07/29/2011 11:36 am ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

Let's "Save" What Matters Most: Students

The education reform movement has made such enormous progress in the past few years that a backlash is inevitable. It's coming this weekend in the form of Save Our Schools, a campaign endorsed by many of the education employee unions across the country.

But save from what, exactly? Public accountability? The increased attention that's finally being paid to the importance of quality teaching? The pressure on chronically low-performing schools to actually improve?

The SOS campaign seems more about catharsis, with vague and mostly platitudinous principles, rather than a strategy offering a specific, alternative vision for school improvement (more on this from John Merrow). The basic aim seems to be to entice the public to increase public funding through a campaign to roll back accountability. We know that won't "save schools" or serve the students in them.

But as I follow the build-up to Saturday's rally, I am most struck by the tone of the conversation in the Twittersphere, which mostly just streams excuses for the status quo. A lot of the tweeting mischaracterizes the reform movement. Let's set the record straight by identifying some of what you may hear throughout the weekend and some facts about the real goals of education reform.

First, we can expect the status quo crowd to mischaracterize any conversation about school improvement as "teacher bashing." But in fact, reformers know that having great teachers matters more than any other variable to ensure student success. While that's just common sense to parents or anyone else who's sat in a classroom, there's also plenty of research to confirm it. For example, economist Erik Hanushek showed that teachers near the top of the quality distribution move their students by an entire year's worth of additional learning compared to those near the bottom. He argues that replacing just the bottom five to eight percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near to the top of international math and science rankings.

Now, raise these data or other evidence with the SOS crowd and you'll hear that familiar retort: "They are blaming teachers again!" or, more sadly, "But schools can't fix what's broken at home." Again, Hanushek's data refutes the claim that schools are powerless to overcome family circumstances. He finds that if a student has three years in a row of great teaching, that experience will overcome the average achievement deficit between low-income kids and their more well-off peers. In other words, consistent, high-quality teaching over multiple years makes a profound difference in closing achievement gaps, regardless of a student's background.

Reformers think every kid deserves that three-year run of great teaching but they know that too many of the laws that govern our schools work against that basic goal. Most of the policies that govern teachers and teaching treat all teachers as if they are the same. (For more on this, read The Widget Effect.) Therefore, reformers are working to change state and district laws and regulations so that such policies favor kids' needs and kids get great teachers every year they are in school.

Here's another discouraging aim of the SOS campaign: while all this data shows that quality teaching matters, the backers of this rally don't want parents or the public to have the kinds of data that enable parents or school leaders to distinguish who these great teachers are. The rally's only really specific principle calls for an end to the use of student assessment for any decisions of consequence, from evaluating teachers to closing chronically low performing schools.

Over the weekend, you'll hear all the ways that data and assessments are ruining schooling. In fact, effective testing and data enable school leaders to identify what's not working so they can make sure that students and teachers get the support and resources they need to succeed. (Read more from David Brooks on how data drives performance in great schools.) That data is essential to gauging whether or not schools are making gains in addressing the inequities spelled out in the SOS principles. Eliminate assessment and the only way the public can determine if schools are actually making good on those lofty commitments to equity is by analyzing the socio-economic balance of school attendance rosters. Reformers say, "Sorry, that's just not good enough."

Do reformers understand that tests need to be improved? Absolutely! In fact, many state level reform organizations are at work in their states to ready the way for innovations in assessments that will move tests online, providing more real world experiences and real-time results. (That's an SOS principle with which we all agree!) But reformers aren't willing to cancel all use of measurement until the perfect system can be created. It's far too important a tool to ensure that students get what they need.

Another mischaracterization we'll hear a lot about this weekend will sound something like this: "Charter schools draw students away from public schools." These arguments have been around for a while, so let's just cut to the chase: First, charter schools ARE public schools; the difference is that they are empowered to operate outside of a local school districts' regulatory controls in a compact that trades increased accountability for increased innovation. And while the reform movement has been the lead champion of charters, it's also committed to quality charters, ensuring that provisions are in place to shut down bad operators.

Second, and perhaps more pernicious, these assertions suggest that public schools have some kind of indisputable claim on every child in their communities. Children in this country have a right to a quality education -- but the public schools don't have a right to every child! (Or more to the point, they don't have a guaranteed claim on the revenue that a child brings to his or her school.) Serving a community's children should be a great privilege that is earned by providing a great education. When districts lose their public's trust, families deserve options and charters provide them. So, YES!! Ensuring that provisions are in place for quality charter schools is one of many goals of the reform movement. We put the needs of students and their families ahead of the interests of "schools."

Yet another pervasive mischaracterization has to do with who's leading the reform movement. It will go something like this: "Reform groups are just fronts for big philanthropists and corporations." To any student of politics, this tactic couldn't be more clear. It suggests that the reform movement is bought and paid for by interests with no community standing. In fact, this claim dismisses outright the legitimate concerns of leading citizens who are working to improve the quality of schooling at the local and state level all over this country. If you look at the boards of most state-level advocacy groups working to advance reform, they are made up of leaders from local communities who understand how important improving schools is to the vitality of their city and state. It's especially disappointing that such tactics are at play in a campaign that's supposed to build the public's confidence in its schools.

There's going to be a lot of noise about these and other mischaracterizations this weekend, so here's the bottom line. At its core, the reform movement is committed to the most fundamental promise of public schooling: to provide all students -- regardless of their wealth or background -- with amazing opportunities to excel and achieve. When the stewards of public schooling call education a great equalizer and a pathway to opportunity for all kids, we dared to believe that vision.

Now, we want the system to actually deliver on that dream.That's why the reform movement pushes for high standards for ALL students. It's why we ask for real, measurable accountability for performance. It's why we work to ensure that all students have great teachers -- or at the very least good ones -- so that no students suffer through a year of bad teaching. We use information to expose achievement gaps and other systematic inequities that work against that promise so that action can be taken to fix those problems before they destroy kids lives. And we champion options that empower families who would otherwise be locked into systems of inferior schools.

We "save" education by demanding our schools live up to their promise: to make a difference in the lives of every student who comes to their doors.