'Education Is the Only Bipartisan Issue Left'

The White House wants to put education reform on the fast-track, as a re-write of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law is one of the few issues that still draws support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Still, the partisan gap on education reform is wide. Some Democrats want to expand the Education Department, while some Republicans don't think it should exist. Some lawmakers think tenure/evaluation reform is central to helping students, while others think a weak economy is the worst time to make it easier to fire teachers.

To get a better handle on the issue of education reform, and what we should be looking out for, I spoke with Jonah Edelman, co-founder and CEO of the advocacy group Stand for Children. An edited transcript:

The White House has said it expects education reform to be a key 2011 issue. Are you optimistic?

I am. Education is the only bipartisan issue left.

If you were whispering in the ear of Washington's key education reformers, what would you tell them to change in No Child Left Behind?

First, the law's definition of Adequate Yearly Progress has to change. We have to shift toward prioritizing growth, improvements for each student, rather than focusing on a single specific benchmark for the entire class.

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What's the problem with setting benchmarks?

The benchmark encourages teachers to ignore students that go way above or way below the benchmark, because these aren't the kids who move the scores. Kids at the margin move the scores.

What the next change you'd like to see?

It's indefensible not to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student progress, state by state. Education layoffs shouldn't be last in first out.

Now tell me about the work you're doing with Stand for Children.

Stand for Children is an independent voice for students. We exist in seven states, soon to be nine. And our aim is to pass legislation and elect champions for students. Last year, we [helped] pass in Colorado a bill called Great Teachers and Great Leaders Law, which ties teacher [tenure] and layoff decisions to teacher performance. Evaluations need to have an impact on teacher placement. Oklahoma is also drafting legislation that follows Colorado's lead [and makes it easier to let bad teachers go].

What state is furthest along in promoting your flavor of education reforms?

No state is there yet, but there are a lot of states that are moving in the right direction. They've passed good laws that effectively measure teachers' value-added. Still, very few states have legislated consequences to evaluations. Delaware, Oklahoma and Colorado are the exceptions. That's what we're trying to do that in more places, like Illinois. We want teaching dismissals tied to performance. That's the big next step.

How do you make this argument to somebody weighing the concerns of the teachers unions: that these positions deserve special security and should be protected?

For states like Illinois that have already passed legislation regarding teacher evaluation, we're saying, "You already decided to do better teacher evaluations that take performance into consideration. Now we want it to matter." If you have a better evaluation system and it doesn't inform decisions about who stays, about tenure, about dismissal, then your performance evaluation system is irrelevant.

The Obama administration's first foray into education reform was Race to the Top. How would you evaluate its success?

The jury is still out. I see Race to the Top in two separate stages. There's the lead-up to the Race to the Top decisions [to hand out the money], and there's what happens to the money. The lead off was a home run. Truly a grand slam. The administration framed the debate with the key issues: higher standards for classrooms and a better framework for evaluating teachers and principals. We moved states to consider changes.

But second, in terms of directing the money -- and I say this as somebody who's been on the ground -- Race funds have not been the most effective variable [in moving state policy]. But you can say that Race to the Top has put these issues on states' minds.