Why the education reform movement is in trouble

Richard Whitmire Contributor
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Based on recent headlines, this would appear to be a glorious year for education reform. After years of wheel-spinning debates, governors in states such as Florida, Connecticut, Indiana and Ohio are blazing fast tracks trying to turn around troubled school districts.

To ensure the best new teachers are those who stay in teaching, governors are redefining tenure. To rid schools of truly awful teachers, they are imposing realistic teacher evaluation systems. And when those evaluation systems uncover truly effective teachers, they propose to reward them with higher salaries. Heady stuff, right?

That’s not how I see it. My sense is that the school reform movement — roughly defined as those who believe that schools alone can make a dent in the seemingly intractable problems arising from the confluence of race and poverty — is headed toward a major beat-down.

Why the pessimism? I’m watching Ohio Gov. John Kasich make one of the most boneheaded moves I can imagine, trying to solve his budget problem by trimming back union collective bargaining privileges while simultaneously imposing school reforms.

Does he really think teachers horrified at a peel-back of their collective bargaining privileges are going to embrace a new teacher evaluation system? A similar package of twinned reforms is working its way through the Tennessee legislature. In Ohio, teacher union officials vow to place the governor’s reforms on the November ballot, putting both Kasich’s budget and education reforms at risk.

The backlash isn’t a future threat; it’s already here. Check out comedian Jon Stewart’s recent riffs defending teachers. The lampooning starts with defending teachers against Wisconsin-type efforts to trim pensions and proceeds to inviting anti-school reformer Diane Ravitch onto the show to proclaim that school reform — especially reforms that try to weed out ineffective teachers — are all wrong: only solving poverty can solve our school problems. Stewart shakes his head in rapturous agreement.

Ravitch and Stewart are right to emphasize the role poverty plays in education outcomes. But to understand why the debate can’t stop so abruptly, you have to consider the surge of students moving through our public education system whose parents never earned college degrees.

Quick scorecard: Let’s carve out the most successful of these students, the ones who graduated from high school and have college ambitions. Among this group, roughly 40 percent are forced to pay for remedial courses, non-credit courses to make up for what they didn’t learn in high school.

What those remediation rates tell us is that we, as a country, are not successfully educating our future workforce. The reality is that students need at least two years of post-secondary study to handle even sophisticated blue-collar jobs. To turn around this education problem, we need K-12 school reforms — the same reforms that governors are putting at risk as they package them with their fiscal reforms, the same reforms that Jon Stewart now scoffs at and unions may have the clout to repeal.

Jon, maybe you should be the one to tell these students to wait until we win the war on poverty.

This new education/political chemistry has bubbled up to the White House. Although President Obama started off in a promising reform direction — Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top carrot incentives are the best federal reforms we’ve ever seen out of Washington — Obama himself recently retrenched.

Testing is “boring” and needs to be cut back, Obama declared at a town hall meeting in Washington late last month. Interesting timing the president chose to shoot his own school reforms in the foot — just as a newly energized, anti-testing labor movement, enraged by the Wisconsin challenges to collective bargaining, promises to play a major role in the next presidential election.

Sure, there may be examples of excessive testing, but there are not enough of the kind of quick-turnaround assessments I’ve seen work in urban districts, where students lacking specific skills in math, science or reading get flagged: Johnnie needs a quick re-teach of this topic, perhaps delivered in a different style. If anti-school reformers succeed in their broad campaign against testing, all that is at risk.

As the author of a new book about the school reforms carried out by Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., I’ve had a front-row seat for watching the signs of this approaching blowback storm. When Rhee first arrived in Washington, the national press idolized her. Today, sensing a momentum change, writers try to savage her record in D.C.

The fact that neither the former nor current negative press coverage was based on any real reporting in D.C. classrooms is irrelevant. Writers were just catching the mood of the moment, which today is trending away from the tough and controversial reforms she carried out — reforms that appeared to be working.

The impact of that anti-reform trending can be seen in Rhee’s new group, Students First, which tries to take the D.C.-style reforms national. To date, only conservative Republican governors have signed on, a sure sign that Democrats know when to duck, when to latch onto the anti-school reform movement that has been energized by the trims in collective bargaining.

In the short term, conservative governors can have it all — education reforms combined with fiscal cutbacks that may require curtailing collective bargaining privileges. But in the longer term, twinning the two will set back school reforms, perhaps for a very long time. And that’s going to do some real damage.

Richard Whitmire is author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.