Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Schools Platform to be Stolen

Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire are begging White House canddiates to steal their ideas.
Why education politics are even worse than you think: Pushing for radical reforms to help poor and minority children in failing schools will get you labeled "conservative," while fighting to preserve a demonstrably failing status quo makes you a great "liberal." Go figure.

But you can't sidestep it. Bill Clinton and President Bush have nationalized education policymaking. So, although it might be a political minefield made worse by yawn-inducing jargon, education has to be on your agenda.

Why you should care: Nullifying the 15- to 20-point advantage Democrats traditionally enjoyed on education was key to "W" making it to the White House. Besides, voters want to make sure you're tough enough to protect them in a dangerous world. You're going to have trouble demonstrating that if you can't even stand up to the National Education Association.
A pretty sound reason for the candidates to care.

Here is their plan and my response, point by point:

1. Don't just attack No Child Left Behind. It has done a lot of good. For poor and minority kids, it's their best chance. Of course, the ultimate goal is unrealistic, but do Super Bowl-winning coaches launch their seasons by challenging players to achieve break-even records? Instead of criticizing, put forward serious ideas that will make it work.
The last line applies not only to education but all issues. But leaving that piece aside, so far Democrats are attacking along budgetary lines ("NCLB wasn't funded enough"), blah blah blah. The issue in education is and can't be considered to be money. There is more than enough money in the system. Focus on other things and make real proposals.
2. Urge better pay for better teaching. We do need to pay teachers more, but we need to pay them very differently, too. Use the more than $3 billion the federal government spends annually on teachers to catalyze a complete overhaul of teacher preparation, evaluation and compensation.
I am trying to do my part with the Teacher Quality Stats, now do your part and put some real effort by behind proposals to really make teacher pay competitive and more market oriented.
3. Take the New York City idea national. It took a determined capitalist such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a trust-busting lawyer such as Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to highlight the missing ingredient of education reform: It's all about increasing the supply of schools that work, stupid. That means changing incentives, accountability and practices to focus solely on student learning. And, in some cases, that means stuffing high-flying new schools and charter schools into existing neighborhood schools. It is not perfect and not always pretty, but it is progress, and the voters rewarded Bloomberg for his tenacity.
I am not certian the New York model can work nationally, but some of the principles that Bloomberg embraced certainly can. Make the schools work, add a fair bit of competition and measure everything. Find out what works, why it works and replicate as much as possible.
4. Don't let the "V" word pass your lips. You need to say something on school choice. Americans expect choices in all areas of their lives, including their schools. Vouchers look good on paper, but what good have they done in cities such as Cleveland, where there are no good schools on which to spend those vouchers? We can barely afford the school system we have now, so creating a second parallel one doesn't make much sense. Instead, expand choice and customization within the public system.
I don't know about this piece of advice. Vouchers to me are a blatant way to increase competition. Sure, you need to have good private/parochial schools willing and able to take the vouchers, but I think if a market is there, someone will fill the need. Plus the fact that the vouchers appeal to those most in need--i.e. the poor who are trapped in failing schools, means you can start cutting into a particularly important population--minorities.
5. Transform school transfers. It makes no sense that a student in a failing D.C. school can transfer only to another failing school in the city when there are good schools a short bus or train ride away in Maryland and Virginia. If that sounds too complicated a problem to solve, then ask yourself: Am I really commander in chief material?
Why didn't I think of that. Brilliant. Of course, this means funding the child versus teh school, but that may not be such a bad thing.
6. Remember more time means more learning. Some students need more time to master challenging content, and some schools simply have to spend more time on teaching than they do now. Tie new money to deliberate plans to improve student performance, not just do more of the same.
Why do charter schools with longer school days work so well? Because the students have more time to learn--duh? A six hour school day (or less) is a fiction created more by union contracts and parental commuting than by educational needs. Think about it.
7. Forget the "national" in national standards. Sure, national standards in math and reading make sense, but there is little appetite for federally imposed standards. Meanwhile, the national standards debate is morphing into an excuse to delay real accountability. There are backdoor ways to get to national standards, such as encouraging states to collaborate on shared standards.
This one is a tough one for me. If the various punishments for schools handed out by NCLB are to be the law, why are we allowing the states to define the standards and the localities to define the curricula. Since we have nationalized education policy so mauch, why are we not saying that states have to comply with some sort of federal standard in order to get their federal money? If these people are going to be president, they need to have the back bone to take this step. Otherwise, we should go back to state standards and state measurements. Either way, you can't be sort of in the business of education standards, either the federal government is in teh business or it is not. You can't be sort of pregnant.
8. Open the door to pre-kindergarten education. Academically focused pre-kindergarten programs help close the racial and economic achievement gap. Such programs are expensive, but taxpayers actually recoup the money in savings down the road because these programs help keep kids out of special education and out of trouble.
This idea is gaining momentum and perhaps for good reason. I am not sure about the taxpayer recouping the costs down the road since I am not sure that idea has actually been studied, but it is worth the study.
9. Demand that the U.S. Department of Education launch an aggressive research agenda. There is no shortage of issues teachers need help with: how to succeed with Latino students, middle-school students and boys in all grades. And will someone please help schools teach literacy in the upper grades?
Yes, yes, yes. But watch the political part of this stuff. New President's shouldn't bury the results because they don't fit the political mold they espouse. Education concerns everyone and everyone should have access to these research reports.

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