Each day President Obama drives the news with a major event: on Tuesday it was education. In a speech (view here) before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce he laid out his priorities.
Gotham Gazette trolls the press releases and just about all the players in the ed mix praise the speech, well, let’s say dance around the edges of praising the speech.
The key elements:
* early childhood education, home infant health care and year long schools
* national standards
* some sort of yet to be defined teacher pay for performance, and, equally undefined teacher dismissal procedures.
* creating data systems for tracking student achievement and teacher value added
* removing the state caps on charter schools
* 150 districts in which to play with the above.
The plan, if you can call it a plan, throws sops to both camps, the early childhood, year round schools for the Broader, Bolder guys, national standards were strongly supported by Al Shanker, and the merit pay, dismissal, data and charter school ideas for the Educational Equality Project.
All things to all people.
Unfortunately, for Barack, the history of top-down reform is depressing. From the Taylorism of the 1920’s to the Nation At Risk Report (1983) through School Integration (1950’s) to Decentralization (1970-90s) up to the current accountability/data schemes, one reform after another, have had little or no impact on the classroom.
A decade old still highly relevant book, David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1995), “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” is worth another read. They inform us
The politics of education has not been conducted on a level playing field. Policy elites – people who managed the economy, who had privileged access to the media and to political officials, who controlled foundations …gained a disproportionate authority over educational reform … Policy elites have tried to persuade the public that their definition of problems and proposed solutions were authoritative …(and) have often dominated discussion of reform, especially when concern about education grew intense and widespread at the national level.
Reform after reform is driven from above, and, after a few years ebbs into another reform. The actors at Tweed, and in Washington, are prime exemplars of “policy elites,” crafting an accountability business model that is shunned by classroom teachers. Schools are closed, replacement schools are opened, a complex “Progress Report Card” is the heart and core of the life of principals, Fair Student Funding, bonus pay for schools and rewards for kids roil in the blogosphere and have little or no impact on the day-to-day life of kids and classroom teacher
Tyack and Cuban suggest,
Change where it counts the most – in the daily interactions of teachers and students – is the hardest to achieve and the most important, … We favor attempts to bring about such improvement by working from the inside out, especially by enlisting the support and skills of teachers as key actors in reform.
William Easterly is a renown economist and Co-Director of the Development Research Institute at NYU. Easterly is sharply critical of massive top-down development programs, i.e., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he argues, in the Wall Street Journal that “…poor, ordinary people had ‘peculiar aptitudes for solving the problems of their own time and place,’ a confidence later vindicated by homegrown success in Botswana, the East Asian tigers, India, Chile, Turkey and China.”
In Foreign Policy Easterly writes,
For decades, …countries have struggled tremendously to realize the potential of individual creativity as opposed to the smothering hand of the state….
It wasn’t happening because experts had handed out some blueprint for achieving economic growth to governments and then down to the people. What happened instead was a Revolution from Below – poor people taking the initiative without experts telling them what to do.
The lesson of successful development around the world is the lesson of successful schools, locally created programs, embedded in a culture that encourages and rewards innovation and creativity, is the key to student progress.
I fear Barack and Arne’s plan may be yet another chapter in that book about failed school reform efforts.