The Future Of Education On Disastrous Course

More New Democrats and DFER

According to Rahm Emanuel, Democratic policymakers are working on a "quiet revolution" in education reform. If yesterday's DLC gathering and two briefs from DFER are indicators of what's to come, we're in for some big changes. Here is a summary of the hour-plus DLC discussion on education reform and the DFER policy briefs.

DLC Policy Forum on Health and Education Reform:
The DLC gathering began with speeches by Emanuel and DLC President Bruce Reed (education viewpoints explored here). Emanuel, when not pressuring freshmen Democrats from voting against another $100+ billion for the War on Terror, is pushing support for Duncan's brand of education reform. This includes common standards, removing the caps from charter schools, pay for performance, and the incentives built into the "Race to the Top" fund. "We know what's necessary as it relates to quality teachers," says Emanuel. "We know what's necessary as it relates to competition in the public school system, i.e. charters," he continues. "And we know what's necessary to adopt the common standards so you're raising the capacity of our children, our schools, and our teachers." Reed suggested education reform was the "sleeper issue" of the Obama administration, which is dealing with healthcare reform and the ongoing economic crisis. But the Democrats are "just getting warmed up" in education reform and in the next few weeks, President Obama will be making announcements about expanding both community college and early childhood education.

The action really gets interesting during the panel following the speeches of Emanuel and Reed. Andrew Rotherham moderated a discussion between DFER's Joe Williams, DLC's Harold Ford, Jr., Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, and Florida Democrat Lorraine Ausley.

There was agreement on expanding charter schools and shutting failing schools ("Bring in the proven operators," says Williams), reforming teacher preparation programs (or eliminate them entirely: "proficiency in subject matter" is all that matters to Davis), and support for more testing.

The support for charter schools is not surprising given the presence of Rotherham and Williams, two vocal supporters of charter schools. DFER and Education Sector are certainly New Democratic organizations looking for competition and choice in public education (echoing their funders' desire for market-based reforms).

Williams even comes out with a strong anti-union stance and suggests that higher wages are a way to "buy out" potential union employees. This, of course, is needed for the charter chain that simply need a disposable source of laborers that can be fired for a variety of reasons. Rotherham suggested that we could be entering a "moneyball era" in evaluating teachers, a reference to the various statistical models used by the Oakland A's GM Billy Beane. There was a general hostility towards teacher preparation programs, particularly from Davis. Proficiency in subject matter, in Davis's opinion, is all that matters for good teaching. Davis also thinks we should establish a fast-track principal program for high-achieving college graduates who don't want to go to Wall Street and don't want to teach, which would look something like a Teach For America/New Leaders for New Schools combination.

At one point, the discussion turns to student evaluations. The idea of using a portfolio assessment method, which would certainly allow for a much more dynamic form of demonstrating learning, was brushed aside because it could not be applied evenly across the board. The crisis in standardized testing, according to DFER's Williams, is "a lack of confidence in the tests we're using." Student performance, Davis agues, is the best indicator: "performance is pretty objective - how do they do on tests?" Sharpen your pencils (or fire up your computers), American children: more testing is coming down the pipeline.

The charter school movement, it was noted, needs to do a better job of educating the public about their role in education. Most of America, the panelists argued, did not understand the concept of charter schools. Many people erroneously believe they're private schools; keep this in mind the next time you see the New Democrats refer to "public charter schools" instead of just "charter schools." This is a very intentional part of their marketing campaign.

The presentation - dubbed the "DLC Policy Forum on Health and Education Reform" - gives a pretty comprehensive view of the New Democrat's platform for education: charter schools, altering the "human capital" in education, and embracing common standards.

DFER Briefs:
One document, "Public Charter Schools and High Quality Pre-K," suggests the charter school movement could increase the availability of Pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds. I'm supportive of expanding educational opportunities, but we should also be very careful about making preschool too academic (education researchers down at the University of Oregon must be salivating over the prospect of more DIBELS testing). Sadly, I doubt this crowd of reformers understands this concept, but they also have little to no understanding of teaching and what is developmentally appropriate for children.

The second document, "Unleashing Innovation in American Schools," describes the Race to the Top fund as the "icing on the cake" of the stimulus plan. Practically drooling over the $5 billion to be used for leveraging reform, the document goes on to describe some up-and-coming school reformers who have been able to "break through bureaucratic inertia and move beyond outmoded ways of thinking about what schools can and should do." These reformers? Green Dot, NewSchools Venture Fund, MATCH Charter School, and Uncommon Schools. These school management organizations "are linking their high-achieving networks of schools with new approaches to teacher education." Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Aspire have launched a partnership with Hunter College to train 1,000 teachers every year. These new teachers, and hopefully teachers everywhere, will use more "data-driven instructional practices," a creative euphemism for dumbing down the teaching profession and injecting more computer-based learning (which is deceptively called "student-based learning" by many business-minded education reformers).

The $650 million Innovation Fund should be used to expand charter school chains, expanding data-driven instruction, and the funds should be "administered through nonprofit intermediaries that have proven track records of successfully baking and launching innovations in education." DFER is referring to venture philanthropy organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund (who has two former partners running the Race to the Top fund and Innovation fund, Joanne Weiss and Jim Shelton) and the Charter School Growth Fund.

A final word: Green Dot is described as a "disruptive innovator" in the field of education. This concept of "disruptive innovation" is laid out by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson in their new book, Disrupting Class. Christensen and his pals run the Innosight Institute; their website, which tilts strongly towards applying market fundamentalism to public education, is certainly worth exploring. There's also an interview with Jeb Bush, who evidently has read the book on his Kindle and really likes their ideas (gulp). I'll elaborate on their book in the coming days.
h/t Schools Matter

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