How Obama got it right on school reform
Dana Milbank's best columns for The Post rail against the status quo with a razor-sharp wit. In his Sunday column about our nation's troubled public school systems, however, Milbank argued for the status quo that he usually loves to skewer. In the process, he portrayed President Obama as a bully and the Center for American Progress as detached. He shouldn't have been so glib.
Our school systems are in desperate need of reform. Only 54 percent of African American high school students and 56 percent of Latino high school students graduate. Even students who receive high school diplomas often lack basic academic skills; nearly a third of first-year college students require remediation in math or English. In many major cities, the education crisis is staggering. In Detroit, for example, only 3 percent of economically disadvantaged eighth-graders are proficient in math.
These facts overwhelm Milbank's central premise -- that the president's vision for education reform is driven by an obsession with testing. Milbank is wrong on two counts. First, he confuses testing with results. When the Food and Drug Administration fixates on seafood safety in the Gulf of Mexico, we don't call it obsessed with chemical testing. These tests provide the means by which safety can be determined. Similarly, the administration's "Blueprint for Reform" calls for testing as a tool for ensuring "every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career."
Evaluating student progress in core subjects such as math and reading is central to education reform; we cannot improve our school system if we can't determine whether students are achieving at high levels. Without rigorous exams, school leaders cannot build an environment of responsibility or ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn. And to remain competitive internationally, we must ratchet up our expectations.
Educators have complained that the tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act are too rigid and don't provide an adequate assessment of what children need to learn to succeed. Most reformers agree. That's why the Obama administration set aside $350 million in its Race to the Top grant program to help states develop next-generation assessments that better evaluate what students should know. The new exams aim to inform instruction as well as better measure the skills students need to succeed in college and the modern workplace. Continually improving the way we measure success is not obsessive -- it's smart.
And the administration's initiatives enjoy broad support. Many progressives -- including Janet Murgu?a, president of the National Council of La Raza, and Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund -- support a hard-nosed approach to reforming schools. So do many conservatives. "The fact of the matter is, [the president] is on the right track," Republican Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, said last year. "I think he sincerely believes the system has let down an entire generation of students, particularly students of lower income, and he's passionate about it and the policies reflect a way to improve them."
As a nation, we need to confront entrenched inequities in our education system and undertake reforms to address them. Research continues to demonstrate that one key factor in student achievement is a high-quality teacher. But in our upside-down system, the children who most need the strongest teachers get the weakest. Students in high-poverty schools are almost twice as likely to have novice teachers as their wealthier peers are. Part of the problem is inequitable state and local funding systems, and that's why the Center for American Progress (CAP) supports closing the loophole in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that allows districts to fund schools unfairly.
CAP also endorses enhancing teacher pay for high performance. Teachers on the front lines must help craft such arrangements, and several recent collective bargaining agreements have shown that such initiatives are possible.
More broadly, CAP champions reforms that improve educational opportunities for all students, especially the disadvantaged. We advocate for expanded learning-time programs, which create longer school days and years to improve student outcomes and increase access to enrichment opportunities. We also support the development of high-performing charter schools and community schools that provide access to important social and health services for students and families.
Milbank often makes an art of writing about political theater, but education is too important for stagecraft. The administration's reform initiatives are vital to closing the achievement gap between wealthy students and their less-advantaged peers. We must take serious steps to disrupt the education status quo so that all students can receive the kind of education they deserve. Our nation's economic competitiveness depends on it.
The writer is president of the Center for American Progress.