schools and The Trouble with Black Boys ... and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education.

Setting academic achievement standards is relatively easy, Noguera says. A greater challenge is developing standards for optimal learning conditions. "We have quality standards for airports, highways, food, drugs, and water, but no state has adopted standards for learning environments, and many poor children attend under-resourced, inferior schools."

In 2007, with the first version of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) due to expire, Noguera served as co-chair of a task force that examined the controversial measure in the context of research data on effective reform strategies. The task force report, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, called for a wider approach to reform that went beyond improving "bad schools" through measures such as standards, testing, teacher training and accountability. (In September 2007, NCLB was automatically extended pending passage of a new law.)

While the task force report recognized that school improvement efforts are important, it also called for increased investments in high-quality early childhood education and health services, and more emphasis on the quality of time spent out of school, such as in after-school programs.

"We believe that it is both possible and necessary to weaken the link between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement," the report authors wrote. "A policy strategy that combines continued school reform with efforts to address the roots of low achievement can be effective in doing so." The task force report was endorsed and signed by more than 60 nationally known educators, medical professionals, journalists and social justice advocates.

The Otis Social Justice lecture series was established in 1959 through the generosity of Henry Witte Otis, whose children included two Wheaton graduates. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the earliest Otis lecturers (1962). Today, the purpose of the Otis Fund has broadened to support a colloquium in social justice--a forum through which the Wheaton community may address key contemporary social issues. The first Otis Social Justice Award was presented in 1990 to former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.