One of the remarkable things about contemporary education reform may be its lack of interest in responsible parenting. In recent years, an intense focus on closing racial and economic achievement gaps has resulted in policies and practices that can sometimes come at the expense of families that work hard and play by the rules.
Stanford's Tom Dee and UVA's Jim Wyckoff have just published an important study on Washington DC's controversial teacher evaluation system. The study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, notes that IMPACT appears to aid students both by "avoiding the career-long retention of the lowest-performing teachers and through broad increases in teacher performance." Unfortunately, in the giddy chest-thumping to which would-be reformers have shown themselves all too susceptible, it can be easy to overlook some of the factors that help qualify the broader significance of the findings.
The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking "waivers" from the No Child Left Behind Act's most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else. In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that "effective" teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.
For much of this year, as I've been bouncing around the country talking Cage-Busting Leadership, more than a few teachers have said, "This is all well and good, Rick, but what about me as a classroom teacher?" They had a helluva good point. These are exciting times for teacher leadership. There are grand opportunities to be seized, though doing so requires both imagination and discipline.
Earlier this week, Politico ran a story on school vouchers headlined "Vouchers Don't Do Much for Students," and that was probably the most pro-voucher line in the piece. When it comes to making sense of an article like this, there are at least four points worth keeping in mind.
Obama held out the promise of a post-racial, post-partisan presidency. He would not reflexively dismiss vouchers or play interest-group politics. Five years on, things have changed. Last month, Obama's Department of Justice filed suit to halt the Louisiana Scholarship Program.
The shutdown is an extreme version of federal politics at play, but it also illuminates how dependence on federal funding inevitably sucks a sector or program into the vortex of national politics and federal politicking. A supersized version of this is playing out in health care, where policy thinkers, advocates, and practitioners (of all stripes) find their ideas caricatured amidst the swirling political currents that surround the Affordable Care Act.
Real change requires much more attention to the second half of the improvement agenda: cultivating and supporting teachers, principals, district leaders, and state officials willing and able to rethink old norms.
Many of the problems reformers are trying to solve are the result less of statutory constraints than of confusion, apathy, ignorance, or excessive caution.
The right response to missteps and disappointments is certainly not to abandon common sense measures. Instead, it is (as I point out in last week's National Affairs essay "The Missing Half of School Reform" to properly appreciate a lesson that the great political scientist James Q. Wilson taught long ago: Formal policy is often no match for the countervailing pressures of localized incentives, institutional cultures, situational imperatives, and internalized obstacles.