I started covering education reform in 1983, with the release of the “Nation at Risk” report. In those days everybody had some idea for how we should reorganize the schools or change the curriculum—cut school size, cut class size, create vouchers, create charters, get back to basics, do less basics, increase local control, increase the federal role.
Some of the reforms seemed promising, but the results were disappointing, and tangential to the core issue: the relationship between teacher and student. It is mushy to say so, but people learn from people they love.
Today, aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come on the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America. These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit. The reform environment they find themselves in is both softhearted and hardheaded. They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship. This includes union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal laws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien régime.
The past few years have seen an absolute change in the correlation of forces. It used to be that a few policy wonks would write essays assailing union rules that protected mediocre teachers; these pronouncements were greeted with skepticism in the media and produced no political movement. Now powerful political players, most notably President Obama, are making such arguments. The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet. They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interests, but they’ve lost their moral authority, as we’ve seen in New York City, Denver, Chicago, and even Washington, D.C.
The battle is not over, not by a long shot. Although the environment for change is more fertile now than ever before, we have yet to see what it can yield. An education reformer sent me an e-mail a few months ago saying he had never been so optimistic about the state of education reform—and yet never so pessimistic about the government’s ability to solve fundamental problems.
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