Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paying for School Reform

The Selling Of School Reform

Dana Goldstein
The Nation
June 15, 2009

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: Al
Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mike Bloomberg--all failed
presidential hopefuls--arrive at the White House for a
joint meeting with President Barack Obama. Upon leaving
the Oval Office, they convene a press conference on the
White House lawn.

But far from tearing one another to bits or sniping at
the man whose job they coveted, these unlikely
comrades--a self-appointed civil rights spokesman, a
former Republican Speaker of the House and a
billionaire New York City mayor--were in total
agreement. The topic of the meeting? Schools.

"You have to hold people accountable, and those that
perform should be the ones that teach our kids, and
those that don't, unfortunately our children are just
too important," Bloomberg said, referring to his
support for teacher merit pay.

Sharpton intoned, "The nation's future is at stake, our
children [are] at stake."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan was there to lend the
administration's support. "There's a real sense of
economic imperative," he said. "We have to educate our
way [to] a better economy."

Though the media portrayed the meeting as one among
"strange bedfellows," in fact Sharpton, Gingrich and
Bloomberg are all on the same side of the education
policy debate roiling the Democratic Party. The three
are spokesmen for the Education Equality Project (EEP),
an advocacy group that has attracted widespread media
attention since its June 2008 launch, in large part
because of its bipartisan call for policies like merit
pay and the expansion of the charter school sector.
With the support of rising star Democrats like Newark,
New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, DC, Mayor
Adrian Fenty, the EEP and such allied groups as the
political action committee Democrats for Education
Reform--have openly pushed back against the influence
of teachers unions, community groups and teachers
colleges over national education policy. Proclaiming
themselves "reformers," they often borrow their
strategies from the private sector, and they believe
urban public schools must be subjected to more free-
market competition.

On the other side of the divide is a group of
progressive policy experts and educators who published
a manifesto during campaign season called A Broader,
Bolder Approach to Education. They believe teachers and
schools will not be able to eradicate the achievement
gap between middle-class white children and everyone
else until a wide array of social services are
available to poor families. They envision schools as
community centers, offering families healthcare, meals
and counseling.

Theoretically, there is no reason all these people
can't work together. Some charter schools, after all,
have had extraordinary success in raising the
achievement of low-income students--even, in some
cases, with the cooperation of teachers unions. Many
younger teachers appear enthusiastic about performance-
based pay, although there is no evidence from the
cities that have tried it, like Denver, that it
improves student achievement. Yet the single-
mindedness--some would say obsessiveness--of the
reformers' focus on these specific policy levers puts
off more traditional Democratic education experts and
unionists. As they see it, with the vast majority of
poor children educated in traditional public schools,
education reform must focus on improving the management
of the public system and the quality of its services--
not just on supporting charter schools. What's more,
social science has long been clear on the fact that
poverty and segregation influence students' academic
outcomes at least as much as do teachers and schools.

Obama's decision to invite representatives of only one
side of this divide to the Oval Office confirmed what
many suspected: the new administration--despite
internal sympathy for the "broader, bolder approach"--
is eager to affiliate itself with the bipartisan flash
and pizazz around the new education reformers. The risk
is that in doing so the administration will alienate
supporters with a more nuanced view of education
policy. What's more, critics contend that free-market
education reform is a top-down movement that is
struggling to build relationships with parents and
community activists, the folks who typically support
local schools and mobilize neighbors on their behalf.

So keenly aware of this deficit are education reformers
that a number of influential players were involved in
the payment of $500,000 to Sharpton's nearly broke
nonprofit, the National Action Network, in order to
procure Sharpton as a national spokesman for the EEP.
And Sharpton's presence has unquestionably benefited
the EEP coalition, ensuring media attention and
grassroots African-American crowds at events like the
one held during Obama's inauguration festivities, at
Cardozo High School in Washington.

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