Monday, September 8, 2008

The Burgeoning Education Reform Movement on the Left

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an article by Paul Tough on the division between teachers’ unions and education reformers. It seems that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, while problematic, is shining light on some pretty significant achievement gap that falls along racial lines.

As Dana Goldstein reported in a piece on an education reform event at the Democratic National Convention:

In the United States, about half of all black and Latino students drop out of high school, while 78 percent of white students earn a degree. And while No Child Left Behind is regarded as deeply flawed legislation in every quarter, it is also almost uniformly praised by policy wonks for shining a light on the achievement gap and for instituting the first national collection of education data correlated by race and family income.

Tough pointed out that there “is evidence that schools can do a lot to erase that divide, but the reality is that most schools do not. If we truly want to counter the effects of poverty on the achievement of children, these advocates argue, we need to start a whole lot earlier and do a whole lot more.”

But while education reformers love to paint teachers unions as standing in the way of real reform, Kevin Carey’s piece (sub. req.) in latest issue of The American Prospect notes that while teachers’ unions tend to be resistant to change, the reasons are more structural than attitudinal:

[A]s unions’ ability to garner pay increases has slowed since the 1970s, their agenda became more focused on two key goals: job security and classroom autonomy. Unions also focused on school security, seeking to maintain the status quo. They weren’t interested in letting other public schools compete for the same children or letting outside agencies judge school results. Classroom autonomy, meanwhile, was seen as a key element of elevating the teaching profession into the realm of respected, self-directed professionals. This, too, argued against uniform standards. [emphasis his]

So the answer, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle. Rather than the left’s old solution of “throwing money at the problem,” there does seem to be a need for achievement standards. That way, at least, there are measurable ways to see which students are lagging behind. Then educators can begin to look at why. But there’s also a need for real investment in school infrastructure, teacher compensation, and early childhood education. It seems that both sides need to open themselves up to criticism and then work together to come to a solution.

Cross posted on pushback.

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