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Welcome Back to School "Reform"

Dear Deborah,

And so the school year 2010-11 begins. As seen from Washington, D.C., it is another year in which the U.S. secretary of education will push and prod the American education system and make it more "competitive" in the global economy, imposing incentives and sanctions aligned to produce higher test scores. As seen from the schools, it is another year in which teachers and principals will be blamed and punished unless their scores go up and up.

Now that the nation is experiencing the eighth full year since No Child Left Behind became law, we can anticipate that more punishments will be visited upon those whose schools failed to meet their annual targets for test-score improvements. More principals will be fired, more schools will be closed.

Now that the Race to the Top has gone through two rounds of competition, its close affinity to NCLB has become evident. Indeed, NCLB, Race to the Top, and President Obama's plan to reauthorize the federal law, which he calls the Blueprint, are all variations on the same themes: accountability and choice. Since NCLB produced such meager improvement, the Obama administration has decided to tighten the reins of accountability and choice and make plainer the consequences of failing to raise test scores.

In our absence this summer, there were many important developments, and I hope we will discuss them all in detail.

Among the most notable were these:

a. The nation's leading civil-rights groups issued a statement in opposition to the Obama-Duncan vision of school reform, expressing profound opposition to the idea that schools should compete for federal funding that they desperately need. Secretary Duncan persuaded their representatives to cancel their press briefing, and the document was quietly released.

b. The Los Angeles Times began a series of articles based on the value-added test scores of 6,000 elementary school teachers, which its reporters obtained from the Los Angeles school district. In their introductory article, the reporters published the names and pictures of teachers whom they described as ineffective because their student scores had not gone up. The articles produced a firestorm of controversy. Secretary Duncan lauded the L.A. Times for being brave enough to publish the data about teacher effectiveness. Most educators who commented in the blogosphere castigated the newspaper for naming and shaming individual teachers, or for making a pretense of caring about "multiple measures" while giving credence only to test scores.

c. The Economic Policy Institute released a paper co-authored by many of the nation's leading testing experts explaining why value-added test scores should not be a major factor in evaluating teachers. It is not likely to cause the administration to reflect on their favored cause, but maybe members of Congress who are worried about the schools in their own communities will pay attention.

d. Secretary Duncan's Race to the Top identified the second round of winners of the government's billions intended to reform schools by promoting more private management of public schools and more reliance on student test scores to evaluate teachers. Losers complained bitterly that states west of the Mississippi (except Hawaii, the president's home state) were shunned. Conservatives groused that Colorado and Louisiana, two shining examples of Duncan-style reform, lost out. Duncan promised to get more money from Congress to spread his vision.

e. Catalyst, the Chicago-based publication that regularly examines the Chicago schools, reviewed the results of that city's program called Renaissance 2010, which was the strategic plan of Mayor Richard Daley and then-Superintendent Arne Duncan. Renaissance 2010 may well be the template for Race to the Top and the Obama Blueprint. Catalyst summarizes the results: 100 new schools featuring "shaky budgets," "high teacher turnover," and "mediocre
test scores."

f. A recent Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll reported that public support for the Obama education agenda has dropped from 45 percent to 34 percent. The more the public sees, the less it likes what Obama and Duncan are doing.

In the weeks ahead, I will look at each of these developments more closely.

There are two observations that I draw from this brief sketch: One, federal control and direction of education policy have largely replaced state and local control, a decisive and historic change that can be credited to (or blamed on) President George W. Bush and NCLB; two, the models for Race to the Top—Chicago and New York City—indicate that our schools will see a great deal of change in the years ahead, but not much improvement in the quality of education, if any. To the contrary, the search for higher scores is likely to promote a significant narrowing of the curriculum, cheating, teaching to the test, and other negative outcomes. To the extent that our students learn less history, science, civics, geography, foreign languages, and the arts, their education will be far worse than it is today.

Diane

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