Out with the old, in with the new

With Gadfly taking next week off, and with me heading for distant places about the time you receive this issue, allow me this opportunity to reflect briefly on the key education events of 2005 and to venture a thought or two for the year ahead.

Over the past twelve months, eight happenings shaped the K-12 education story.

  • Margaret Spellings elbowed Rod Paige aside at the Education Department and confounded just about everyone by transforming herself from NCLB's unbending enforcer into the Secretary of Flexibility. She's nobody's fool, and it was becoming obvious that states and districts were chafing under some of that statute's rigidities and dysfunctionalities. (Of course, some places just didn't want to change their ineffectual ways. Federal officials have trouble telling the difference.) (See here.)  
  • Though the Bush administration's high-school reform initiative was stillborn, Bill Gates's declaration that U.S. high schools are "obsolete," combined with widespread dismay over the performance of those schools and with much non-federal ferment, managed to place high-school reform well up on the nation's education agenda. (The governors even agreed to agree on how to define graduation rates. And the Gates Foundation itself, learning from bitter experience, has rethought its initial emphasis on small high schools.)
  • Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans's schools, along with much else, and forced city and state to consider bold alternatives (namely, charter schools) to the Big Easy's disastrous old system (see here).
  • Biologically evolved, but less than intelligent, members of the Kansas board of education declared war not only on evolution and natural selection, but on science itself (see here).
  • John Walton's premature death extinguished America's single most influential player on the fields of school choice (but, to its immense credit, his family's foundation is keeping the faith). (See here.)
  • Ohio joined the voucher ranks statewide - but cracked down hard on charters (see "No voucher for you!" below).
  • State and local voters a) threw out the creationists on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board (after they triggered a major federal case whose decision may reverberate for years to come) (see below), b) okayed Denver's modest attempt to pay teachers, in part, according to their performance (see here), and c) nixed the Gubernator's education reforms, not because they lacked merit, but because the teachers union was politically shrewder (see here).
  • Way too many states began to finagle their standards, tests, cut-scores, and AYP calculations such that the achievement gains they claim to be making are not borne out by NAEP or any other external measure (see here).

What awaits us in 2006? My crystal ball needs Windex, but here are six speculations.

First, the chaos, waste, and inefficiency of discrepant state standards, tests, and test results will lead to renewed discussion of the case for national standards. Nobody trusts Uncle Sam to do this right, so if this discussion is to bear fruit it will have to include some fresh (i.e. non-federal) approaches. My candidate du jour is the American Diploma Project - which many states are joining - if it can be tweaked so that high school graduation is not the only point at which it has real standards.

Second, 853 studies, articles, books, conferences and symposia will be devoted to "fixing NCLB." By year's end, this law and its implementation will be as thoroughly examined as an ICU patient. But I wager that Congress will show no signs of real activity on the reauthorization front. The 2006 mid-term elections are too important to both parties, and as soon as they're over we'll be plunged into the 2008 Presidential race. My tea leaves say no major revisions of NCLB will happen before that election. (Of course, the Education Department, having discovered flexibility, will continue revising the law through regulatory action, waivers, exceptions and, alas, inaction on fronts where it's simply not being implemented.)

Third, the charter school movement, aware now that it has mortal enemies on all sides and that school quality is the only valuable currency going forward, will bestir itself to strengthen its forces and hasten development of organizations capable of running - and replicating - high-performing schools. This is already evident on the philanthropic front, where we see an accelerating push to start and expand  effective "charter management organizations" (aka CMOs).

Fourth, sizable strides will continue to be made on the school-choice front in a mind-blowing array of forms and formats, despite all the pushback by established interests. I sense that technology and the demand for better education will leap right over politics, and the widening feasibility of taking courses and "going to school" on-line will bust out not just in millions more homes but also in thousands of hybrid teaching-and-learning arrangements, housed and financed in all sorts of ways.

Fifth, the ed school monopoly on teacher preparation will continue to crack, with the demand for more and better teachers forcing employers to seek talent wherever it can be found and with policymakers more willing to let this happen (or unable to block it). Programs such as Teach for America will continue to grow, as will "alternate routes" to certification. Many will be captured by the cartel, but enough will survive to accustom America to the fact that great teachers can be found in many places. Technology has a role here, too, because that great teacher may be found on the other side of the planet - and the adult in the room with students may need to be more like a tutor.

Sixth, and finally, content will make a gradual comeback in the K-12 curriculum, starting with science, perhaps followed by history. The country is slowly realizing that it's not enough for kids to possess "skills" in reading and math. Youngsters already have those things in the lands to which our jobs are being outsourced. America's future hinges on having lots of people who know a lot - and are clever at figuring things out and creating new and better ways of doing things. That means having a serious (and well-rounded) education, not just passing math and reading tests.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. More than a one-year assignment? Probably. But as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins by placing one foot in front of the other.

In the meantime, my colleagues join me in wishing you a terrific holiday season and a very happy new year.

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