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In Picking Duncan as Schools Chief, Obama Sides with Kids

By Robert Maranto, Gary Ritter, Sandra Stotsky, Stuart Buck

President-elect Obama showed he is a real reformer. Behind the scenes of the “no-drama Obama” presidential transition, education reformers and teachers unions waged an all-too dramatic battle over the choice for Secretary of Education. In picking Arne Duncan, President-elect Obama has sided with the reformers, putting children’s needs over grownups’ jobs.

Public education serves a variety of stakeholders, two of the most important being children and teachers. And sometimes, the goals of these two groups conflict. For instance, if policymakers adopt reforms that might lead to better outcomes for students, but might also decrease the income of some teachers, tough decisions must be made.

Candidate Barack Obama took conflicting positions — sometimes backing useful education reforms, but at other times suggesting a typical allegiance to the status quo. Indeed his positions were so inconsistent that both the Democrats for Education Reform and the anti-reform National Education Association claimed him as their own.

With Arne Duncan at the helm, the Obama administration seems poised to embrace the reforms promised in the campaign. For example, on the campaign trail candidate Obama promised to seek ways to pay teachers more for serving in disadvantaged schools. The goal would be to enable inner-city and rural schools to offer salaries above those of suburban counterparts, thus encouraging talented teachers to relocate to where they are needed most. Second, Obama argued that more effective teachers should be paid more.

Both of these reforms are huge breaks with the public school status quo, in which teachers are paid based on their years of experience and “professional development” (typically courses taken) regardless of whether they are effective, and whether they are teaching in high-need areas.

Reforming teacher pay to reflect student needs will be controversial, but it is also necessary. Too often, the debate over teacher pay revolves around the simplistic question: less vs. more. But if teacher salaries are raised across the board, bad teachers are equally rewarded along with good teachers, and high poverty schools are unable to entice good teachers to move there. Real reform would increase salaries in a way that gives teachers an incentive to improve, or to serve the neediest children.

The selection of Duncan also suggests that the Obama team will mend rather than end /No Child Left Behind/ (NCLB), the bi-partisan reform that requires schools to keep track of how /all/ students are doing and try to improve the achievement of poorer, minority children. This accountability scheme has pushed adults to focus on children’s needs. As a superintendent from an affluent, well-regarded Pennsylvania school district told one of us, “the biggest requirement of NCLB was to report data by group. 80% of our kids achieve well, but when we disaggregate data by poverty and race the data doesn’t look too good. . . . We’re going to put more effort into teaching minority kids.”

The Obama platform ridiculed NCLB as “forcing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” One campaign spokesperson suggested that schools use individual assessments such as portfolios instead of tests.

Unfortunately, without objective tests there is no way to tell which schools or teachers are more effective. Performance-based pay cannot work unless we have actual measures of performance. Otherwise we are reduced to the sort of “accountability” that Enron made famous. Portfolios of student “achievement” end up being almost entirely subjective, easily rigged by those who are underperforming.

To be sure, it seems unfair to determine a school’s or a teacher’s worth based on how many students score at a pre-determined level on a standardized test, since many children arrive at schools with massive disadvantages from their lives at home. A better reform would change NCLB to measure how much a teacher or school has /improved/ a child’s test scores. If the kids aren’t improving, after all, then there isn’t any reason for them to be in school rather than at an arcade or mall. Colorado has paved the way with the Colorado Growth Model (http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/growthmodel.html). We hope an Obama administration will encourage other states to follow Colorado’s lead.

On all these complex issues, we believe that the Obama/Duncan team will put children first. That would be the change we need.

The authors are faculty or associates at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and guest authors for the Independence Institute. They can be reached at _rmaranto@uark.edu _ or 479-575-3225.