OP-ED | Education Reform Gets Away
It’s the Year of the Lizard around here right now; specifically, it’s the Year of the Five-Lined Skink, an endangered critter who also happens to be Connecticut’s only native lizard.
In preparation, I’ve picked up a number of useful skink facts. For instance, when threatened they’ll actually voluntarily detach their still-wriggling tails, leaving confused predators with only about a quarter of a skink while the rest scurries away under your car or into your mailbox. It’s not a bad survival skill. The tail eventually grows back, the skink is still mostly intact, and the predator is annoyed but at least has something to show for its efforts.
In other lizard news, the legislature’s Education Committee passed the governor’s education reform bill this week, but not without making a few changes. Specifically, the most controversial piece of the bill, which significantly reshaped teacher tenure, was turned into a yearlong study after an unprecedented outcry from teachers and their unions. The problem may be that as of right now, there isn’t enough support to pass the bill with tenure reform in it. Like any good five-lined skink on the run from a vicious house cat, the bill has shed a piece of itself so it can keep moving forward.
But if there’s no tenure changes, is the bill still education reform? The governor wasn’t pleased that what he clearly feels is a crucial piece of the legislation was dropped, and urged legislators to put it right back in. Education reform groups like ConnCAN bashed the committee and the process, claiming that the resulting bill was “not reform.”
Are they right? Well, yes and no. After all, the bill still does other things, such as reforming teacher certifications, revamping school funding formulas and grants, and providing more support for charter schools. The debate over tenure had overshadowed a section of the bill that would give the Education Commissioner the power to put failing schools on a list and eventually apply to them one of four turnaround models. These models could involve getting rid of administration and staff, closing the school outright, or turning things over to charter school managers. The revised bill scales back the number of schools to which this would apply, but it’s still a major piece of the legislation and a crucial piece of reform efforts nationwide.
In fact, when people in government say that they “know how to fix” public education, they are talking about drastic school turnaround models like the aforementioned, as well as tenure reform. These turnaround models had their genesis in Arne Duncan’s Chicago Public Schools, and followed him to the U.S. Department of Education, where they’ve been hailed as a key way to fix ailing urban schools. However, whether these turnaround models actually work over the long term is now a matter of serious debate, even in Chicago itself. Ultimately what remains in the bill is definitely a kind pared-down reform, but whether it’s an effective one is another question entirely.
In fact, a lot of the reforms left in the revamped bill seem pretty lackluster. What was supposed to be the Year of Education Reform is dangerously close to turning into yet another Year of Education Tinkering. This is the fault of a lot of people, from wavering legislators to hard-charging, overzealous reformers, to a governor who has been less than effective in convincing teachers that the bill was anything but a slap in the face. It could also be the fault of the bill’s provisions themselves, which promise an education renaissance without a lot of evidence to suggest they could ever deliver.
Our little education reform skink is still on his four legs, scuttling off to safety without his tail. But it’s becoming more obvious that neither skink nor cat will really come away from this fight as winners. Maybe it’s time to pass what can be passed and start thinking about where we can go from here.