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Alan Gottlieb Headshot

Thoughts on Education Reform

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Having stayed out of the fray for several months working on the business end of EdNews, I've gained some distance and perspective on the flashpoints that have been dominating the education reform debate. From a freshly detached point of view, a few things seem clear to me. In no particular order:

  • Granted, it makes no sense to evaluate educators solely on how students perform on standardized tests, imperfect instruments at best. It makes even less sense, though, to escalate this to a generalized anti-testing frenzy, as some have done. Measuring progress and achievement is essential to improvement. So by all means, find some other measures to augment testing, and throttle way back on the test-prep and test-score obsession. But keep testing.
  • Both "sides" in the reform debate like to use Finland as an example of a country that has solved the public education puzzle. On one side, advocates point out that Finnish teachers are unionized, effective and well prepared. They are a respected and admired pillar of Finnish society. Advocates on the other side point out that the teachers in Finland have had to clear some high bars to get into the profession. It takes more than a pulse and an inflated grade point average to get a Finnish teaching license. Until we can figure out how to make teaching a true profession in this country, and attract a larger number of highest caliber applicants, our education system will not match Finland's results. What can we do to make teachers feel efficacious? How do we make teaching a career as appealing as engineering, law or medicine? And then what do we do about current teachers who wouldn't be able to clear the Finnish bar?
  • Some people skeptical about charter schools want districts to focus instead (or in addition to) on strong neighborhood schools. It makes a great political slogan. Many of these folks are self-identified progressives, who decry what they see as the segregating nature of some charter schools. So how can they reconcile this with their push to focus on neighborhood schools? Cities like Denver, with racially and socio-economically segregated neighborhoods, are, logically, going to have segregated neighborhood schools. Remember the Mitchell Montessori magnet in Northeast Denver? As busing ended in the mid-1990s, a small but vocal group of advocates demanded their neighborhood school back. The school board acquiesced, dismantling one of the most successful models of integration in the city. And Mitchell spiraled downhill, eventually closing.
  • Decades of research, beginning with the Coleman Report, have demonstrated conclusively that "out-of-school effects" have a huge impact on low-income students' preparedness and achievement. Yet there's something irresponsible about the way some people who oppose current reforms are using this credible research to raise a white flag and say you can't fix schools without first fixing poverty. What society in human history has "fixed" poverty? Currently we're heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction when it comes to attacking poverty. Yet pockets of hope have emerged in education. Saying poverty is the problem may be partly true, but it's a cop-out.
  • Growth measures for standardized test scores are a great leap forward in making school data meaningful. But amid the myriad spins placed on the data by districts and advocacy groups, let's not lose sight of the fact that "status" (just plain, old-fashioned scores) matter as well. A high growth trajectory for a kid who started out several grade levels behind won't necessarily get him/her to promised land of proficiency. Growth should augment but not replace status scores.
  • Just because a school seeks innovation status doesn't mean it has the tools to succeed. I'm awaiting the day when Denver says no to some of its weaker applicants instead of approving them all. Weak innovation schools undermine a potentially groundbreaking policy. I understand the "let a thousand flowers bloom" philosophy, but you have to make sure you start with healthy seeds.
  • The Douglas County voucher debate is a fascinating legal puzzle. But I'm still stuck on why, aside from ideology, an affluent, high-performing school district would push vouchers. Call me a mush-headed liberal, but the only compelling argument I've ever heard for vouchers is as an escape hatch for low-income kids stuck in abysmal urban schools with no viable public options available. I respect the commitment and fervor of friends to my political right, but in the end I come back to this question: Douglas County? Really?
  • Speaking of vouchers, Denver school board candidate Emily Sirota (running against Anne Bye Rowe in Southeast Denver) sent out an email last week warning that vouchers could be coming to Denver. Using some convoluted reasoning, Sirota said that because Democrats for Education Reform endorses her opponent, and some in DFER have said they support vouchers (though the link she provides is unclear on this issue), a victory for her opponent could mean vouchers here. Please. Vouchers in Denver? When pigs fly.