You’ve got to hand it to Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. He knows how to jump on a bandwagon and firmly stay the course.

In 2011 McDonnell showed himself to be a strong supporter of business-driven school reform favored by tea party-aligned governors with a merit pay plan for educators. Now he has furthered that reform agenda with some new K-12 initiatives that he just announced as his education legislative priorities for 2012.

Last year he pushed a statewide teacher merit-pay plan that would require that 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be tied to how well students do on standardized tests. This would be a great idea if it worked, but merit pay has failed repeatedly over the years (including in Fairfax County), and tying test scores to a teacher’s evaluation is questionable at best.

Now he wants to do more, including:

*ending teacher tenure

*expanding charter schools

*supporting vouchers

*requiring that students take an on-line course to graduate from high school

There are other initiatives, which my colleague Emma Brown, on her Virginia Schools Insider blog, outlined here. Some of them could make sense if done well, including a pilot program to offer ninth- and 10th-graders leadership skills and preventive health care (though one wonders why these things aren’t being integrated into curriculum earlier).

But the governor’s big education initiatives are similar to ones being tried in states around the country despite any evidence that they will do any good — and some evidence that they could make things worse.

In nearly every instance — with the exception of the District of Columbia — voucher programs around the country have failed in the one measure that many reformers look to as a measure of progress: improved standardized test scores.

Public charter schools have an in­cred­ibly mixed record around the country, and most are believed to be no better or worse than the traditional public schools in their districts. Big questions plague a number of charter enterprises, including accusations that some schools toss out difficult students though they are not legally allowed to, and don’t accommodate students with disabilities. Still, McDonnell wants to create a technical advisory committee to help charter-school applicants develop plans to open new schools.

Merit pay programs have been tried numerous times over the years and have never worked as promised, in part because they undermine teacher collaboration and teamwork (which are important to a school community though little understood by many policy makers.)

McDonnell said that teacher tenure protects bad teachers and hurts good teachers, but there is no evidence to support that notion.

In fact, there are teacher evaluation systems in place that work well — such as in Fairfax County and Montgomery County — where bad teachers are removed even though teachers have tenure. And these systems don’t need to use standardized test scores to get the job done.

And, in fact, teacher tenure does not — as its critics sometimes say — provide a guarantee of lifetime performance and cannot protect an awful teacher, unless administrators fail to take the steps necessary to remove said teacher from the classroom.

Furthermore, the governor wants Virginia students to have to take at least one on-line course in order to graduate from high school in the state. That, even though the quality of virtual education remains questionable and there are few if any quality controls that can help parents distinguish between good programs and bad.

The Virginia governor is following right along with the program of the corporate-based education reformers who want to run public education like a business. Given that many — if not most businesses — don’t succeed, that’s hardly a template for the country’s most important civic institution.


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