In case you missed it, Gov. Mitch Daniels laid out his ideas for reforming Indiana’s K-12 education system earlier this month in a guest column in the Indianapolis Star.
The list goes like this:
— Base teachers’ pay and job tenure on how well their students learn.
— Free schools from unnecessary state rules and teacher contract restrictions.
— Expand parent choice and allow more charter schools.
— Encourage students to finish high school early and pay them if they do.
These are interesting ideas, but Daniels presents them with such bombast that he seems to be begging for a fight, not a discussion.
Making the case for merit pay, he writes: “If there is one fact that every expert and all the data confirm, it is that the single most important predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality of the teachers he or she encounters.”
To quote just one expert who disagrees, the education historian Diane Ravitch: “The single most reliable predictor of test scores is poverty, and poverty, in turn, is correlated to student attendance, to family support, and to the school’s resources.”
That’s not to say that poverty should be an excuse for a lack of learning, or that teachers aren’t important. But ignoring such an important factor doesn’t contribute to honest debate — nor does glossing over the difficulty of being able to identify consistently effective teachers.
On the business about rules, Daniels complains about contracts that dictate the color of the teachers’ lounge and vows to seek the repeal of any requirement “not directly related to student learning.” One wonders: Will this include regulations on student health and safety? How about the laws that require display of the American flag, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a daily moment of silence?
Arguing for school choice, Daniels writes: “It is not merely bad policy, it is heartless and cruel, that we dictate to parents what school their child must attend.” Is he really saying that every parent should be able to send their child to whatever school they wish? Regardless of whether there’s room? Regardless of the cost of transportation?
Finally, he suggests letting students finish high school early, and giving them the money that’s saved to use for college. Daniels is right when he says many students are “just marking time” by senior year. But there is a difference between completing high-school requirements and being prepared for college. One challenge will be to avoid encouraging students to set their sights too low.
Daniels makes the case for urgency with this claim: “Only one in three Hoosier eighth-graders is able to pass the national reading and math tests …” He’s apparently referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card. In fact, about one in three Indiana eighth graders score “proficient” on NAEP reading and math measures. There’s a difference between “passing” and “proficient.”
Ravitch, a former member of the NAEP governing board, says a proficient score on the test is “equivalent to an A or a very strong B.” Again, we should strive for better; but misrepresenting the test scores of Indiana students isn’t a good way to start the conversation.