Strange bedfellows on school reform

Liberals and conservatives each get school reform wrong.

The state of the union's public schools is not good. That's no surprise given the nation's dysfunctional politics. But there's one big twist when it comes to K-12 public schools: Liberals and conservatives are not so much fighting each other as acting as unwitting co-conspirators in obstructing effective reform.

True, the ideological education wars still rage. Conservatives and liberals disagree over privatization, unions, charters, vouchers and school funding. On the other hand, they are more allied than you would think on key reform issues.

For example, their common resistance to the Common Core State Standards and testing. I think both sides are wrong. Without standards and testing, it's impossible to hold educators accountable for student progress (though, granted, the testing could be done more efficiently). However, the larger point is that liberals and conservatives alike have failed to focus more intently on where reform is needed most: in teaching and learning in the classroom.

Conservatives generally want to put all their apples in the barrel of charter schools and vouchers. While vouchers are political non-starters, charters in my view are worthwhile. Research on their effectiveness nationwide is mixed, but charter schools have shown some capacity to innovate and expand parental choice. Still, it is unrealistic to imagine charter schools expanding beyond a small fraction of the nation's 100,000 public schools.

Liberals, for their part, are anti vouchers, pro more money and muddled on issues like charters and testing. At the same time, they, no less than conservatives, have done virtually nothing to address the two most promising ways to boost classroom instruction. One is raising teacher quality. The other, though less well-recognized, is targeting scarce resources toward tutoring and other early interventions for low-performing students, particularly in reading.

There is unanimity that teachers are the most powerful school influence on student performance, but nowhere near a consensus on how to elevate the teaching field. Reforms related to higher pay, teacher evaluations, teachers colleges, tenure and alternative certification would help. But what might help even more to attract and retain top teachers would be classroom support, especially enabling teachers to meet the needs of struggling readers.

It is hard to overstate the ruinous impact of the large numbers of students — as many as 50 percent in urban school systems — who fall behind early and almost invariably never catch up. We are aware of the fallout of dropouts and unprepared graduates. But we miss the toll on teachers who are deprived of job satisfaction when they can't meet the academic needs of their low-performing students and have to cope with the frustrating classroom behavior problems these students cause.

A larger federal role would help with teacher quality, funding for instructional interventions and other worthy initiatives. But here too there is unwise common cause among most liberals and conservatives. They oppose, if not demonize, the efforts of the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Mr. Duncan has extended federal sway even beyond the controversial provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, further defying the national pledge of allegiance to local control of public schools. All of his major proposals, except the economic stimulus financial windfall, have met with bipartisan resistance, including efforts to promote common standards and tests, teacher evaluations using student test scores and charter schools.

The Obama-Duncan activism (in which President Barack Obama refused to kowtow to most Democrats as well as Republicans) staked out ground that is almost certainly going to be lost with the Republican control of Congress. The pending reauthorization of NCLB will in all likelihood weaken accountability without bringing any new resources or research-based ideas to classroom teaching and learning. We'll be back mired in the pre-NCLB myth that quality education in reading, math and science should somehow be defined differently from state to state. We'll also be repeating the mistake of expecting the states to assure just opportunity for minority and other disadvantaged students.

Eventually our national politics will change its self-destructive course. Even so, liberals and conservatives will need remedial homework to better understand the requisites for deep-rooted, classroom-based school reform.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and president of the Baltimore Special Education Advocacy Coalition. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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