A Few Too Many Questions Left Behind

Proposition: the following three associations plague the White House when it comes to independents (true independents and Democrat leaners). They're perceived as too close to Wall Street (they tried to do too many things at once), they're too beholden to liberals, and Democrats in Congress. The release of President Obama's long-awaited revisions to the No Child Left Behind education law could be a cure. It's the type of proposal that the broad middle of America could support, and opens a nice political avenue that gently challenges (but does challenge) the teachers' unions, who aren't nearly as popular as teachers themselves.

White women, in particular, will probably take well to it. Why roll out the bill on the Saturday before health reform passes? It's hard to see this initiative penetrating the public discourse for a while, but the White House is operating on its own schedule -- it wants to get these changes passed through Congress by November, and it wants to own the pre-decisional period before various interest groups decide how they want to spin the bill. There's also a small side benefit: it shows moderate Democrats that the White House is serious about governing pragmatically -- moderate Democrats whose votes are up for grabs this week.

In selling this plan to the American people, the White House has to make sure that while there may be merit in fighting against teachers' unions, there is none in fighting against teachers. The White House emphasizes "flexibility" -- in evaluating other metrics aside from test scores, in determining what constitutes student progress -- while attempting to maintain a set of grounded, non-metaphysical standards that won't permit states and localities to adjust the goalposts on their own. This approach profoundly displeases Diane Ravitch, perhaps the single most influential educational contrarian.

She once embraced NCLB; now she finds it soulless. And her concern about Obama's intention to reward states that lift caps on charter schools, per USA Today: "[N]eighborhood schools will be left with larger shares of new immigrants, unmotivated students and those with disabilities." More broadly, she believes that the grand theory of borrowing ideas from corporate America and using them in education has failed -- there is no grand theory that works, aside from recruiting and incentivizing good teachers and empowering them to figure out what works best in schools.

The White House response to this is to emhasize that the Obama blueprint allows schools and teachers to design individual career tracks for students -- vocational tracks -- and that it provides principals will the ability to reward good teachers.

In truth, because Congress will dirty its hands, there is no real way to assess the substantive impact, and I don't know enough about education to assess whether Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are embracing a new academic theory -- or whether they've settled on tinkering with the system in place and trying to better resource under-performing schools.

Thumbnail photo credit: Liz Marie/Flickr