[I]n a sign of the Obama administration’s strained relations with two of its most powerful political allies, no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling. .....Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the union, the National Education Association, told thousands of members gathered at the convention center here"Dissatisfaction at the NEA arises from the fact that the Obama administration has continued--even dialed up--most of the policies of the Bush-II administration. Unfortunately, the state of national dialog on public education has resolved itself into an argument on whether the Bush-Obama-Arnie Duncan reforms or the position of the NEA, is correct. I think the issues are way more complicated than that. Regrettably, the National Education Association has taken some stands against needed reform. But that doesn't mean that the Obama-Bush approach is the correct one. My issue with the Obama administration is that, like the Bush administration before it, Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan believe that they can improve education by imposing the same approach in Newark New Jersey, Chicago and Washington, D.C. on the one hand, and St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids and Wilmar, on the other.
Part of the problem is that most policy makers think of public education as if it all the same across the country. Policy makers in Washington, D.C. seem to think that every school system in the Country is exactly like Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, or Texas. In some large urban school districts, the public system, and in fact the entire urban infrastructure that surrounds it has become so dysfunctional that its almost impossible for strong teachers and strong educational leaders to function effectively. And in some of these districts, there is deep systemic failure that has allowed systemic incompetence to infiltrate or permeate. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are desperate attempts to blow up these failed systems and hope that massive reorganization will create something new and more effective. Both of these ideas have been devised by bureaucrats with good intentions who have fastened on hair-brained solutions borne of desperation. One problem is that the reform efforts are designed to fix completely dysfunctional schools, schools that appear to be mired deeply in systemic failure, and to apply those solutions to schools. Using the same strategies to improve all school systems across the country, as if they were all dysfunctional failing schools, is well, just plain dumb. Different problems require different solutions.
By now, some of you are ready to exclaim that if I'm attacking the Obama-Bush policies, why then I must be on the side of the NEA. But my point is that I don't have to choose one position or the other. Its possible, isn't it, that neither is offering an approach that makes sense for St. Cloud or other Minnesota Districts.
There are lots of school systems across this country that have a core of great teachers, schools that are doing quite well with most of their students and that the solution begins with building on the strengths that we have, and focusing on the improvements that are needed. We don't tear down a building because the roof is leaking. A leaky roof is intolerable for a house, or any other building, and it has to be fixed. But don't tell me I don't want to fix the roof, because I don't want to bulldoze the house down.
Politicians in D.C. and St. Paul don't want to hear this, but the fact is that there is little evidence that the radical solutions implemented over the last decade has resulted in the promised improvement. After a more than a decade of charter school experimentation in Minnesota, the State Legislative Auditor found no evidence that on the average, charter schools are doing any better than their public school competitors, and the data might well be interpreted to suggest that the public schools are doing somewhat better. We can find examples of very successful charter schools. And these success stories are trotted out as proof that the charter school idea is the answer to making education better. The simple fact is, however, that proponents of these reforms compare the very most successful charter schools to the very worst public schools when they tout charter schools as the key to reform.
Research is beginning to question whether radical school restructurings imposed by NCLB has led to significant improvement either. Reports are coming in that suggest that, on the average, the restructured schools are not doing better than the schools that they replaced. More and more examples are being reported of schools that have made substantial progress, with dedicated staff, outstanding leaders, that are being mechanically ordered to restructure, despite the fact that these schools are making exceptional progress. Too often, political leaders find one or two success stories and pretend that these particularized success stories are proof that, well, if we do exactly the same thing in every school and district throughout the country, something great is going to happen.
This issue of education reform needs to be approached with a heavy dose of humility. Arnie Duncan doesn't have the solution: he ran the Chicago school district and there isn't a whole lot of evidence that the reforms that he put in place have made all that much difference. NEA isn't out front advocating for needed reforms. And I'm hear to tell you that, as much as it pains me to admit, I don't claim to have a magic bullet either. We need to start with humility and a recognition that school improvement is going to take a lot of hard work. Most of that hard work, and most of the changes are going to have to be led and implemented by educational leaders, not bureaucrats, pundits, or school board members. More to come.