Ask the Washington-based groups representing adults who work in the education system and they'll tell you that when President Obama turns to the subject of education in his State of the Union speech, he should say that No Child Left Behind asks too much of our teachers and administrators and should be replaced with a "fairer" law that would throttle down the demands on schools.
But most other Americans I talk with have a very different view. While they know that the current law is far from perfect, they also know that our kids aren't gaining skills and knowledge nearly as fast as they need to in order to keep up with the escalating demands in the world of work -- or, for that matter, with our international competitors. They know that this is not the time to take the foot off the gas pedal. And they'll be listening closely to what the president says for clues about whether he shares their view.
The president, of course, has been unusually clear about the urgent need for change. He has taken almost every opportunity to secure additional federal funds for education as state and local budgets declined dramatically, and he has almost always accompanied those resources with a demand for important improvements. Moreover, unlike most of his predecessors, he has openly and aggressively confronted some of the stalwarts of his own party -- including the teachers' unions -- calling them out for protecting unproductive people and practices, even as he asks parents and students themselves to redouble their efforts.
Many congressional Republicans share the views that the President has expressed in the past. So they too will be listening closely to his speech for clues about whether he will remain true to those views, or pare them back under pressure from well-connected advocates for education policies that demonstrate more show than substance.
So, what, in particular, should we all be listening for?
First, there is the matter of goals. Some have interpreted Education Secretary Arne Duncan's focus on the nation's lowest performing schools as a sign that the Obama administration will back off on setting strong improvement goals for the other 95 percent of our schools, returning us to an era when we left this matter to state and local leaders. Don't be fooled about the wisdom of that approach. While states have done wonderful recent work in coming to agreement on common "college and work-ready" standards, their own track record of actually getting students to reach standards, by setting stretch goals, is extremely weak. Strong state leaders know they need federal leverage to set strong goals.
Second, and equally important, is the question of goals for whom. Many adults who work in education would love to go back to the days in which a school's average performance was all that mattered -- when they could simply sweep under the rug achievement gaps that separate low-income from middle-class students and students of color from white students.
While that may make life easier for the adults employed by schools and school systems, it would be catastrophic for the students in underperforming groups, who desperately need us to expect more of them and their schools. It would also represent a huge setback for our country -- we'd not only be walking away from a national imperative for fairness, we'd be undercutting the chances for success of over half of our students. These young people will either accelerate our economy or be a drag on it. The choice is ours.
President Obama needs to clearly signal that schools will be held accountable for the performance of all of their students and for closing the longstanding gaps that threaten our future. We can't have educational reform without equity; we can't get the changes in achievement we need nationally without educating all of our children.
Third is the matter of teacher quality. The president and Secretary Duncan deserve credit for ratcheting up public understanding of the importance of strong teachers. So far, though, most states have not moved away from cookie-cutter evaluation systems for teachers or administrators, which rate virtually all of them as doing a good job. Anyone who has kids or spends much time in schools knows they are not all satisfactory, and that problems are especially severe in schools with concentrations of low-income students and students of color.
Better evaluations can help to raise performance in two ways: by giving teachers the clear expectations they deserve -- with evaluations based on well-defined public standards -- and by using those assessments to identify the supports teachers need in order to improve when they don't measure up. President Obama needs to stay strong on this issue, along with the members of Congress from both parties who insist that we can't afford to continue employing teachers who aren't effective, and we can't afford to continue assigning our least effective teachers to the students who desperately need our best.
In short, we need the president to ask more -- not less -- of our students and our schools because, given the state of the union, we have neither a moment nor a child to waste.
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