There’s a critical if little-noticed fork in the road for “national education policy” and it looks now as if the Obama administration, to its credit, is going to take both paths.
When the discussion gets serious about implementation people realize they’re looking down one road where the signpost points toward treating improvement as a ‘performance’ problem, and down another where the signpost points toward ‘redesign’.
The first road accepts the existing arrangement of system and school and looks simply to get districts, schools, teachers and students to do-better. The second insists that improvement requires changing the arrangements for ‘school’ and creating different—even radically different—approaches to learning.
The risk is that a national government with a strong sense of its own role will see improvement as a problem of improving performance. Why? Because the federal government cannot re-design either system or school. K-12 exists in state law, and neither executive action nor Congressional legislation can directly change state law. The temptation, as a result, is to do what the federal government has traditionally done with the major domestic systems it does not directly own and control: to try to effect change by hanging requirements and mandates on its grants-in-aid to the states and local units.
There is some of this in the strategy prepared by Secretary Duncan. But there is also an initiative down the other road; activating the process of state law-making. The President has spoken repeatedly and forcefully about wanting the states to enact chartering laws. It’s not that chartered schools are inherently better schools. It’s that he and Secretary Duncan, like so many foundations and others, understand that chartering is the principal platform on which new, different and better schools can be built.
I—we in Education|Evolving—wish Mr. Obama would some day actually appear before the legislature of some state, saying directly: “This is your system. Washington can’t change it. Only the states can change it. We will help. But it’s basically your responsibility.” Saying ‘school’ has to be different and that this requires new schools and that only the states can open the way for this.
Perhaps some day he will. Clearly with the push for chartering laws he’s starting to move down that road, toward the activation of state law-making.
—Guestblogger Ted Kolderie, Education|Evolving