Where Is the “Loyal Opposition” in Ed Reform?

The drumbeat toward reform continues.  Wisconsin’s Democratic governor is now calling for changes to the state law to tear down the firewall preventing the tie between teachers and student achievement.  Indiana continues its push to “reform” teacher certification, with the state superintendent looking to more fully embrace the alternative certification pathways advocated by the U.S. Department of Education and its Race to the Top guidance.  Even states like New York and California are looking for ways to show they are “reformers” and not the status quoers they have long been known as.

Earlier this week, Politico ran a much-anticipated profile of EdSec Arne Duncan and his push to reform and improve public education in the United States.  The full article can be found here.  As is typical with these sorts of pieces, Politico sought to get some opposing viewpoints on the Duncan agenda.  The end result?  Critique from the usual critic Jack Jennings, concerns about federal control of education from the top Republican on the House Education Committee, and frustrations from a parent advocacy group in Chicago that clearly didn’t get its way when Duncan was CEO of the Windy City’s public school system.
For the past six-plus months, Duncan and his team have moved forward with a bold, ambitious agenda for reforming education.  Through State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, RttT, the anticipated Innovation Fund, and regular prioritization of the pending budget, they have made their plan for improvement clear and unquestioned.  Student achievement is the name of the game.  Charter schools, alternative certification, teacher incentives, and other such tactics are the drivers.  STEM and core standards are foundations.  And ED is going to great lengths to avoid the phrase, Adequate Yearly Progress is still very much the name of the game.  Those states and districts that want to feed at the federal innovation and improvement trough will need to demonstrate that they are making continued, sustained gains in student achievement.  Those who can narrow the achievement gap along the way will get extra gold stars (and possibly extra zeros at the end of their checks).
In response to this agenda, most of the education community is falling over itself to demonstrate that it is already marching in lockstep with ED (or is willing to do whatever it takes to pick up the beat as quickly as possible).  There is little, if any, chatter coming from states about potential changes to RttT.  Instead, states are trying to figure out how they will change to meet RttT.  Instead of questioning one of many of the 19 criteria established in RttT, we are asking if each will hold equal weight.  We want to know if getting union sign off is as important as removing the charter school cap or agreeing to sign on to core standards before they are written and analyzed.
It all begs one very important question.  Where is the loyal opposition to these proposed education reforms?  Why are we not hearing voices speaking out against the proposed policies, the proposed measurements, and the proposed outcomes that will result from this agenda?  Have we truly found a reform agenda that we all agree to, or are concerned voices too worried about retribution or being tagged as roadblocks if they speak out against current plans?
All told, the United States spends more than $500 billion a year on K-12 education.  So RttT represents less than 1 percent of what we spend in a given year.  When you factor in the realization that less than half of states are likely to be dubbed with the RttT honor, the impact is even smaller.  So it can’t just be worry that criticism today means rejection tomorrow, can it?  Do we believe that if a state raises concerns about some of the criteria now that the “expert panel” of reviewers will hold that against them when their RrrT applications (those expected to take states upwards of 700 man hours to complete) will be dinged by such rhetoric?
Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is a strong supporter of most of reforms moved forward by Duncan and crew.  I believe we need to expand school choice, particularly for those students in chronically low-performing schools.  We should be incentivizing effective teachers, particularly those who are teaching in at-risk communities.  All states should not only adopt core standards, but there should be strong national standards with equally strong assessments to go with them.  We need to provide both the financial carrot and stick to drive reforms, and we need to focus on key states and districts as incubators for real change and improvement, using them to model what is possible for the rest.
But I also believe that good ideas become great policy when they are debated, dissected, and forced to withstand the scrutiny of critics and defenders of the status quo.  Call it being a contrarian or an agitator, but I just can’t believe we get it “right” the first time around.  We let our friends offer improvement, and we listen to our enemies to shore up the plans and make sure we are taking those steps which we believe in, can stand behind, and can demonstrate real return on.  No, we don’t look to build consensus policy.  Consensus is usually the kiss of death, the best friend of the status quo.  But you have to show you can withstand the best shots of the competition, demonstrating the strength of your foundations.
When NCLB was signed into law six and a half years ago, it was an equally bold reform agenda with arguably greater discretionary spending coming from the federal government.  From day one and a half, we had critics and attack dogs going after the policy, the personalities, and the goals.  States threatened to refuse federal money to keep local control.  Teachers unions and advocates sued in court.  Membership organizations spoke out against the law’s narrow focus and perceived unfunded mandates?
Where is similar outrage and organization today?  Are critics building their case against these policies, keeping their powder dry until the RttT guidelines are final and the “law of the land?”  Are groups waiting for a third-party voice to step up and draw the heavy fire from DFER, EEP, TFA, and other such organizations viewed as aligned with the Duncan agenda?  Or are we simply accepting these as a fait accompli? 
I can’t imagine that Jennings is the only voice in the education community that believes there is too much emphasis on charter schools.  I can’t believe that U.S. Rep. John Kline (MN) is the only person concerned we are spending without a comprehensive strategic plan and specific measurements and benchmarks.  So why is that loyal opposition so quiet?
Nothing from traditional voices who have long questioned the role of charter schools in the traditional public school system.  Relatively nothing from teachers and their representatives on teacher incentives and effectiveness being measured by student performance on state assessments.  Virtually nothing on the focus on alternative certification, all but eliminating discussion of improving teacher colleges and traditional pathways.  Quiet on issues like the continual measure of student achievement based on reading and math scores only.  Some minor sparring on the abandonment of the voucher system in DC.  Not a word about teachers unions and their expected approvals of state reform agendas.  Relative silence on the adoption of core standards as a requirement.
Where are our backbenchers and rabble rousers?  Where are our whol
e child advocates and proponents for local control?  Where are our defenders of the status quo and of the whole child?  Where are our critics of “high-stakes” tests and federal mandates?  Where are our doubting Thomases and cynical Samanthas?  
A great deal can happen between the finalization of RttT next month and its implementation at the state and local level.  Now is the time for voices to get on the record, both those echoing the call from ED and those questioning the priorities and the expected outcomes.  Ultimately, those who don’t speak now will have little ground to stand on if they want to play “I told you so” a year or two from now.  Vigorous and educated debate only improves the final outcome.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.
    

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