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How to Rescue Education Reform

'How to Rescue Education Reform' is the title of this interesting New York Times op ed. It is interesting, and unusual, in the pair of authors, because they are normally not seen as allies on matters educational, disagreeing strongly on things like merit pay for teachers, to cite only one example.

Linda Darling-Hammond is one of the most notable figures in education, having been a professor at Teachers College Columbia and now at Stanford, a prolific author, on numerous commissions and boards, and serving as the director of the Obama administration's transition team on education.  Rick Hess is equally notable in the think tank world, being a key voice on education based at the American Enterprise Institute.

In examining the pending reauthorization of the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind, they find 4 key things that the Federal government can and should do in education upon which they agree.

I will explore those four things below the fold, but will not be upset if you are already convinced and choose instead to stop reading here and go directly to the piece in the Times.

Full disclosure:  I have reviewed books by both of these notables, worked in conjunction with Darling-Hammond on a number of educational issues.  My own orientation is more in her direction than that of Hess, and I consider her a friend as well as a colleague.  But I also respect a good deal of Hess's work.

I hope you will keep reading.

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending.

 Darling-Hammond and Hess like that NCLB required states to report student achievement of students on an annual basis.  They do criticize the statistical games some states played, which resulted in reporting that did not allow comparability among states.  They suggest that future transparency be either tied to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or be a result of cross-state common assessments.  I have some problems with both approaches, but I also recognize that at this point there is still strong support for some level of reporting.  The authors do not specify how the results of such testing should be used, perhaps because they might not agree - Hess would almost certainly want to tie teacher evaluation to the results of student testing and Darling-Hammond would not agree to that.   What is encouraging is their willingness to try to find common ground to meet a societal need for information.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.

  NCLB required disaggregation of scores by race, ethnicity and poverty.  This was, unfortunately, one area affected by states' statistical games, some states setting the minimum size of groups in order to hide their poor performance.  The authors note that

Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979. But efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement.

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions.

 Fundamental questions do not necessarily immediately lead to profit opportunities.  We need research that is independent of the profit motivation in order to obtain unbiased information about what we truly need to consider in designing and altering educational programs.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.

 The authors find a place for some competitive grants, although they are critical of how the administration implemented Race to the Top, which resulted in states having to hire consultants (or I might add getting funded by the Gates Foundation) in order to comply with the 19-point federal agenda.

Beyond this limited list, Darling-Hammond and Hess warn that the federal government is not "well situated" to drive reform on schools and teachers:  

Under our system, dictates from Congress turn into gobbledygook as they travel from the Education Department to state education agencies and then to local school districts. Educators end up caught in a morass of prescriptions and prohibitions, bled of the initiative and energy that characterize effective schools

Let me if I may offer one sentence from the next paragraph, putting it into bold:  The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well.    To this I would like to add the words of Deborah Meier, expressed last night at a forum held at the School of Education of Johns Hopkins (from which I got my teaching degree in the mid 1990s) on the future of education.  Meier argues that an important part of education should be the instilling of democracy.  That should mean we place decision making about education as close as possible to the people who have to implement it, which is one reason the federal government should be very selective about what and how it mandates things.   I would add to Meier's words a few thoughts.  First, there are equity issues that need to be addressed:  local school systems should not be allowed to discriminate based on any class protected under federal Civil Rights statutes.  Second, there is a valid concern about how both science and history might be taught if there is not some oversight beyond purely local determination.   We have seen some of the possible ill effects with respect to science in the Dover Independent School District in Penna on the subject of "intelligent design" and we can imagine the implications on history when we look at the state standards in Texas.  

Beyond these cautions, I tend to agree with Darling-Hammond and Hess that extensive federal prescriptions

stifle problem-solving, encourage bureaucratic blame avoidance and often do more harm than good.

The authors end with the one positive lesson they derive from NCLB

is the value of humility — a virtue that must be taken to heart in crafting a smarter, more coherent federal role in schooling.

I do not fully agree with what they offer, being most critical on aspect of their approach on testing.  Nevertheless I strongly recommend reading and considering the whole of what they offer, and hope that those in Congress wrestling with reauthorization do so.

Thanks for reading.

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Kenneth J. Bernstein

Kenneth J. Bernstein is now proudly 64 years young, teacher in DC metro area, Quaker liberal - and still passionate about learning with his students (http://teach...