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Obama’s No-Brainer on Education

Jonathan Alter continues to offer evidence that Harvard grads don't need to know the subject matter in order to pontificate about education.

Gerald Bracey Comment:

Mr. Alter,

Back in April, I wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert an email that began, "I am still amazed after all these years that people who can be rational and insightful about virtually every topic under the sun go all goofy when it comes to education. Goofy is you in today's column."

Now it's your turn. Goofy is you. It so happens that Bob had also been visited by professional fear monger, Bob Wise. I guess there's good money in fear. Don't know if Roy Romer turned up in your office, but Roy, who was pretty smart when I knew him in Colorado, is the worst of the anxiety peddlers. He gets $60 million from Bill [Gates] and Eli [Broad] to make people afraid, very afraid. For an octogenarian, he's very energetic about it.

You guys don't seem to get it. "A Nation at Risk" (ANAR) said we were doomed if we didn't completely reform our schools. You point out that today we're #25 among 30 industrialized nations in math. So we didn't shape up as ANAR demanded. Yet the World Economic Forum ranks us the most competitive economy in the world. So does the Institute for Management Development.

The IMD had us replacing Japan as #1 in 1994 and remaining in that position.

You remember Japan. It had a great economy and the people who wrote ANAR thought that that was due to Japanese kids' high test scores. After ANAR appeared, Secretary of Education Ted Bell dispatched assistant secretary Checker Finn and a group of policy wonks to Japan to see if we could import their schools. They said they thought it was possible. But 7 years later, Japan's economy sank into the Pacific and took the rest of the Asian Tiger nations with it. But Japanese kids continued to ace tests. Get it through your head: tests don't count. As Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that can be measured counts."

Ask your fellow Newsweek pundit, Fareed Zakariya. He noticed that those high flying 8th graders in Singapore compared poorly to American kids 10, 20 years down the road. How come? He asked the Singapore Minister of Education. We have a test meritocracy, Mr. Minister said. You have a talent meritocracy. There are things we can't test like creativity, ambition and, most of all, the American kids' willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. This is where Singapore must learn from America. They're trying--a bunch of Singapore educators visited the adjacent county to mine and were blown away. The kids were so ENGAGED with school. Maybe that's why there are 105,000 Korean kids studying here. Their parents want them to learn English, yes, but they hate the rote learning of Korean schools and the life-determining college entrance test. But Korean kids do score high on tests.

Even if tests counted there'd be the fact that among 21 developed nations, the U.S had the highest poverty rate. If we're #1 in poverty, is it reasonable to expect #1 in test scores? But, really, tests, don't count. In fact, if you analyze the test scores by the poverty levels of schools, 30% of American kids score higher than the highest country in reading. And another 28% score high enough that if they constituted a nation, they'd rank fourth in the world (out of 35). But the Bob Wises and Roy Romers aren't interested in such analyses. They've got money to peddle fear.

George Washington University professor Iris Rotberg recently wrote, "The fact is, test score comparisons tell you very little about the quality of schools" (Education Week, June 11). You say it's fashionable to attack tests. Yes, and the preceding statement is why. If you wanted to evaluate schools based on test scores, you'd be a fool. So would Obama.

If you wanted to evaluate teachers based on test scores, you would be equally foolish. The resistance of anyone to teacher evaluation that no one has figured out how to do it. You admit this but say, "we have no way of determining which teachers can actually teach." It's a bit complicated, this. How do you separate this year's teacher contribution from last year's? How do you factor out home, community, lead poisoning, poor nutrition, asthma (which somehow doesn't seem to turn up in affluent neighborhoods), single parenthood, stress (I was just reading some pediatric literature on the devastating impact of stress on the developing brain)?

By the way, the official 2008 Texas GOP Platform says, and I quote, "The No child Left Behind Act has been a massive failure and should be abolished." Know what? They're right.

A second by-the-way and a strong request: KIPP admissions are anything but random. If Wise or Romer told you that, they're lying. And I want to see a citation for your claim that 80 percent of KIPP go to college. If you look even at KIPP's own annual reports, you see extremely high attrition rates from grade 5 to grade 8.


