Obama should call an education summit
By Mark Phillips
President Obama should call an education summit meeting if he wants to have credibility as a leader of school reform. It should include our most eminent educational leaders as well as teacher organization heads. It is not too late to reshape his policies, but this must happen soon.
I’m a strong supporter of the president, but as an educational practitioner and reformer, I can say that he is demonstrating the same ignorance and fallacious thinking that has plagued national and state policy-makers for years. His educational policies are flawed and counter-productive.
When an education policy is so bad that leaders from opposite sides of the educational spectrum unite in opposition, it has to be wrong.
Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch was a leader of conservative thinking in educational policy and worked in the first Bush administration. Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond was Obama’s primary advisor on education during his election campaign and is a major voice for liberal educational ideas.
That these two are now bedfellows is one of the strange outcomes of the policy thrust from Washington. Ms. Ravitch’s book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," in which she explains why she no longer supports the emphasis on testing and on school choice, is on the national best-seller list and she is “playing” to sold out audiences.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is ineffective at best in his role as the president’s educational adviser. Duncan has a sports mentality that is fine for basketball but not for improving education.
Competition in sports is a great motivator. Competition between struggling schools for limited funds creates anger, not motivation. Players who don’t perform well should be fired, but measuring player performance is easy. Measuring teacher performance is complex and difficult. We want teachers from different schools to cooperate, support each other, and share what’s working, not compete like corporations trying to do each other in.
Additionally, players' performance is largely based on how well they were prepared. Firing a coach for not producing a team of high-performance athletes from players who are undernourished, didn’t have a ball to play with when they were children, and go home to neighborhoods where their lives may be in danger would be truly stupid. Yet this is what Duncan is suggesting we do with teachers.
Dominating all the reform talk is blame for teachers and principals. Newsweek epitomized this with a cover story highlighted by the phrase “we must fire bad teachers.”
This was exacerbated when Obama and Duncan supported a Rhode Island district move to fire all the educators at the only high school in the area.
We know authoritatively from psychological research that attacking increases defensiveness, not motivation. Teacher organizations need to take more responsibility for the quality of teaching, but this isn’t the way to get there. An open war between teacher organizations and policy makers will be a lose-lose battle, with the kids the biggest losers.
The latest Obama-Duncan policy, the $3 billion Race to the Top, is a perfect example of the present failure in educational policy-making. States that want to win money in the competition have to promise to implement reforms favored by Duncan, and to help the most troubled schools, they must choose from one of four reform strategies, each punitive and fatally flawed.
The turnaround model: Replace the principal and least half the existing staff. But what if the principal is good and evaluation determines that only ten percent of the teachers aren’t effective (the most accurate estimate for most schools)? So forget that model.
The restart model: Convert it to a charter school. I’m a supporter of good charter schools, but charter schools are no panacea. This is also not the way to initiate them. Good ones should be built from the ground up based on a set of core values and to provide choice, not as a replacement. Forget this foolish model.
The school closure model: Shut the whole school down and send the students to higher achieving schools. Terminate a school without a careful analysis of where the problems lie? They must be kidding! The problems usually lie with the economic and cultural background of the students. Send them to higher achieving schools? High achieving schools often fail to reach their low achieving students. At one school I know in my county, Marin, California, the overall GPA is 3.12 while that of African American kids is 1.92. This is not a solution.
The transformation model: Replace the principal. But what if he or she is excellent? Reform instruction? Hey, that’s what we should be doing everywhere, even in successful schools where academically programmed students just go through the motions successfully. Increase learning time? There is NO significant evidence that more time means anything UNLESS student motivation is also increased. Where is that addressed in these policy pronouncements?
And none of this provides help for all the school districts that are not designated low performing but are still regressing in quality because of massive budget cuts.
Absent the convening of a summit meeting, there is a danger that the president and Duncan will just wait out the current surge of excitement centered on Ravitch’s book and continue on their present destructive path. And as long as Ravitch rides the wave of temporary celebrity alone, nothing will happen.
What really needs to happen for anything to change is for Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, and teacher and parent organization leaders to get their collective heads together and come up with an effectively coordinated, highly publicized, and well financed counter-attack. A powerful counter-voice is needed.
The president does pay attention to strong pressure groups and perhaps then he will take the initiative in rebuilding bridges with teachers and engaging in the necessary shared process of change.
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| April 22, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories: Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Race to the Top | Tags: Arne Duncan and schools, President Obama and schools, Race to the Top, school reform
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