High-scoring school reforms

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

COLORADO enacted legislation, among the most aggressive in the nation, to overhaul teacher tenure rules. New York struck a deal, once thought unimaginable, with its unions to link students' test data to teacher evaluations. Those recent developments represent an important moment in the long-running struggle to reform America's schools. They are the latest -- and most dramatic -- evidence of the success the Obama administration is having in setting the agenda for education reform.

The breakthroughs on teacher quality in Denver and Albany came just weeks before the deadline for round two of Race to the Top. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's cleverly designed competition for $4.3 billion in education aid rewards states willing to embrace the Obama administration's ideas for change. Key are policies that promote innovation, take over failing schools and -- most important -- foster effective teaching by making the quality of teachers relevant to pay, promotion and retention. There's been an outsized impact to Race to the Top as states across the country debate changes to better position themselves for the federal dollars.

Particularly significant was what happened in Colorado. Lawmakers bucked fierce opposition from the state's largest teachers union, traditional allies of the Democrats who control the legislature, to pass a bill that makes it harder for teachers to win tenure and easier for them to lose it. Under the legislation, students' academic growth would account for half of a teacher's rating and those judged "ineffective" two years in a row would lose tenure protection.

If the administration in the past had sent mixed signals about its expectations, Mr. Duncan made clear in a strategically placed Denver Post op-ed that lawmakers should be bold. An unprecedented coalition of civil rights groups, education reformers and business leaders came together to lobby for the changes. And, with the Colorado bill hanging in the balance, the American Federation of Teachers, led by president Randi Weingarten, broke with the National Education Association to endorse it as "for the good of kids." Gov. Bill Ritter (D) signed the bill into law last week.

If the consequences weren't so serious, it would be almost laughable that something as basic as a person being evaluated by his or her ability to do the job -- something non-teachers have long gotten used to -- could stir up such controversy. So, it's encouraging that President Obama is proving to be a new kind of Democrat when it comes to education reform. He and Mr. Duncan have not been afraid to challenge the unions, school boards and education schools on the importance, first enshrined in No Child Left Behind, of accountability in education. And, they make no bones about favoring things that have been anathema to unions, like performance pay and charter schools.

It's heartening then to see increasingly reform-minded union officials such as Ms. Weingarten and leaders of some local NEA affiliates agree that failed practices of the past must be discarded. By agreeing to go in a new direction, they are becoming part of the solution, and that can only help teachers and students.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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