Gerald W. Bracey

Obamaâs No-Brainer on Education

Moderates would respond to a Democrat willing to slip the ideological stranglehold of a liberal interest group.

by Jonathan Alter

One of the best things about the democratic primaries was that horse-race-obsessed reporters rarely asked the candidates about education. Why was that good? Because hundreds of delegates who were at stake are members of Paleolithic teachers unions, ready to pounce on any challenge to the failed system they dominate. When the subject did arise, it quickly became a pander party with President Bush's (and Ted Kennedy's) No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the piñata.

But with the general election underway, Barack Obama has a chance to show that he can move at least as far toward real change in education as John McCain. Obama deserves kudos for drawing scattered boos earlier this month for mentioning merit pay when appearing via satellite before the National Education Association. (He was expected to be received more politely by the other big union, the American Federation of Teachers, at its convention last weekend.) But that was just a baby step. Now Obama needs to embrace a Grand Education Bargainâmuch higher pay for teachers in exchange for much more accountability for performance in the classroom. Good teachers need to be rewarded with more pay and respect for being members of our noblest profession. They need more resources. But they also need to be removed from the classroom when they fail to improve. Obama occasionally says as much, but goes fuzzy when it comes to how.

The stakes couldn't be higher. The United States now ranks 25th among 30 industrialized countries in math. "If I told you your basketball team finished in 25th place, you'd be outraged," says former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. When the landmark "A Nation at Risk" report was issued 25 years ago, the education system was ailing, but the United States was still No. 1 in college-graduation rates. Now we are No. 21. "We simply have not progressed," says former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who heads a commission that recently updated the report. "The rest of the world has." For example, the average European nation has 13 more school days than we do.

The irony is, we know what works to close the achievement gap. At the 60 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, more than 80 percent of 16,000 randomly selected low-income students go to college, four times the national average for poor kids. While KIPP isn't fully replicable (not enough effective teachers to go around), every low-income school should be measured by how close it gets to that model, where kids go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and part of the summer, and teachers are held strictly accountable for showing student improvement.

Railing against the tyranny of tests is fashionable, but it isn't going to save our children and our economy in the 21st century. Nor will more money for important programs like art and music. The more basic problem is that we have no way of determining which teachers can actually teach. That's right: teaching is arguably the only profession in the country with ironclad job security and a well-honed hostility to measuring results. Because of union resistance, NCLB measures only schools, not individual teachers. The result is that school districts fire on average only one teacher a year for poor performance. Before recent reforms (which have boosted test scores), New York City dismissed only 10 of 55,000 teachers annually. What business could survive that way?

Teachers unions bristle at the business comparison. But they should listen to Andy Stern, head of the nation's fastest growing union, the SEIU: "Education is like any business. You need a return on investment. Outcomes do matter. Paying people according to outcomes does matter. I don't care if a teacher has a high-school degree, college or a Ph.D. if he or she can produce results." Stern is worried that if his brethren in the teachers unions don't embrace accountability now, "parents will vote with their choices" and the unions will begin dying, as they already are in reform-minded cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.

If Stern can say that, why not Obama? All the criticism of Obama's moving to the center is misguided. General elections are won among moderate swing voters, many of whom would respond well to a Democratic candidate willing to show he can slip the ideological stranglehold of a retrograde liberal interest group. Obama's right that the NCLB-inspired testing mania is out of control, but wrong to give teachers "ownership over the design of better assessment tools." That's a recipe for no assessment, because the teachers unions, for all their lip service, don't believe their members should be judged on performance. They still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children.

Obama claims that he's bold on this topic. But he hasn't been direct enough about reforming NCLB so that it revolves around clear measurements of classroom-teacher effectiveness. Research shows that this is the only variable (not class size or school size) that can close the achievement gap. Give poor kids from broken homes the best teachers, and most learn. Period.

To get there, Obama should hold a summit of all 50 governors and move them toward national standards and better recruitment, training and evaluation of teachers. He should advocate using Title I federal funding as a lever to encourage "thin contracts" free of the insane work rules and bias toward seniority, as offered by the brilliant new superintendent in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee. He should offer federal money for salary increases, but make them conditional on differential pay (paying teachers based on performance and willingness to work in underserved schools, which surveys show many teachers favor) and on support for the elimination of tenure. And the next time he addresses them, he should tell the unions they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performanceâor face extinction.

— Jonathan Alter


URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/145843



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