Neal McCluskey’s article, “Open the Gates,” clearly misses the point of Strong American Schools’ ED in 08 campaign. McCluskey obviously did not listen to the arguments made during the Strong American Schools panel discussion last week; instead, he started with his own conclusion and wrote an article to support that conclusion. McCluskey’s arguments underestimate the severity and urgency of our education crisis and naively bypass the difficult political terrain surrounding education reform. We agree that the system is broken, but we disagree with his suggestion that we should forestall desperately needed reform of the current system. Choice and competition are very important ingredients in any effort to improve our schools, but we also need a more immediate response to implement a realistic and achievable set of solutions.
Strong American Schools centers around three priorities. The first of these priorities is creating more uniform and more rigorous standards that will provide our children with the skills they need to be successful. The current educational system is a hodge-podge of 50 states with 50 different sets of standards. President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Chester E. Finn Jr. summed up the illogical system: “[P]roficiency standards in math and reading vary erratically, almost randomly, from state to state, grade to grade, year to year.”
The present system is not working. Currently, no state benchmarks their standards against the best performing nations in the world and many do not even set standards high enough to meet the basic level of achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A Department of Education study found that out of 32 states, none had set performance benchmarks for fourth-grade reading that were high enough to meet the proficient level on NAEP and 24 states had set them so low they did not reach even the most basic level. This is a failure for our students and our nation as a whole.
Countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea have raised their standards and surpassed the U.S. in multiple indicators of achievement. If we expect our children to compete for jobs with students from around the globe, all 50 states must — working together — benchmark student expectations and achievement against the top performing systems across the globe. Strong American Schools is not calling for more federal control but rather greater political leadership from the next president and the 50 governors to lead an effort to create higher, more uniform standards across the United States.
McCluskey’s analysis of our second priority, effective teachers in every classroom, is short-sighted, off-point, and inaccurately portrays what Strong American Schools means by effective teachers. In his trite analysis of our campaign’s policy, McCluskey points out that everyone is for effective teachers; but, is everyone talking about ways to get and keep these effective teachers in the classroom? We argue that we need to bring the simple market-based concepts of merit and competition into the schoolhouse. In most professions, compensation is based on performance and skill rather than longevity, but not in the classroom.
Unfortunately, often politically potent teachers unions often thwart efforts to reform teacher pay and tenure. In Washington, D.C., new Chancellor Michelle Rhee has met extreme resistance in her efforts to fire ineffective teachers and administrators, yet the District has consistently scored at the bottom of national assessments. Even New York City’s Chancellor Joel Klein, although somewhat successful in implementing performance pay, has decried the difficulty in implementing accountability measures for teachers and culling deadwood.
Strong American Schools wants the federal government to partner with states to promote and support state and local programs that work. The current step-and-ladder compensation system does not check for quality. If we truly want to have an effective teacher in every classroom — math, science, urban, rural — we must reward good teachers for their performance in the classroom and fire bad teachers. We must provide incentives to bring more math and science majors into the profession and lure great teachers to hard-to-staff rural and inner city schools.
Our third priority, extended learning time, has been modeled successfully in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools that McCluskey refers to. However, what McCluskey fails to acknowledge is that extended learning time is bearing fruitful results in traditional public school systems as well. Similar to KIPP, Massachusetts schools participating in a pilot expanded learning time program have experienced increases in academic achievement. For instance, after only one academic year of participation, Osborne Elementary School in Fall River eliminated failures on the state fifth-grade math assessment, whereas nearly 40 percent of Osborne’s fifth graders had failed the exam the previous year.
Too much is at stake to let the perfect stand in the way of the good. In a system where nearly 70 percent of eighth graders are below proficient in reading, we must address these failures now or our country and economy will continue to fall behind. Businesses are already feeling the effect of the country’s broken educational system. AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson recently said that AT&T is not finding enough qualified U.S. workers to fill the customer service jobs they are bringing back from India. We will continue to export jobs if we don’t make the significant changes needed to improve our educational system: common, rigorous standards; incentive pay for teachers; and an extended school day or year.
As the world continues to become flatter and millions of children in China and India enter the workforce with better skills than students from the U.S., we are losing our ability to compete economically. Strong American Schools hopes to put the kind of narrow-minded thinking that McCluskey exhibits behind us and to help bring together a coalition of reformed-minded and innovative thinkers to create a public school system which will provide our students with an education that truly prepares them for college, work, and life.
Mark S. Lampkin
ED in ’08