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Professor Kirp's Misleading Debate on Education Reform

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Why can't critics of education reform make their case without resorting to straw man tactics, gross exaggeration, or outright falsehoods? Berkeley Professor David Kirp draws from this well-worn, anti-reform playbook with his New York Times Sunday Review essay, "Teaching Is Not a Business" (08/17/14).

First he asserts that anyone advocating any element of competition -- say, giving low-income parents the power of school choice -- or introducing technology into the classroom believes that, "the solution resides in the impersonal." That's quite an intellectual leap and ignores so much of the work underway by reform groups.

The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on targeted, personal teacher development. Teach For America has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 25 years training and supporting classroom teachers. The Broad Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars training district leaders. The federal Race to the Top program has awarded states and districts more than $5 billion dollars, much of which has been spent on professional development and supports for teachers.

Frankly, giving families the ability to pick the school that best meets the needs of their kids seems more "personal" than assigning families to one school and giving them no choice at all. And, a visit to a place like School of One in New York shows that technology -- rather than depersonalizing learning -- is helping teachers personalize learning more than ever before.

Like many of his anti-testing allies, Kirp makes the absurd claim that, "high-stakes tests are treated as the single metric of success." Wrong again. Not a single "reform" policy is based on test scores alone -- not evaluation of teachers or principals nor interventions in low-performing schools. These policies are all based on multiple measures and most reformers I know consider high school graduation and college-going rates a more important measure of success than test scores.

In yet another exaggeration, he says, "Failing schools are closed and so-called turnaround model schools, with new teachers and administrators, take their place." Actually, under the Obama administration's "turnaround" initiative (School Improvement Grant Program), only a tiny handful of the 1300 schools in the program were closed and in about 75 percent of the schools, none of the teachers were forcibly replaced. Interestingly, in the 25 percent of schools where management and some staff were replaced, achievement gains were greatest, suggesting we should be more aggressive about changing staff in underperforming schools, not less.

Here we can take our cues from New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, who, according to a profile in the New York Times, replaced 80 percent of her staff when she took over P.S. 6 in New York, achieving significant gains in student achievement.

Next up, he dismisses charters with a misleading over-simplification: "Charter students do about the same overall as their public school counterparts." Well, not exactly. Some of them do a lot better with similarly disadvantaged populations and the purpose of charters, as union leader Albert Shanker pointed out, was to drive student-focused innovations from which traditional public schools could learn.

Professor Kirp's next line of attack is especially baffling. He writes: "While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education -- bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum -- goes undiscussed." Huh? On reform websites all across the internet, the discussion never stops.

Education is America's most important issue but at times the level of public debate borders on the ludicrous. Essays like this one devalue the hard work that so many teachers, principals, parents, students, teacher unions and yes, reformers, are doing together to get better.

Is every reform working? Of course not. Is the status quo working any better-especially for children at risk? Absolutely not. A third of low-income kids never graduate from high school and too many young people who do graduate - from all economic classes -- are simply not prepared for college or work.

Meeting our educational challenges requires us to learn from what works in the schools that are achieving success with all children and apply some of those lessons to the schools that aren't. It requires us to be more open and honest about our shortcomings. And it requires us to look beyond our ideological differences and find areas of agreement on which we can build further collaboration.

To that end, I commend Professor Kirp for highlighting some positive programs like Success for All and Big Brothers and Big Sisters that are built on "social trust" and the all-important relationships among students and teachers. Along with some of our more promising reforms, they are making a difference for children and proving that our system of education, for all its flaws, is still America's best hope for the future.