An Education Reform Agenda for the Next Four Years—and Beyond

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If we put education reform on the back burner for the next four years, America will get badly burned.

All the post-mortems of the 2004 race for the White House seem to agree on one thing: Domestic policy in the traditional sense did not swing the election. In fact, while voters’ concerns about the economy and health care certainly made an appearance in exit-polling data, one of the most important social issues—education, usually considered vital to suburban swing voters—was barely a blip.

That’s not a big surprise. With Iraq, the war on terrorism, a recovering economy, and the debate on gay marriage, it was a crowded political year. But now, as U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige exits office and Margaret Spellings prepares to move in, is the time to say clearly: If we put education reform on the back burner for the next four years, America will get badly burned. Because the fact is, the No Child Left Behind Act only began the critical work of raising standards, increasing accountability, and putting resources where they matter most. The next task is equally important: revolutionizing teaching, which years of neglect has turned into a second-rate profession.

Why teaching? Because research demonstrates beyond any doubt what students and parents already know: that the quality of classroom educators is the single biggest driver of student learning. Just one of many pieces of evidence: Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard economist, found that teacher expertise accounts for 40 percent of the difference in student achievement—more than any other factor.

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Read the related commentary, “A Time for Mobilization and Fresh Ideas”

And why now? For more than a generation, talented and motivated young women without other professional options became either teachers or nurses, and well-educated members of minority groups also had few other doors open to them. But now other professions are competing for well-educated women and men—and winning.

It’s little wonder, because the teaching profession remains constrained by arcane and arbitrary rules, regulations, and pay systems that tie school districts’ hands in the hunt for the best and brightest. It is hard to think of another profession that:

• Offers virtually no financial rewards for a job well done or other recognition of excellence—and hardly any market incentives to attract people with special talents to serve where we need them the most;

• Has fairly low standards and undemanding training programs;

• Has hiring bureaucracies that sag under piles of paperwork and miles of red tape; and

• Offers inadequate on-the-job mentoring, support, and advancement potential, and gives a school’s leader, the principal, no ultimate control over whether teachers stay or go.

As a result of all this and more, almost half of all teachers are quitting within five years. The lowest-performing teachers are far too often put in the most challenging classrooms. And we have critical shortages in many subject areas. The latest numbers showed that, of schools with teaching vacancies, more than two-thirds of public middle and high schools had vacancies in special education and mathematics; more than 60 percent had vacancies in biology or life sciences.

This is a recipe for mediocrity at a time when we badly need well-trained, well-informed instructors in every American classroom. We need them because, as Asian nations get their information economies firing on all cylinders, America’s global competitiveness is under threat. And we need them because despite slight progress in recent years, the achievement gap between groups remains huge.

A stark demographic fact makes it all the more urgent. We are watching the baby boom generation pack up and collect their pensions as we speak—creating the need for 2 million teachers over the next decade.

This is a top-tier national challenge. That’s why I brought together former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley; former Govs. Frank Keating, R-Okla., and James B. Hunt Jr., D-N.C.; former American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman; San Francisco Superintendent of Schools Arlene Ackerman; teacher Scott Painter; and a dozen other leaders and businesspeople to form The Teaching Commission. We studied the problem closely and recommended last year that the nation begin making revolutionary reforms without further delay.

The proposals are out there. The promises have been made. The test now for leaders at every level is whether they will demonstrate the follow-through to turn these ideas and commitments into concrete policy.

Fortunately, leaders are beginning to lead—starting at the local level. Smart, modern pay plans have been developed from Denver to Mobile, Ala. In Philadelphia, a new union contract has at least chipped away at unfair and arbitrary seniority rules that tie principals’ hands. Recently, Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools Superintendent Rudy Crew struck a deal with the local union that will offer qualified teachers more money to serve in the neediest schools.

Statehouses are waking up. In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner is working hard to improve teacher recruitment and retention, reform teacher pay, increase accountability, and streamline certification and licensure. In October, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota stood with me and announced his plans to tackle this problem in a comprehensive fashion—hewing closely to our commission’s recommendations.

And I’m optimistic that we are going to see leadership at the federal level as well. No Child Left Behind is a good law overall. But one shortcoming was that it gave states too much latitude in defining what it means for veteran teachers to be “highly qualified”—latitude that some states have used to essentially ignore the problem, not set meaningful new standards of excellence. It’s time to hold every teacher to the higher bar we are starting to set for new teachers.

On top of that revision, we’ll need some real vision. Fortunately, President Bush’s campaign plans included some forward-looking thinking on this front (but, as I suggested, you had to read between the debates and hunt down details on his Web site to track it down). The president has committed to creating a $500 million Teacher Incentive Fund for states and school districts that choose to reward effective teachers. The fund would provide $5,000 awards to about 100,000 teachers across the country—teachers who make progress in closing the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds; demonstrate success at raising student achievement broadly; and choose to teach in low-income schools.

The proposals are out there. The promises have been made. The test now for leaders at every level is whether they will demonstrate the follow-through to turn these ideas and commitments into concrete policy. It is also a test for America. And unlike our students, we will earn no grade; we will either pass or fail.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Pages 34, 60

Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as An Education Reform Agenda for the Next Four Years—and Beyond
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