Education Deja Vu - How Ironic

Education Deja Vu - How Ironic

By Ruben Navarrette - August 23, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- Today's lesson is about irony. Example: When teachers unions and other defenders of the educational status quo -- who spent years blasting a Republican president for expanding the federal government's role in public education, increasing the use of test scores, and coercing educators to improve the academic performance of students by threatening to withhold federal funds -- help elect a Democratic president who now wants to do pretty much the same thing.

Move over No Child Left Behind. Here comes the Race to the Top.

That's the ambitious reform program being implemented by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was allotted $4.3 billion in stimulus funds to use any way he sees fit. Wisely and admirably, Duncan decided that the best use of that money was to put it to work pressuring states and school districts to do exactly what No Child Left Behind tried to do: increase accountability, foster innovation, collect data on student performance, improve achievement, and turn around failing schools. Under the Duncan plan, only states and school districts that commit to doing all of the above are eligible to apply for grants and get a shot at the money.

Another administration goal is to increase the number of charter schools by removing arbitrary caps on how many of them are allowed in a state or school district. These nonunionized, publicly funded alternative schools operate on tighter budgets than public schools. But they also have more autonomy. That flexibility may be why -- in the last decade -- charter schools have yielded a number of success stories.

It gets better. You may recall that George W. Bush's critics absolutely despised the emphasis put on test scores by No Child Left Behind. They said it cheapened the educational process, and forced teachers to spend all their time "teaching to the test." Of course, that was just for public consumption. What really worried them was that tests -- along with the process of aggregating the data according to race -- would reveal, for all to see, the lousy job that public schools are doing in educating minority students.

Well, now, as some critics on the left have pointed out, the Race to the Top actually puts even more emphasis on those dreaded test scores than did No Child Left Behind. Whereas the Bush measure used test scores to evaluate schools, what Duncan has in mind is to use those scores to evaluate individual teachers.

It's about time. That idea is brilliant, and just what the reformers ordered. The reason many teachers resist education reform is because they want to insulate themselves from the product they turn out. Until that mentality changes, we'll never close the achievement gap or bring all students to grade-level in math and reading.

Teachers need a reality check. Those of us who work in the private sector don't have the luxury of turning out mediocre products year after year, resisting accountability and higher standards, and then demanding a raise for just showing up. Teachers shouldn't have that luxury either. They demand to be respected as professionals. Fine. Step one is to play the game by the same set of rules that the rest of us have to adhere to, and that starts with standing behind what you produce.

Not that it will be easy for recipients to tap into the Race to the Top funds. Some states -- such as California, New York and Wisconsin -- may have to rewrite existing education laws that prohibit test scores from being used to evaluate teachers.

They'll do it. Just watch. No state or school district wants to miss out on its share of the $4.3 billion giveaway. The bureaucrats know that if they leave any funds behind, some other bureaucrat in another state or the neighboring district will gobble them up.

Of course, none of this pleases the teachers unions and others on the educational left. Desperate to preserve their own power, many of them are now criticizing the Obama administration as vehemently as they used to criticize the Bush administration. They've even stolen a page from conservatives in stressing the virtues of local control of the education process.

That's beautiful. Where was this devotion to local autonomy all those years when liberals were putting their hands out for more and more federal funding of public education? It wasn't there. It only pops up when the federal government, in doling out the cash, has the audacity to attach strings.

That tells us we need to attach more of them.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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