Guest Blogging: Sara Mead

The Center for American Progress and Institute for America’s Future released the report from their task force charged with finding a progressive agenda to improve public education. Since the leaders of these two organizations, John Podesta and Robert Borosage, have been touring the country with an anti-NCLB dog and pony show, I was a little apprehensive that this would be more of the same.

But this report offers a serious look at the biggest challenges facing public education and promising recommendations to address them. The recommendations are grouped into four “buckets”: More and better use of learning time, high expectations, highly-qualified teachers and school leaders, and connecting schools with families and communities.

The big news story will probably be the task force’s call for voluntary national education standards—an idea considered politically radioactive since the Clinton administration caught hell over it in the mid-1990’s. The task force makes a compelling case that the current system of state-based standards shortchanges too many students yet it remains unclear whether national standards are any more politically feasible now than a decade ago.

More significant, a recommendation for “high expectation” marries calls for better accountability to a renewed national dialogue about the levels and distribution of education funding needed to ensure all students succeed—suggesting that Democratic strategists at CAP and IAF “get it” that better accountability buttresses the longstanding progressive demand for greater and more equitable public investment in education, and liberals should therefore embrace accountability rather than fighting it. Also noteworthy, the report calls for overhauling teacher compensation, including performance pay and differential pay to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools and in subjects like math and science. And, I’m personally gratified to see the task force emphasize the importance of universal prekindergarten, as well as safe and modern school facilities.

Unfortunately, some hope for progress on these issues is hampered because the report doesn’t look beyond the practices that are working in successful schools to the structural and governance arrangements that allow them to occur—and those that prevent similar success in so many other schools. For example, public charter schools, operating independent of traditional school districts, are implementing many practices—such as extended school days, new approaches to teacher compensation, and linkages with community-based groups—that the task force applauds. But they’re barely mentioned here. The report rightly emphasizes that many aspects of today’s education system, such as a school day and year based on agricultural calendars, are based on obsolete assumptions and don’t serve kids well today. But many of the structural and governance constraints under which today’s schools operate—the systems by which teachers are prepared, hired, and compensated; the assumption that local school boards are the sole legitimate provider of public education services; a lack of public education choices differentiated to meet students’ unique needs—also reflect outdated assumptions. Taking on structural and governance issues is more politically fraught than calling for schools to implement certain practices, because it requires tampering with today’s power structures and the prerogatives of vested interests. But without addressing these issues, American public education is doomed to remain stuck in a status quo that is inequitable and in the long run will undermine our economic competitiveness. –Sara Mead, deputy director and senior policy analyst, 21st Century Schools Project, PPI.

Update: Accompanying the Task Force report, a spiffy new online resource, Education: The State We’re In, at both the CAP and IAF websites offers state-by-state report cards on student performance, the achievement gap, early childhood education, teacher quality, higher education pipelines and access, and other indicators. Good stuff. –SM

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