The Pothole Problem

From a must-read interview with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO):

…we don’t yet have a politics that’s informed by the kind of urgency that informs all kinds of other things, like whether or not the mayor of a city picked up the trash and whether or not he picked up the snow and whether or not we’re filling our potholes. 

4 Replies to “The Pothole Problem”

  1. It was a great interview. I loved Bennet’s explanations of how we drive away teachers such as “we have all of these obstacles in the way of people being able to unleash their creative potential. … We’ve been so prescriptive at every level … that we’ve basically disempowered people closest to our kids.”

    And I loved his take on accountability that “It shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that in its first iteration the accountability system we came up with was an incredibly crude one.”

    If you’re saying to people, “We’re going to be a lot less prescriptive about everything and we’re going to be much more focused on the what the outcomes are,” but you don’t have a system that measures outcomes in an intelligent way, it’s going to be hard to convince people that they want to sign up for that. …”

    “My hope is that with better accountability we’ll say, “Here are the outcomes we’d like to see, we’re going to equip you with tools to be able to get to those outcomes, but decisions over use of time, use of (money), human resources – those are decisions that should be made closer to kids rather than farther away.” … Are there other issues that are idiosyncratic that need to be addressed?” It’s very rarely a one-size-fits-all answer. The system we have right now is sort of the reverse of what I just described.”

    “A place where I’m sometimes in disagreement with a lot of reformers is that I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to inform instruction that’s going on in the classroom, because we’re going to be clumsy about it. There’s a distinction in my mind between accountability and performance. What we did in Denver is (set up) the school performance framework that did everything I just said, but we had a whole other set of things called benchmark assessments that were interim assessments the teachers could use to inform their instruction (and) were not used for accountability. I think the accountability system we have ought to be a way to check right direction/wrong direction. The idea that from Washington we’re going to be able to materially inform people’s instruction is a little bit of an illusion, and I’m not sure we should be trying to do it anyway.”

    “And I think there’s usefulness to having some distance between the accountability framework and the tools that people use every day to (give) quality instruction to our kids. It’s not a huge distinction, but it is a distinction.”

    By the way, there is a name for that difference, tenure.

    So Andrew, can we be expecting you to switch sides?

  2. This is exactly the kind of interview that gets us nowhere in America — and that we’re all far too obsessed about. I don’t believe I encountered even a single actionable item in the interview that would make a significant change in kids’ or teachers’ lives.

    It’s clear to me that Mr. Bennet has rarely been up in front of the blackboard trying to teach kids something. Or that he has tried to recruit and select new teachers for a school. Or that he has ever sat down with a pile of test data and tried not just to interpret it but to make sound decisions that would help the school that has it.

    Some day, some way, we will learn that the people influencing ed reform MUST be those who know something about ED and something about REFORM. Nothing — not one thing — in Bennet’s rather long interview even hinted at anything that would reform education. At best, his thinking will tinker at the margins with a system he admits isn’t even one we want.

    This is not LEADERSHIP, it is LEAVERSHIP. It’s exactly what people say when they don’t plan to be around for very long. Arnie Duncan and Michael Bennet are not even close to what education needs. They fly so high, and with such confidence in their supreme judgment, they forget entirely that they know little or nothing about what it’s like to teach or to run a school successfully.

  3. Gotta agree with Steve here. Bennet’s remarks are the rhetoric of the typical politician who identifies a problem, packages it with a neat metaphor or catchphrase, and then sits down smugly satisfied that he has solved the problem by motivating others to deal with it. Are we to be excited that Bennet equates the crisis in education with potholes? Seriously?

    Take Bennet’s three points, and consider them analytically rather than rhetorically. There’s a problem with back-loading compensation; we have crude accountability measures; and there’s a trade-off between national standards and teacher autonomy that looks risky (to Bennet). He hints at solutions to all three of these, but solve them, and how, exactly, would that change the situation in our failing schools. Front-load compensation, and young teachers will come and go even faster than they do now (take the money and run). Improve accountability measures so that they focus on kids, rather than schools or grade-levels, and you’ll have even larger mountains of data consuming more and more school budget dollars to show our kids still aren’t learning what we think they need. Go one direction or the other on teacher autonomy vs. national standards, and you derail one, or both, of the other two recommendations Bennet makes.

    Bennet wants us to feel the urgency of potholes while failing to note that the road leads to nowhere. Once upon a time, there was political consensus that education was the “3Rs,” nothing more, nothing less. As a result, we delivered on literacy and math literacy in an impressive fashion. Today, and over the last 25 years, the culture wars and uncertainty about the economic models that our children will inhabit in the future have destroyed that consensus (and no, we can’t just go back to the 3Rs and expect success as we had in the 20th century). Only when we as a country have resolved WHAT education should be, and what role it should play in the lives of our children, can we engage in a meaningful debate about HOW it should be reformed. For that, we need more than a parochial political concern for potholes. or even a grander concern for so-called “national standards.” Before we can talk national standards, we need to talk national goals, and we need to achieve consensus, rather than be satisfied to have myriad “entrepreneurial options” in the education sector.

    So, if Bennet is going to be the leader people want him to be in the Senate, perhaps he can use his earned media time toward that end. Indeed, I’d gladly drive over or around a few potholes, if I only knew where we were going!

  4. Nice work, Tim. I think you identified the core problem: The folks in charge don’t know where they’re going. So naturally they take a swat at whatever “problems” they see (potholes) never really getting to a strategic approach that would have long term benefit. I call it a “culture of faux expertise.” Arne Duncan isn’t an education expert. But he thinks he has to sound like one now. Problem is, to anyone who’s been in schools — especially many different kinds of schools — his faux shows fo’ sho’.

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