Ed reform: Major combat isn’t over

Education reformers seem to be winning the day, but two Education Next commentaries warn against declaring victory.

In A Battle Begun, Not Won, Paul Peterson, Checker Finn and Marci Kanstoroom warn that “nothing can be done at the national level” to transform education.

Most of the crucial decisions about how U.S. schools run and who teaches what to whom in which classrooms are still made in 14,000 semi-autonomous school districts, nearly all of them run by locally elected school boards, often with campaign dollars supplied by those with whom they negotiate collectively, and managed by professional superintendents, trained in colleges of education and socialized over the years into the prevailing culture of public education.

That culture is in no way reform-minded. It believes that educators know best, that elected school boards are the embodiment of democracy in action, that colleges of education are the path to true professionalism, that collective bargaining is necessary to protect teacher rights, and that any failings visible in today’s schools, teachers, and students are either the fault of heedless parents or the consequence of incompetent administrators and stingy taxpayers.

Teachers unions wield great power at the state level, where they’ve blocked or weakened reforms.

In Washington, reforms are limited to Race to the Top, “an executive-branch initiative lacking a clear legislative mandate.” In the new Congress, “more Republicans than ever are worshiping before the false god of local control.”

Union leaders may pose as agents of change, but local unions “almost always kill any but the mildest changes.”

Furthermore, the U.S. public is lukewarm on education reform. Many think other people’s schools are no good but their own children’s schools don’t need changes.

Pyrrhic Victories? by Frederick M. Hess, Michael J. Petrilli, and Martin R. West sees broad but shallow support for reform ideas.  In polls, Americans say they support charter schools — but don’t know what they are.  They want accountability but are reluctant to close low-performing schools or fire ineffective teachers.

Reformers push overly ambitious ideas, risking “Icarus syndrome,” the authors warn. No Child Left Behind’s mistakes could be repeated by Race to the Top, which pushes states to adopt “a very prescriptive set of policy reforms” to get federal funding.

Just as definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress, Highly Qualified Teachers, and other core elements of NCLB, circa 2001, soon grew obsolete and problematic, so too will today’s conventional wisdom around teacher evaluations, charter caps, and all the rest. Rather than encouraging problem solving and policy tinkering, these “shoot the moon” initiatives freeze reform in one moment in time. And they run the risk of backlash if and when early results prove disappointing.

Obsessed with “closing achievement gaps,” reformers “signal to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about helping their kids.” That’s not the way to build wide support.

We need less cheerleading and more humility, they conclude.

Back to local control?

As the party of local control, Republicans should reject the federalization of education policy, writes Diane Ravitch in the Wall Street Journal. An education historian, Ravitch now opposes Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Ravitch is half right, responds Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

She pinpoints genuine shortcomings in NCLB and failings in a number of other federal education programs, and correctly observes that many of the school-reform efforts and innovations of recent years have not yielded the desired achievement gains.

But local control isn’t the solution, argues Finn.

The weak and generally stagnant academic performance of most American school kids, our scandalous achievement gaps, the country’s sagging performance vis-à-vis other countries, the skimpy preparation of many teachers and principals, the shoddy curricula, the fat and junky textbooks, the innovation-shackling union contracts, the large expenditures with meager returns — these are not the result of an overweening federal government. They are, in fact, almost entirely the product of state and local control of public education — as it has traditionally been defined and structured in the United States. They are the product of failed governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the capture of the K-12 system by powerful organizations of adults who assign lower priority to kids’ needs than to their own interests. They are maladies caused by, and worsened under, the aegis of the very system that Diane trusts to cure them.

Finn wants to vest control in individual schools that “control their own personnel, budgets, schedules, and curricula,” and in parents “free to choose among — and fully-informed about—a wide array of quality schools (and other education delivery systems, including virtual education).”

In his vision:

Washington supplies additional funds to underwrite the education of disadvantaged and special-needs kids, it pays for innovation through competitive-grant programs, it conducts research and supplies a wealth of assessment and other data, and it safeguards individuals from violations of their civil rights. That’s about it.

Every school an independently run charter? I’m not sure that’s doable.

