On saving education reform from the reformers (and from abandonment)

“How to Rescue Education Reform,” a guest column in the New York Times written by Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, should be required reading for anyone who thinks top-down reforms will be the salvation of American schools, and also for those who think schools don’t merit national attention.

Writing from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Hess and Darling-Hammond decry the current gridlock between Republicans who reject any federal role in education and Democrats who think effective policy can be dictated from Washington.

“We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education,” they write. “Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers’ unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.”

They argue the federal government should focus on what it can do well:

— Encourage transparency in state-level measurement and reporting of educational effectiveness.
— Ensure students’ constitutional rights, enforce civil rights regulations and make certain that funds for low-income and special-needs students are spent appropriately.
— Support basic research.
— Use competitive grants to leverage innovation. (The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program tried to do this, they write, but it became overly prescriptive and stifled original thinking).

“Since decades of research make it clear that what matters for evaluating employees or turning around schools is how well you do it — rather than whether you do it a certain way — it’s not surprising that well-intentioned demands for ‘bold’ federal action on school improvement have a history of misfiring,” they write. Arguably the same could be said of some “bold” state actions: e.g., Indiana’s prescriptions for how schools are to evaluate, retain and compensate teachers.

Indiana’s missing millions

The news that Indiana state government misplaced $300 million over the past five years because of a computer software error would be comical if the effects weren’t so serious. That’s almost exactly the amount of money, after all, that Gov. Mitch Daniels cut from state funding for public schools in 2010.

While state Senate Democratic Leader Vi Simpson called for an investigation, Daniels brushed off the mistake, according to the Indianapolis Star, joking that “Christmas came early” and the state’s finances are in better shape than anyone realized. “Governor: Indiana in stronger fiscal condition” was the headline on the state news release announcing the discovery.

Sorry, Governor, but the state treasury isn’t your private bank account. And your humor may be lost on the teachers and other school employees who lost their jobs as a result of state budget cuts, along with the parents whose children are attending schools with fewer programs and larger classes.