Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Does It Have to Be a Fight?

vonzastrowc's picture

west Side StoryLike others in the media, David Brooks is composing an epic about a battle for Barack Obama's soul. It's the education "reformers" against the education "establishment." The good guys against the bad guys.

This may make for good copy, but it certainly doesn't help his readers come to grips with the complexity of challenges facing public education. (Indeed, Brooks himself doesn't always know what side he's on.)

Take, for example, the question of "merit pay for good teachers," which Brooks characterizes as a major weapon in the reformers' arsenal. The Quick and the Ed, a blog that has been nothing if not supportive of performance pay for teachers, just posted a long piece on the unreliability of the "value added" student performance measures central to most proposed performance pay systems. In other words, current measures of teacher quality offer an unstable foundation for teacher compensation decisions.

Should we therefore abandon the question? Of course not. But we should at least acknowledge that this reform, like most others, involves difficult tradeoffs and real risks. It is possible to have principled concerns about proposed reforms without treachery to the cause of reform in general.

Ironically, it's commentators like Brooks who may do long-term damage to the cause of reform. Too often, they imply that "reform" means doing anything radical, and doing it now. Just last week, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner proposed abolishing local school districts. (Yeah. That oughta do it.)

The success of major reforms under discussion hinges on big investments in research and technology. Success also requires measured, constructive public conversation about costs and benefits. Commentators who fan the flames of conflict make such critical conversations all but impossible.

In the meantime, media accounts of education reform essentially ignore important work happening in districts like urban Atlanta or rural Cottage Grove, Oregon. Educators in Cottage Grove engaged their community in discussions about school improvement, overhauled the curriculum, and continuously enhanced teachers' skills. Student performance rose dramatically.

Yet those who would pit "the reformers" against "the establishment" don't have much time for reformers who deal in anything but governance or compensation structures. That's too bad, because they're missing a big part of the story.

Update: Blogger and author Dan Brown takes aim at what he calls Brooks' "facile, distorted representation of the state of education reform."

Update II: More Obama Drama. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter has published an article that essentially rehashes Brooks' morality play. Reformers vs. establishment, good guys vs. bad guys, etc. Yet Alter's contention that KIPP schools and their brethren supply the model for education all at-risk students draws a rebuke from none other than KIPP supporter Mike Petrilli.

Alter writes, "We know by now what works for at-risk kids. The challenge is trying to replicate it.” Petrilli responds:

Replicating these schools 1,000 or 10,000-fold is more than just a challenge. It might be impossible. Writing in the Gadfly a few weeks ago, Steven Wilson made the very good point that these “no excuses” schools tend to hire graduates from America’s top universities and work them to death. Neither part of that equation is “scalable.”

In addition, high attrition rates at many of those admittedly fine schools suggest that they are not the only answer to educating all at-risk children. Alter, like many other national journalists, presents decisions as more clear-cut, and solutions as far less multifaceted, than they really are.

In a related story, Alexander Russo challenges the national media to investigate common claims about various pretenders to the Secretary of Ed. position.