It’s the case made repeatedly in journalist Steve Brill’s powerful new book, “Class Warfare,” and repeated often at NBC’s conference: What kids of all incomes need to succeed is high expectations, good teachers and principals, demanding curricula, longer school days and years — and power in the hands of school administrators to reward and fire teachers based on student performance.
As Brill points out, all that has been clear ever since the Reagan administration’s famed 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which — besides sounding its famous alarm bell — called for better pay for teachers, but also standardized tests and tying salary, promotion, tenure and retention decisions to “effective evaluation systems.”
Brill’s book is a history of the three-decade effort by heroic reformers — resisted every step of the way by the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers — to turn those recommendations into local, state and national policy.
Every administration since President Ronald Reagan’s has stepped in the right direction, but Bush and Obama finally got somewhere. Bush’s NCLB policy, passed on a bipartisan basis, and Obama’s Race to the Top demanded and incentivized state action to raise standards, test all children, report the results, expand charter schools and institute pay-for-performance programs.
NCLB called for all American children to be “proficient” — meaning college- or workforce-ready — by 2014. That’s obviously not achievable, and there’s widespread agreement that the law needs to be rewritten lest up to 80 percent of schools get labeled failures and have federal aid jeopardized.
But Congress and the Obama administration have been talking NCLB reform for three years and nothing has happened. So Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan acted unilaterally to offer states waivers from NCLB in return for promises that they will keep standards up.
Reformers such as former Clinton White House aide Andy Rotherham fear that the waiver plan lacks teeth and allows the states to backslide. Republican reformers such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a former Education secretary, are determined to give the states even more leeway.
“Fundamentally, both the administration and Alexander are making a bet that transparency and shame are enough to force people to do the right thing,” Rotherham told me. “I’m not sure what political system they’ve been studying to reach that viewpoint — certainly not ours.”
As Duncan told the NBC conference, “the country is paying attention” to school reform, “but we’re not at critical mass. I’d like voters to go to the polls with education as their No. 2 or No. 3 priority, not No. 5, 6 or lower.”
Indeed. And before the elections, Congress should take Obama’s waiver plan as a prod to sustain real reform by law.