Education Reform as a Litmus Test for Obama and Others

Great opinion piece by David Brooks in today's New York Times that assesses Obama's true proclivities (or not) for reform by vetting his positions on public education. Brooks divides Democrats into two camps that -- regardless of who you plan to vote for -- illuminate the differing theories of change that drive donor options for improving schools:

The status quo camp issued a statement organized by the Economic Policy Institute. This report argues that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can’t combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs. When it comes to improving schools, the essential message is that we need to spend more on what we’re already doing: smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training.

The reformist camp, by contrast, issued a statement through the Education Equality Project, signed by school chiefs like Joel Klein of New York, Michelle Rhee of Washington, Andres Alonso of Baltimore as well as Al Sharpton, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and experts like Andrew Rotherham, the former Clinton official who now writes the Eduwonk blog.

The reformists also support after-school and pre-K initiatives. But they insist school reform alone can make a big difference, so they emphasize things the status quo camp doesn’t: rigorous accountability and changing the fundamental structure of school systems.

Today’s school systems aren’t broken, the reformers argue. They were designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first, and that’s exactly what they are doing. It’s time, though, to put the interests of students first.

The reformers want to change the structure of the system, not just spend more on the same old things. Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn’t. Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools. Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised. Most importantly, accountability has to be rigorous and relentless. No Child Left Behind has its problems, but it has ushered in a data revolution, and hard data is the prerequisite for change.

I was in the accountability camp way before country was cool (apologies to those not shaped by Donnie and Marie Osmond) and still am. According to a conversation I recently had with Tim Walter, head of the Association of Small Foundations, DC's superintendent Michelle Rhee is taking the hard road on this point, and gaining ground as she does so. ASF is regularly convening donors on the topic of education reform (300+ convened on the topic at the recent Council on Foundations gathering) which featured Rhee. (Here's a video Philanthromedia did on the topic with ASF last year.)

Fact is, real change comes at real cost. Our schools haven't gotten as screwed up as they are (speaking a s a former inner-city teacher) and the tough work that must be done to improve them won't happen over night. It also is unlikely make anyone a hero. It's a dirty job but, Lord willing, someone is gonna do it.

Susan Herr

Posted at 2:04 AM, Jun 13, 2008 in Education | Permalink | Comment