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David Brooks' Crush on Obama's Education Agenda

David Brooks' column today in the New York Times is stirring up a lot of commentary in the education blogosphere and Twitterverse.

I first saw Alexander Russo's tweet questioning whether we can trust that 23 states have changed laws in pursuit of Race to the Top dollars, as Brooks reports in his admiring piece on the Obama administration's education reform strategies. Naturally, his question piqued my curiosity.

After reading the whole piece, though, two other assertions Brooks makes really jumped off the screen.

This one first:

"Over the past decades, federal education policy has veered between the incredibly intrusive to the appallingly supine. The Obama administration, however, has used federal power to incite reform, without dictating it from the top."

I know more than a few state schools chiefs and local superintendents (and members of Congress, too) who would argue vigorously with that statement I highlighted in bold, especially when it comes to the four required models of school turnaround that educators must follow in order to receive a piece of the $3.5 billion in Title I school improvement grant money. Those models for turnaround are also mandated in the rules of Race to the Top and the administration is seeking to make them part of a renewed ESEA law.

Which brings me to the second Brooks assertion:

"Fifth, the administration is opening the door for more fundamental reform. Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute and others have piled up data showing that it's nearly impossible to turn around failing schools. Once mediocrity infects a school culture, it's nearly always best to simply replace the existing school with another. The administration has a program called School Improvement Grants, which is helping a few remarkable local reformers, like Joel Klein of New York City, to close miserable schools and put new ones in their place."

Ok, let's walk through this one more carefully. Smarick, as Brooks rightly points out, is a major skeptic when it comes to the notion that chronically failing schools can be fixed without completing starting over. But Brooks goes on to portray the Obama administration's school improvement grant program as existing to shut down bad schools and open new ones. That's partially true, but he ignores the three other, less drastic options that the program outlines for improving schools, and more importantly, the larger reality that very few school district leaders (Joel Klein being a major exception) are likely to opt for the closure model.

Let me also point you to Linda Perlstein's post on her EWA blog about quibbles she has with Brooks' column.

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