The New York Times is cranking out a lot of interesting education pieces. Over the weekend Sam Dillon sorta looked at Title I formulas, Nicholas Kristof looked at Michelle Rhee, and today E.D. Hirsch takes a smart look at test quality.
The Kristof column is generating a lot of buzz. It seems anything with the words “Michelle Rhee” does these days. But while it’s terrific that someone with a platform like Kristof is paying attention to education, I didn’t flip for the column like some others have. He cites Michelle’s big weakness as “bedside manner” And sure, part of Rhee’s challenge (and her strength, it should be noted) is her aggressive style. But, does anyone seriously believe that if she had the light touch of Tony Bennett and the political skills of Jack Kennedy we still wouldn’t be having this big fight in D.C. about her actual proposals? Of course not. That debate, and others like it, are about changing the rules of the game and taking away privileges that some organized groups have long enjoyed. That is…how do they call it…contentious! In other words, her more serious problem is intense organized opposition to what she’s trying to do. It seems that Kristof either missed that dynamic or assumes a lot of background information on the part of the reader. So unless you know the situation pretty well the dots don’t get connected that this isn’t Michelle Rhee v. rank and file teachers (most of whom unfortunately don’t’ vote in teachers’ union elections anyway), it’s Rhee v. a powerful local and national machine driven by activist teachers on these issues. So of course she’s made mistakes along the way, we all do in complicated situations. But the underlying dynamic here is a more basic one than that. Education reform is like a bad marriage, we argue about everything except the real issues at hand Arguing about Michelle’s style is like arguing about who should be taking out the trash.
Don Hirsch’s piece on testing is quite important. The idea that fill in the bubble tests inherently mean low-quality tests has become fashionable but is wrong. That’s not to say we shouldn’t move to better assessments, but rather that until the field internalizes the core points Hirsch is making about content and curriculum we run both the risk replicating today’s problems in new assessments or of faddishness.
The Dillon article is important but this is a debate that’s been going on for a while and hasn’t received enough attention. No Child Left Behind helped get more money to poor kids than previous versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but there is still a lot more work to do there. Formula debates, however, are generally not partisan. Rather, they’re regional and given the need to have 218 votes to move a bill off the floor of the House of Representatives it’s hard to design formulas that at once send money to 218 congressional districts (and by default a lot more than that) and also concentrate it on poor students. Unfortunately, more than focus on those issues, which really matter given the inequitable reality of state school finance schemes, the article ends up rehashing various views about whether or not districts can use this much money this quickly in a responsible fashion. That’s surely a good question but separate from the formula issue.