The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform

Previous attempts have only piled more money on the heap of a broken system. We need transformative changes, not additive ones.

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Last year, Adam Gray was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Despite the honor, Gray, who is in his twenties, was dismissed from his South Boston high school shortly thereafter because of rules that make seniority more important than performance when deciding layoffs. He now teaches at the prestigious Boston Latin.

Not surprisingly, follies like this are commonly cited as examples of how archaic practices persist in education. Yet focusing on these absurd examples to score some easy points -- as is typical in the education debate -- obscures the larger, far more serious systemic problems that underlie them.

To me there are three big culprits in American education policy that are crippling the ability of our schools to respond to today's challenges. They are:

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

We buy reform.You wouldn't know it from his critics, but prior to the 2009 economic stimulus bill, the biggest increase in federal education spending came from George W. Bush, during his first term. Both President Bush and President Clinton, who also substantially increased spending, "bought" a lot of education reform during their terms. But what exactly does that mean?

"Buying reform" is the time-honored practice of sugarcoating tough reforms with money. Of course, horse trading is routine practice in politics, and education policy is not exempt -- New York State legislators once gave themselves a pay raise in order to increase the cap on charters -- but more than that, "buying reform" means throwing enough money at a problem so that opponents can't credibly argue against the reforms that come with it. Through his Goals 2000 program, Clinton (in whose administration I served) tied a big infusion of federal dollars to his medicine on standards. Bush lashed his tough accountability requirements to a record spending increase on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The problem is that in general the new funding -- and often the new requirements that come with it -- are layered on top of what's already there. Hard decisions are taken off the table because the political math is about addition. In other words, more money means policy changes tend to be additive and not transformative. Zero-based budgets, meaningful fiscal and performance audits, and other tools to address duplicative spending are still rare in education. The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy -- the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office -- and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.  "Last In, First Out" (LIFO) layoff policies make no sense for organizations that are supposed to focus on performance and outcomes and that should be focused foremost on the quality of the instruction students are receiving. Yet despite their prevalence in states and school districts nationwide, these policies had mostly gone unnoticed and unused in education, because mass teacher layoffs were so rare. But now that state and local budget constraints have made teacher layoffs a real issue, there is a concerted push from both within and outside the education establishment to allow schools to consider factors such as -- gasp -- job performance in deciding who stays or goes. The problem is that, for the most part, agreed-upon, high-quality tools to differentiate teacher performance don't exist. Without the need to thin the ranks -- or, until recently, a general focus on teacher accountability -- there was little pressure to develop them. And so LIFO policies fill the void.

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Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.  More

Rotherham leads Bellwether’s thought leadership, idea generation, and policy analysis work. He also writes the weekly "School of Thought" column for Time, writes for Eduwonk.com, and is the co-publisher of "Education Insider," a federal-policy research tool produced by Whiteboard Advisors. Rotherham previously served at the White House as special assistant to the president for domestic policy during the Clinton administration and is a former member of the Virginia Board of Education. In addition to Bellwether, Rotherham has founded or co-founded two other influential education-reform organizations including Education Sector and has served on the boards of several other successful education start-ups.

Rotherham is the author or co-author of more than 200 published articles, book chapters, papers, and op-eds about education policy and politics and is the author or editor of four books on educational policy. He serves on advisory boards and committees for a variety of organizations including Education Pioneers, The Broad Foundation, the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. (CALDER). Rotherham is on the board of directors for the Indianapolis Mind Trust, is vice chair of the Curry School of Education Foundation at the University of Virginia, and serves on the Visiting Committee for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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