Negotiating the Democratic Education Divide

In Denver two weeks ago, I reported on the ever-more-confrontational debate between teachers unions and progressive education reformer types who, backed by influential philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad, are moving the Democratic Party toward an enthusiastic acceptance of public charter schools, private school vouchers, test-based accountability, and merit pay for teachers. Barack Obama's big education speech today is obviously an attempt to negotiate divisions within and outside of his party over these questions. So where did Obama come down? Here's my verdict: mostly on the side of the reformers. But keep reading for the details.

In comparing American schools to those of Asian countries perceived to be economic threats, Obama takes several pages from the Broad/Gates book of edu reform, which at times seems obsessively focused on international competition instead of education inequality here within the United States — surely the more pressing problem, given the unparalleled quality of our most elite high schools and universities. Obama also embraced the argument, unfounded by actual economics, that education (instead of public policy and private sector innovation) drives productivity, job growth, and more equal distribution of pay.

All in all though, Obama accomplished several important things with this speech and his expanded education platform. First, he highlighted the fact that, despite John McCain's new found interest in education, in his three decade legislative career, McCain never once sponsored a bill on the topic or took any education position out of step with his party. That meant cutting funding for early child education, supporting the dissolution of the Department of Education during the Reagan years, and, more recently, opposing the full funding of No Child Left Behind.

On NCLB, Obama used a popular line in opposition to "fill in the bubbles" standardized tests, but also said he supports assessments that work. That's important, because research shows that one of the most effective ways of closing the achievement gap between poor and affluent kids is to frequently assess students to find out exactly what they are learning and where they need to improve. The key, of course, is that this shouldn't just happen in basic math and reading, but also in writing, science, and history — and the assessments must measure critical thinking, not just rote knowledge.

As expected, Obama once again said he supports teacher merit pay only in cases where teachers are involved in crafting the plans and approving of them, presumably through their unions. The most delicate, and important, part of Obama's proposal, though, concerns charter schools — schools managed by entities other than the local school district. Obama is proposing an "Innovative Schools Fund" that would help districts create a "portfolio" of schools, some with themes, managed by entities including universities, nonprofits, and even for-profits. With all of this, Obama is borrowing from the vocabulary of the education reformers and adopting their key goal. (If you want to learn about how New Orleans is becoming the new model of a "portfolio" district, check out this Times magazine feature.) But the weakness of charters is the same weakness of any group of schools — their quality is uneven, and although charter schools are among those that have been most successful at closing the achievement gap, across the board charters are no more successful at raising poor kids' academic achievement than public schools are.

Obama is betting, though, that the innovation instincts of charters are good for the education market, and thus should be encouraged. (A smart bet, I think.) He's promising to double federal funding for "responsible" charters and move quickly to shut down the ones that aren't working, or put them under different management. That last part will be the real challenge. If Obama opposes NCLB's threats to partially de-fund or shut down failing public schools (and he says he does), he should understand why it will be so hard to do the same thing to charters. Once a school is operational, the lives of children and their families are disrupted by major changes in that school's management. Constituencies will fight attempts to close institutions that are providing jobs and services to a community. And what's more, it's often difficult to tell exactly which charters are working and which aren't. How will that be measured? In comparison to other schools in a district? By test scores? By the yearly gains of the students in attendence? These are messy details, but they are details that will need be worked out at the local level, hopefully with guidance and oversight from the Department of Education. Right now, all Obama is promising is a "clear process" — one that remains undefined.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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