A New Education War?

A New Education War?

Now for a bit of policy.

We've discussed teacher performance pay and union issues before on TeachBreakthroughs, and the discussion has recently returned to the campaign trail in earnest.  Last weekend, Barack Obama accepted the endorsement from the National Education Association, a 3.2 million member teacher's union.  He made performance pay a subject of his speech, just as he did at the NEA meeting last year, drawing boos.  In the primaries, the NEA decided not to endorse a candidate, while the American Federation of Teachers (a more Labor-Movement-Connected union) was among the most active surrogate groups for Hillary Clinton.  While Obama's work toward performance pay won't drive the unions to another candidate, there are some questions there.

Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote for The American Prospect a useful rundown of the education reform debate happening right now on the left.  It's a great read, but here's the gist of the piece:

While progressives generally agree that education in America is a mess and that performance needs to increase, there are two schools of thought that have seen little chance for compromise:

  • A "civil rights" coalition that wants the schools themselves to change.  This means applying efforts to issues ranging from teacher recruitment and pay to leadership structures.  This group, characterized by big-city school reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, along with politicians like Newark Mayor (and Breakthrough special event keynote speaker) Corey Booker.  The fact that many signature school reform measures are opposed by the unions leaves this group with a negative relationship to them.  They generally think No Child Left Behind was generally a good idea, though poorly executed and not thoughtful enough.  "We've got to do something, and we actually have some control over the school system.  Let's fix that and see what else happens."
  • A bigger-issues (and union-connected) group that makes the the case that student performance is determined by all the things that happen to a kid before he sets foot in a school.    There is plenty of evidence to support this side of the argument, most influentially the Coleman study of 1966.  NCLB is, to this group, misguided.  "Why send teacher job security and tenure down the river, if the way to really improve performance is to end poverty in America?"

Kahlenberg makes an argument for how to thread the needle and get these two groups at the table for some meaningful reform.

It's hard to say where Breakthrough would sit in this debate, but the goals we have for societal reforms run through the classroom and educational attainment.  I personally think it would be great if we could make schools better, without "going to war" with the teachers and the unions.

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