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It's My Party

If you're a regular visitor to a Strange Land, you're aware of my ongoing disenchantment with the policy ideas currently in vogue at the US Department of Education. When it comes to federal policy initiatives and accompanying rhetoric around education, I am more bummed out now than I was five years ago, and that's saying something.

Back when the full ramifications of No Child Left Behind began re-shaping daily school practice in some ugly ways--making us test-prep specialists, for example--I was pretty sure that whatever came down the pike next was sure to be an improvement. (Thirty years in the classroom will give anyone a hard crust of cynicism, heavily laced with This Too Shall Pass.) But--no.

Incredibly, the feds have not only extended the control grab initiated by NCLB--Want some money? Change your laws!-- but have developed new strategies for fortifying the Invisible Hand School of Education Policy. I'm hardly a voice in the wilderness--lots of teachers and supporters of public education are shaking their heads in dismay over what's coming down from ED these days.

Recently, I got this message from a educator buddy:

"Let's say that Obama's education policies are defeated due to internal strife and the Republicans take the White House in the next election, what will education reform look like then? What will be the issues in your "Teacher Letters to Palin" Facebook group?"

Well, gee. That's both illogical and offensive. And it came from somebody who should know better.

The Duncan Department of Ed ought to feel flattered, not defensive, over the flood of informed pushback against their signature policy ideas. It's proof that ordinary citizens are persisting in the belief that they may have a listening ear in this administration--but more importantly, it's evidence that teachers (not ed organizations with predictable axes to grind) are finally organizing around some core ideas about saving public education.

Improving and investing in public education should never be a partisan issue. It's a vital economic issue--the president just said so--and a political issue. But pigeonholing education policy into partisan camps is moronic. And with the center of power moving steadily upward (one policy now fits all, evidently)--it's dangerous. It's not a surprise to me that some Democrats endorse test-based merit pay, unrestricted charter schools and putting untrained graduates of prestigious colleges into our toughest schools. I don't think any of those is a good, productive idea, but it doesn't mean I'm a Republican or subversive. On the contrary.

Suggesting that there is no such thing as a loyal opposition--that speaking one's own experiential truth to power is less effective than getting with the party line--is insulting. It's the antithesis of yes, we can--it's groupthink, a focus on winning rather than community. When civic discourse takes a back seat to crushing the opposition, we all lose.

I understand the familiar sausage-making metaphor, the art of compromise and negotiation in policy creation. But the Duncan ED has been awarding my tax money to education programs it considers innovative and exemplary, and I'm not impressed. I have no clue how to stop the BP oil leak or fix the mortgage market. But I do know a lot about teaching, learning and school policies--I've lived with them for 35 years. I want to be a partner in reform, not the object of reform.

Here's my short list of core policy areas that need rethinking:

• Competitive grants as funding mechanism. Boutique policy initiatives have often been funded via competitive grants as a means of launching or piloting promising programs--but dangling money in front of desperate states, then claiming that the handful of winners have been chosen via scientific, neutral, data-based application processes is wide-scale brutality.

Punishing Struggling Schools. There are plenty of struggling public schools. Firing teachers and principals is a bold and dramatic step, but doesn't address root causes for school failure. Nor do firings answer the question of what comes next, once the veterans are gone--or how to scale up school success so it's available to every child.

• Teacher professionalism. We only need to look at high-achieving countries to figure out how to invest in a truly dynamic, professional teaching force--setting the bar higher, paying close attention to induction and retention, providing targeted professional growth experiences and genuine leadership roles.

Accountability. Someone at ED ought to read the chapter in Freakonomics which explains what happened in Chicago when high-stakes testing was instituted.

What's on your short list?

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