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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 08/23/2011

Rethinking a flawed education agenda

This was written by Larry Lee, who led the 2009 study entitled Lessons Learned from Rural Schools , a look at 10 high-performing, high-poverty rural schools in Alabama. Lee’s most recent position was director of the Center for Rural Alabama, and he served as head of the West Alabama Economic Development Authority, the Covington County Economic Development Commission and the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission. Lee is chairman of the board of the Alabama Asset Building Coalition and an advisory board member of HIPPY Alabama, an early childhood learning program. He frequently writes about education issues for state newspapers.

By Larry Lee

Politics must stop at the schoolhouse door.” President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address, Feb. 4, 1997.

I thought of these words when I read that former Governor Bob Riley intends to create an education foundation to promote charter schools, merit pay for teachers and consolidation of rural schools.

Goodness knows Alabama public education needs all the friends it can get. Governor Riley was just that with his support of the Alabama Reading Initiative, Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, distance learning and other programs.

But his new agenda leaves me scratching my head and recalling Clinton’s words. Because as anyone who pays attention to Alabama politics knows, an agenda concentrated on charter schools and merit pay is not as much about improving education as it is about drawing a line in the sand for another battle with the Alabama Education Association.

Unfortunately, this will only waste resources and energy and will once again make school kids the rope in a political tug of war.

Over the last month I have met with 30 principals from one end of the state to the other. We’ve talked about their needs with a new school year upon us. Not a single one has said they need charter schools or merit pay.

Neither does research support Riley’s agenda.

The most definitive study of charter schools was conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. They partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia and their analysis covered more than 70 percent of all charter school students in the United States.

Their findings? Only 17 percent of charters provided superior education opportunities, while 37 percent delivered results that were significantly worse than traditional schools and 46 percent had results that were no different than public schools.

The most rigorous study of performance-based teacher compensation was done by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. Nearly 300 middle school math teachers were part of this three-year project that allowed for bonuses of up to $15,000 if student achievement reached certain levels.

“We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives — does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes — and we found that it does not,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center.

These results would not be a surprise to Edward Deming, the father of quality management who said in “The Man Who Discovered Quality,” “The merit rating nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics. It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected…”

As to rural school consolidation, Riley should go to the mobile home of Delania Laster on a dirt road seven miles north of Coffeeville. He needs to be there at 5:30 a.m. when she leaves to take her 5-year old daughter to meet at 5:50 a.m. the school bus which takes her 30 miles to Grove Hill because the school at Coffeeville was closed this year.

Yes, public education in Alabama needs all the help it can get. And given Riley’s connections both in Washington and Alabama, he can play a significant and much-needed role in securing help and focusing attention on the challenges we face.

But he needs to rethink his agenda.

The first thing he can do is to get back on his motorcycle and travel Alabama, visiting schools and spending quality time in them. Spend a day in a classroom of any high-poverty school. Don’t just dash in; wander the halls for a few minutes and leave. Get to understand the context of what teachers and principals face daily.

He needs to do what any good student does, do a lot of homework. Read The Death and Life of the Great American School Systemby Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush; read “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test” by Linda Nathan, an educator of 30 years; read The Flat World and Education ” by Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the country’s foremost education researchers.

Take a long hard look at the reports, “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” by McKinsey and Company, and “ Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, an American Agenda for Education Reform ,” by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

He needs to look at the “Yes We Can” campaigns in Mobile and Dothan and what they’ve done to boost public participation in education. He needs to look at the Rural School Partnership effort of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and how it is helping bring good teachers to rural schools. He should learn about the Neighborhood School Centers program in Dayton, Ohio, and how inner-city schools are benefiting.

Jim Williams and his staff at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama do a great job of school system assessment and giving communities an appraisal of how their schools perform. Governor Riley could help move this work to other locations.

The more than 700,000 public school students who have just started another school year need all the support they can get — not another legislative shootout where the only real measurement is which side “won.”

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