Not Making the Grade on Reform

Not Making the Grade on Reform

By Ruben Navarrette - April 4, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- As one of the chief architects of No Child Left Behind, Sandy Kress wishes that when it comes to education reform, President Obama offered more hope and less change. The longtime Democrat wanted the administration to continue George W. Bush's attempts to hold schools accountable for the academic progress of children typically underserved by the public schools, i.e., Hispanics, African-Americans, English-language learners, and the disadvantaged.

A former president of the Dallas school board who is now an Austin-based attorney, Kress initially liked what he saw. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were making enemies of teachers unions by suggesting merit pay for good teachers, applauding the firing of bad teachers, and announcing that the administration's $4.3 billion Race to the Top program would use student test scores to evaluate teachers. Duncan added a scathing and dead-on criticism of the nation's 1,450 teachers colleges for doing a mediocre job of training future educators.

In fact, Obama and Duncan have created an environment through their laser-like focus on teachers where it is now socially acceptable, even in liberal circles, to ask not only how much students are learning and how well schools are performing but also how well teachers are teaching. It's about time. Since the release of the blockbuster 1955 book, Americans have spent billions trying to figure out "Why Johnny Can't Read." But we haven't spent enough time or money trying to figure out why Johnny's teacher can't seem to teach him to read.

So far, so good, thought Kress. But then he took a closer look at what the Obama administration has planned for NCLB, which is due to be reauthorized this year. And he considered the impact that those changes would have on efforts to hold teachers and schools accountable for student performance.

What Obama is offering, Kress told me, is a watered-down version of education reform that lets most schools off the hook.

"I think there is a huge flaw in the blueprint," Kress said. "And it's in the part that relates to accountability."

For Kress, making schools accountable means putting them on notice that they're being watched by the federal government and expected to do a better job of educating minority and disadvantaged students.

"That's why we're here," Kress said. "We're not here for everybody to do great or to solve every problem. The historic role of the federal government, ever since Lyndon Johnson, is that the United States has an interest in disadvantaged students and their success and in closing the achievement gap."

This is where Obama really falls short, Kress contends. One of the president's big mistakes, he said, is rolling back the involvement of the federal government in favor of more local control by leaving it to states and school districts to decide how to make progress.

You remember local control. That's the governing principle that essentially handed the power over the system to teachers unions because they contribute so much money to the campaigns of labor-friendly school board members. The unions in turn put the job security of their members ahead of the educational well-being of students, and thus helped put our public schools in bad shape. You see, local control isn't the solution; it's one of the problems.

According to Kress, an even bigger problem is that while NCLB put pressure on all schools with a certain percentage of minority or disadvantaged students, the Obama plan bears down only on the worst 5 percent of schools. Stay out of that group and you escape scrutiny and can do pretty much what you want. Also, whereas NCLB provided students in failing schools with tutoring and public school choice, the Obama plan discards those remedies.

"That's a huge sellout," said Kress, "and a problem because, at the end of the day, it's not like anyone has found a way to fix these schools. But under NCLB, at least there conceptually, there was the idea that, if they can't fix your school, you could flee your school or you could at least get tutoring that helps you survive."

Kress thinks the result is outrageous and that it turns back the clock on education reform. In light of this, I asked him to grade the Obama administration for its efforts.

"I was thinking B-plus until I saw the recommendations," he said. "Now it goes down to a D-plus."

That's brutal, but it seems appropriate. After all, Mr. President, accountability starts at the top.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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