By the way, in an earlier post, a commenter alleged that Ravitch changed sides in the education debate out of pique because her “life partner” had been denied a job by Joel Klein, when he was chancellor of New York City schools.  I think this is untrue and unfair. People who disagree with Ravitch’s current views don’t question her integrity or sincerity, nor do they gossip — at least not when I’m around — about her personal life.

Local control: Is there a deal?

Republican John Kline, the likely chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, wants to restore “local control” of education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to push reform through Race to the Top grants. But both Republicans and Democrats want to modify No Child Left Behind, officially the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In its current version, 100 percent of students must reach “proficiency”  by 2014 or their schools will be considered failures. National Journal asks: Is there room for a deal?

Conservatives have tough decisions to make, write Sandy Kress.

Are we for local control so much that we support encrusted, top-heavy, expensive local bureaucracy? Are we for local control so much that we support union and bureaucracy-based decisions that prevent meaningful parental choice? Are we for local control so much that we support decisions in many districts that foster waste and ineffective spending?

Really the only “intrusion” from NCLB is to say that for all the federal dollars schools and districts receive they must be held accountable (by the locals!) for closing the achievement gap for poor kids and kids of color. The sad part of this “intrusion” is that it permits this accountability to be so much on local terms it can be to low standards.

So, is taking away even that pressure what is meant by “relief” and allowing the locals “to make their own decisions?”

Secretary Duncan’s reforms don’t have a proven record of helping vulnerable students, writes Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado education professor.  “So it just looks like Washington arbitrarily telling local communities how to run their schools.”

Expect a NCLB patch in 2011 — not a full-scale reauthorization — to avoid labeling most schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess. His long-term bet: “A bipartisan measure which renders NCLB toothless — either by making its remedy provisions voluntary or otherwise declawing AYP — will pass sometime in 2012.”

School groups are pushing for “regulatory relief,” reports Ed Week. But some think regulatory fixes “could slow the momentum for a comprehensive, bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA.”

If GOP wins, ed reform could lose

What happens to education reform, if the Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress? The House GOP’s Pledge to America doesn’t even mention education, observe Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli on Flypaper and Gadfly. To the extent there is a national Republican policy, it favors local control and state’s rights.

In an Education Week interview, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who’d likely chair the education committee in a Republican House, opposed extending Race to the Top because the states don’t get to decide their own policy. Kline also said he’s watching the Common Core State Standards “very closely,” warning that if the feds get involved in “putting in a de facto national curriculum,” his “caucus will rebel.”

If the Republicans “reflexively revert to weary old themes” of state’s rights, local control and parental choice, the opportunity to reform education will be lost, Petrilli writes.

States’ rights in education today mean weak standards, shaky accountability, ed school monopolies in preparing teachers and principals, limited (and resource-starved) school choices, meaningless certification and regulation requirements, and scant freedom for those running schools to ensure that they’ll be effective.

Sure, some states are honorable (partial) exceptions to this glum litany but—honestly—not many. Without cajoling, bribing, nudging, and scolding from Washington, we suspect there would be fewer, not more. The fact is that state legislatures are where the traditional public-school establishment wields the most power and is best able — often working behind the scenes — to keep anything much from changing. (In Colorado, most of the Democratic members of the state House education committee are former teachers—and current union members.)

“The old GOP education agenda isn’t what 21st America needs,” Petrilli writes.  Fordham backs “reform realism,”  which means “tight” controls on the results we want our schools to achieve but “loose” controls on how schools, districts, and states get there.

The Obama Administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization isn’t a bad summation of “reform realism” in action, and Republicans should seize much of it. Trashing “adequate yearly progress,” devolving authority back to the states when it comes to “accountability,” and killing the “highly qualified teacher” provision are all in line with Kline and company’s instincts around state and local control—and well worth doing.

But the GOP should also embrace some of its reform aspects, too, like turning more formula grants into competitive ones and promoting tenure reform.

It’s possible victorious Republicans would team up with the administration on realistic reforms, Petrilli writes. But it’s just as likely the GOP will give up on education reform in the name of local control.

Update: On Cato @ Liberty, Neal McCluskey urges Republicans to “tell Uncle Sam to butt out” of education and give control to parents.