Midterm exams: Grading the administration on edreform

As the mid-term elections approach, now is a good time to assess the progress of the President, Secretary Duncan, and the Congress on public education.

According to a Phi Delta Kappa / Gallup poll taken before the last election, if education had been the only issue, Obama would have easily won; so strong was the public dislike of the Bush education policies. Prophetically, PDK also noted a decided lethargy on the part of the major candidates in addressing their plans for education reform. Prior to the 2008 Presidential election, I offered an analysis of what the respective party platforms offered on education. The Democrats led by Obama, actually had less to say in their platform on education directly than did the Republicans, but here’s what they did say:

Central to the Democrats’ Platform is right of every child in America to a “world-class public education.” Their document stresses the imperative need for high quality teachers and effective principals in every school, especially high needs schools.¬† Toward that end, the Democrats would provide a free college education for teacher candidates. Moreover, they call for strengthening preparation, mentoring, and career ladders for educators after they enter the profession. The Dems support not only collective bargaining, but specifically due process for the removal of ineffective teachers, if systematic intervention does not yield results. Their platform also recognizes the special role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are still the primary source of Black educators in the U.S., and the need for their continued support. The Democrats are unequivocal about their support for fully funding IDEA while the Republican platform treats it as an unfortunate inherited responsibility to be minimally maintained.

 

The one statement that jumped out at me from the Democratic platform was in its position on teacher pay:

To reward our teachers, we will follow the lead of school districts and educators that have pioneered innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers [emphasis mine], not imposed on them. We will make an unprecedented national investment to provide teachers with better pay and better support to improve their skills and their students’ learning. We’ll reward effective teachers who teach in underserved areas, take on added responsibilities like mentoring new teachers, or consistently excel in the classroom.

My biggest disappointment with their education section is that is tends to downplay, almost to the point of patronizing, the role of parents in public education.

That was then.

Two years later, the ESEA has not been reauthorized and the Administration’s Blue Print for Reform has been stuck in traffic due in part to its striking similarity to NCLB, and the failure of the Administration to truly engage all stakeholders in meaningful dialogue over the aspects of their education proposals. Not only has the Administration backed off several of the points in the platform and failed to deliver on some key pre-White House promises, but they have also allowed the harmful effects of NCLB to continue unabated for the past two years, and probably much longer depending of the disposition of the new Congress.

If we ignore the media smoke and noise around education of the past few weeks, we can refocus our eyes on the real prize: undoing the harm caused by NCLB and developing a truly forward thinking, comprehensive national education policy. Had President Obama listened more closely to the advice of his pre-inaugural education adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond, we’d probably be farther along the road to real change. Fortunately, as my parents would say, it’s never too late to do the right thing. The Administration could start by taking another look at the alternative plan for ESEA authorization put forward by the highly respected educators and researchers at Forum for Education and Democracy (which includes Darling-Hammond), starting with its first principle of equitable access to public education for all.

Additionally, some of the most egregious aspects of NCLB could be addressed (possibly by revision of Education Department regulations or Executive Order) while other details of the reauthorization are being untangled. For example:

  • Stop the inhumane application of inappropriate testing to special needs students where NCLB provisions conflict with IDEA, IDEA guidelines should take precedence.
  • Declare a moratorium on the penalties associated with AYP until the full reauthorization of ESEA addresses (and hopefully rescinds) those.
  • Emphasize and underwrite the many proven effective school turnaround efforts that do not rely on the community destabilizing approach of mass removal of teachers and/or administrators.

Making mid-term corrections can prevent final disappointments.