The education president

By Stephen Bowen | May 15, 2009

When asked during his campaign for president whether he had ever taken on the special interests in his own party, Barack Obama typically responded that he was fully prepared to confront the public education establishment, including the teacher unions, over reform issues such as public charter schools and performance-based pay for teachers.

It turns out he wasn’t kidding.

At an education policy conference held here in the Windy City, education reform advocates from all over the country spoke of the impact that President Obama’s education policies have already had, despite his short time in office. In Florida, there is a push to make the state’s data on school and teacher quality more transparent. In the state of Washington, reformers are working on charter school legislation. Legislation has recently been passed in Delaware that will allow the Teach for America program to come to that state, and reformers in Connecticut are pushing to close student achievement gaps in that state’s larger cities.

That so many reform efforts are under way in so many states comes as a consequence of the Obama administration having attached significant strings to the billions of dollars in education funding contained in the recently enacted federal stimulus bill. If what was said at this conference is any indication, the stringent requirements accompanying this mountain of federal money could have a transformative effect on the nation’s schools.

While the bulk of the stimulus funding for education is designed to fill recession-induced budget shortfalls, billions of dollars in innovation funds are also available to school systems that undertake a series of reform efforts. In response to evidence that some states have set their learning standards too low, for instance, the administration is insisting states adopt “rigorous college- and career-ready standards.” There is some talk that the administration may even pursue the establishment of national educational standards, to be assessed by a nationwide achievement test such as the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Much of the discussion at this conference of education reform advocates revolved around the administration’s new push for what are known as “longitudinal data systems,” which track individual student performance over the course of a school career. Rather than simply provide parents with report cards a couple of times each year, longitudinal systems will be able to track how a student’s math or reading abilities, for instance, have grown over multiple years.

Such systems are critical tools for assessing the extent to which a school’s curriculum and teaching practices result in measurable performance growth over time. Additionally, because such systems are to be linked to data on individual teachers, they are likely to become one of the many components in the new teacher evaluation and compensation systems the Obama administration is also encouraging.

Data on the effects that teacher quality has on student performance have been mounting for years. More than a decade ago, research demonstrated that students who had effective teachers for a number of years vastly outperformed their peers with less effective teachers. In a recent New Yorker article, author Malcolm Gladwell reported on research showing that “the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year,” while “the students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material.”

“That difference,” Gladwell reports with astonishment, “amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year.”

While the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act required teachers to be “highly qualified,” as determined by such indicators as degree attainment, the Obama administration is going one step further and encouraging school districts to develop performance-based pay systems for teachers and administrators. To fund these new pay systems, the Obama team has committed $200 million to the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal program that makes planning and development grants available to states and school districts interested in developing pay-for-performance models. In his new budget, Obama is proposing to spend an unprecedented $500 million on the program.

There is more. While he has not required it, Obama has strongly suggested that states need to loosen any caps or other restrictions on public charter schools, and the buzz at this conference was that states have little hope of securing additional federal education funds if they fail to actively promote the development of public charter schools.

Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron recently reported much the same to the Legislature’s Education Committee, which is currently considering a bill to allow public charter schools in Maine for the first time. At the recent public hearing on the bill, the supporters of public charter schools packed the committee room and included nearly two dozen parents, educators and community activists. The bill was opposed by the Maine Education Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals' Association and the Maine School Boards Association, despite the potential loss of federal funding that would likely come as a consequence of failing to enact charter school legislation.

In fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has $5 billion in innovation funds at his disposal to spend as he sees fit. This funding will be available on a competitive basis, with preference going to states that have taken active leadership on issues such as longitudinal data management, increased accountability, enhanced teacher quality, and tough, effective standards.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration takes the next logical step, which is to call for the reorganization or closure of failing public schools and the removal of underperforming teachers and administrators. So far, though, the new president has taken a surprisingly tough but long overdue stand in favor of the need for real reform of the nation’s kindergarten to 12th-grade educational system.

He is to be congratulated.
Comments (1)
Posted by: Paige Pendleton | May 19, 2009 08:53

Good article, Stephen.

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