05/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education Reform: Accent on the Wrong Syllable

What is President Obama thinking? The administration's recently announced

School Turnaround Grants

require school districts to take at least one of three drastic steps: firing the principal and at least half the staff of a troubled school; reopening it as a charter school; or closing the school altogether and transferring students to better schools in the district.

This get-tough plan will damage and isolate schools that need federal support, not punishment. Indeed, the President's approach lacks any hint of the important systemic change concepts he politically espouses, like vision, clarity, leadership, and collaboration.

In what must have come a bit too late to affect the administration's strategy, Diane Ravitch, one of the most influential education policymakers of the last 30 years, appeared in the New York Times to criticize the very programs she once championed ("Scholar's School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate").

For decades, Ravitch condemned the progressive pedagogy that shaped American schools for three-quarters of the 20th century and saw the US lead the world in high school qualifications. Yet today, Ravitch has decided it is time for an about-face.

Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch is now caustically critical. She underwent an intellectual crisis, she says, discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education.

Ravitch's late turn around is embarrassing, and it will remain an embarrassment for as long as we continue to reject the progressive beliefs that led the world, for the test-and-punish educational strategies we have today.

President Obama missed Ravitch's revelation that punitive actions have little or no effect on improving teaching, schools or outcomes. Instead, he concentrates on performance incentives, piecemeal interventions, wholesale terminations and sanctions, community displacement and the aborted teacher/child relationships reform bandwagon.

Another important development escaped the President's attention. Michael Fullan, an authority on education reform, published a new book, All Systems Go, The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform.

Fullan has written many important works, so what is remarkable about this one? Answer: successful case studies from real life school districts of tangible, system improvement experiences that can help us "sustain change beyond simply reacting to a crisis."

Fullan masterfully presents the large picture. He details seven key ideas, which include successful, already in-practice examples of documented student improvement in as little as two years. While the book is not a universal road map, it does offer careful, intentional thought, antithetical to current US law and funding policies.

What if we supported the improvement of all schools? Not just the 5,000 currently labeled "failing," but all 90,000 throughout the country? When we support the whole system, and support success for all, everyone wins.

In education, accountability is critical, but if we are going to build a sustainable model, the whole system needs to believe that change is possible. Mr. President, shift the paradigm and focus on what Michael Fullan calls, "Collective Capacity." May I send you a copy of All Systems Go? I promise it is an engaging, profound read.